Beyond Good and Evil: What Motivations Underlie Children’s Prosocial Behavior?

Alia Martin, Kristina R. Olson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

106 Scopus citations


Researchers have proposed different accounts of the development of prosocial behavior in children. Some have argued that behaviors like helping and sharing must be learned and reinforced; others propose that children have an initially indiscriminate prosocial drive that declines and becomes more selective with age; and yet others contend that even children’s earliest prosocial behaviors share some strategic motivations with the prosociality of adults (e.g., reputation enhancement, social affiliation). We review empirical and observational research on children’s helping and sharing behaviors in the first 5 years of life, focusing on factors that have been found to influence these behaviors and on what these findings suggest about children’s prosocial motivations. We use the adult prosociality literature to highlight parallels and gaps in the literature on the development of prosocial behavior. We address how the evidence reviewed bears on central questions in the developmental psychology literature and propose that children’s prosocial behaviors may be driven by multiple motivations not easily captured by the idea of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation and may be selective quite early in life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)159-175
Number of pages17
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 16 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology


  • children
  • helping
  • motivation
  • prosocial behavior


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