How do adolescents develop prosocial values?

Berna Güroğlu, Kiki Zanolie, Eduard Klapwijk, Philip Brandner


During adolescence, individuals learn to autonomously navigate their social world and social relationships. Prosocial behaviors (i.e., behaviors that benefit others) are crucial for forming and maintaining social relationships, which is an important developmental goal in adolescence. Prosocial actions do not only benefit adolescents’ environment, but adolescents themselves also profit from showing other-benefiting behaviors. Benefits for the self include improved mental health and accomplishments in the social and academic domains. Benefits for society depend on the type of prosociality displayed, and can range from benefits for close others (e.g., friends and family) to more distant and larger groups (e.g., the neighborhood or society as a whole).

Study Design:

Brainlinks is a longitudinal and intervention study that combines neuroimaging, behavioral experiments, hormone data, and surveys.

Despite the clear benefits of prosocial behavior for adolescents and those around them, developmental patterns and underlying mechanisms across adolescence are still largely unknown. Prosocial behavior comprises many behaviors (i.e., helping, giving, cooperation) directed to various others (i.e., family, friends, society). Gaining a better understanding of prosocial behaviors under multiple circumstances and contexts is especially important given current global challenges, such as the climate crisis and social inequality crisis.

In the first part of the study, we focus on the development of multiple types of prosociality to targets with varying levels of familiarity (e.g., ranging from family to society) using behavioral and brain imaging methods. Brainlinks consists of three lab visits, which were scheduled 1.5 years apart, and started in 2018. A unique aspect of this study is that adolescents’ parents also participated, providing us with the opportunity to compare neuroimaging and behavioral results within a family. Another special aspect is that the COVID-19 pandemic broke out between the second and third lab visit. As a result, we decided to postpone the third lab visit to 2021 and enriched our study with a daily diary study during the first lockdown in the Netherlands. Consequently, our longitudinal design will allow us to compare pre-pandemic data to peri- and post-pandemic data, thereby enabling the investigation of the effects of the pandemic on the behavior and brains of adolescents.

In the second part, we apply the knowledge obtained in the first study to newly created state-of-the-art interventions that aim to foster prosocial behaviors and the associated benefits in adolescents. We examine differences between adolescents who do – and adolescents who do not – participate in a prosocial behavior intervention. This allows us to test the effects of school-based interventions that offer adolescents opportunities for prosocial behavior. Prosocial experiences may help to fulfill adolescent’s needs to be a contributing member of society and buffer against feelings of disconnection. The study consists of both a naturalistic experiment and micro-trial design. Participants (aged 12-25) are asked to fill out questionnaires and experimental tasks before (T1), during (T2), and after (T3) the intervention (i.e., approximately once every month). In addition, a follow-up will be included (T4). Data collection for the intervention project started in October 2021.

An overview of the meta-data can be found here: [link].

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 681632)



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