How do humans become kind and caring? Review explores developmental-relational reasons and effects of adversity

In an article published in Nature Reviews Psychology, scientists have discussed key factors associated with the development of prosocial behaviors in children and childhood adversities that can potentially affect this development.

Study: Development of prosociality and the effects of adversity. Image Credit: BongkarnGraphic/
Study: Development of prosociality and the effects of adversity. Image Credit: BongkarnGraphic/


Prosocial behaviors or prosociality comprise a range of acts, including caring, sharing, volunteering, donating, helping, and showing kindness, which are intended to benefit others. Children are known to develop prosociality from a young age, which is important because prosociality positively influences well-being, social harmony, and peace at the individual, community, and global levels.  

Prosocial emotions, cognitions, and behaviors emerge in children as early as three months of age. At this age, infants exhibit concern for distressed individuals. Basic prosocial behaviors, such as instrumental helping, comforting, and sharing, appear in toddlers at the age of one to two years.

More complex prosocial behaviors, such as empathy, guilt, displays of concern, and understanding the needs and emotions of others, develop and increase sharply from infancy to mid-childhood. 

Prosocial behaviors tend to stabilize or even decline, and prosocial emotions and motives continue to become more sophisticated between mid-childhood and adolescence. This period is characterized by the inclusion of abstract concepts, such as respect and compassion, which subsequently increase engagement in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering, donating, and civic engagement.

Development of prosociality  

The development of prosociality is associated with interactions between environmental, psychological, and genetic factors. An individual’s unique prosocial behaviors, emotions, and cognitions, together with psychological characteristics (emotion regulation, empathy for others, and empathy for the self) and genetic factors, strongly influence prosocial development.

Child relationships and attachment formation with caring communities, including parents, caregivers, friends, siblings, and peers, form the central basis of child prosociality. Environmental factors, especially supportiveness in early caregiver-child relationships, strongly promote prosociality throughout development.

The complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors plays a crucial role in prosociality development. Individual differences in prosociality due to genetic variations seem to increase with age, whereas the effect of shared environment, such as exposure to family conflict or poverty, seems to decrease with age.

Existing evidence indicates that genetics impact children’s susceptibility to different rearing environments and that environmental, psychological, and genetic factors exert direct influences and also interact with each other and other factors to shape the emergence and trajectories of prosocial capacities over time.    

Impact of adversity on prosociality

Adversities that occur within relationships (abuse, neglect, and caregiver psychopathology) and communities (such as community violence, poverty, and war-related trauma) can have a strong impact on prosociality development.

Existing evidence suggests that childhood adversities may lead to poor mental health and lower prosocial behaviors. However, studies investigating the impact of childhood adversity on prosociality have produced mixed results. While some studies have found inverse associations between war-related adversities and prosocial behaviors, some have found no influence or positive influence of childhood adversities on prosocial behaviors.

In some cases, adversity has been found to restrict prosocial behaviors because of the activation of the fight-or-flight response and the need to maximize survival by acting in a self-interested manner.

However, adversity has also been found to trigger a tend-and-befriend response in stressful situations that promote cooperation, social cohesion, and support. In this context, several studies have found associations between experiences of discrimination and higher empathy and prosocial behaviors in adolescents.

Available literature collectively suggests that the negative impact of adversity on prosocial behavior is triggered by the presence of additional risk factors, such as a reduction in children’s trust or lack of supportive relationships.

Interventions to enhance prosociality

Interventions developed to promote prosociality typically focus on improving actions and practices that reflect caring, sensible, and responsible attitudes toward others. A range of effective interventions are available for children and adolescents, including school-based social-emotional learning programs, parenting and family interventions, peer-relationship interventions, community-based interventions, and peace-building activities.

In some interventions, children are provided with opportunities to show care for others. In contrast, some interventions aim to nurture self-oriented and other-oriented social-emotional capacities that underlie prosociality by incorporating reflection and mindfulness-based activities.

Besides focusing on children, some interventions aim to improve parenting behaviors and promote healthy family interactions. These interventions are particularly effective in supporting prosocial outcomes.

The Incredible Years program is a well-established intervention that uses video vignettes and role-play activities to engage parents positively with their children. Such interventions have shown promising results in improving prosociality and moderating the effects of adversity on prosociality.

A new body of research has highlighted the need for developing culturally appropriate and developmentally tailored interventions that can effectively meet the unique needs of every child and community.

Culturally appropriate interventions consider the differences in cultural traditions and customs related to nurturing prosocial tendencies. Such interventions can be developed from existing evidence-based interventions better to support prosocial behaviors in specific cultural and ethnic groups.

Developmentally tailored interventions consider a child’s history (negative and positive life experiences) together with their unique personal characteristics and potential to become their optimal self. Such interventions might be helpful in maximizing prosocial outcomes across more children and families.

Journal reference:
Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Written by

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta is a science communicator who believes in spreading the power of science in every corner of the world. She has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree and a Master's of Science (M.Sc.) in biology and human physiology. Following her Master's degree, Sanchari went on to study a Ph.D. in human physiology. She has authored more than 10 original research articles, all of which have been published in world renowned international journals.


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