University of Cambridge > > Primary Care > Public Lecture: Development of social behaviour in children from infancy: neurobiological, relational and situational interactions

Public Lecture: Development of social behaviour in children from infancy: neurobiological, relational and situational interactions

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Lucy Lloyd.

Convenor: St John’s College Reading Group on Health Inequalities

Robert Hinde wrote several books and papers on prosocial behaviour and on morality in general, titled ‘Why good is good: the sources of morality’, ‘Cooperation and prosocial behaviour’, ‘Why gods persist: a scientific approach to religion’ or ‘War, no more: eliminating conflict in the nuclear age’. In honour of his work on morality in the human species, with firm roots in evolutionary theory, we present our empirical work on prosocial behaviour, inspired by the evolutionary theory of attachment.

Following The Oxford Handbook of Prosocial Behavior we provisionally define prosocial behavior here as any action that serves to benefit another person with or without costs for the agent. Prosociality may include comforting a distressed conspecific, sharing resources such as food or information, or helping others in other ways to reach their goals. Prosocial behaviour might be inspired by moral reasons such as striving for equal distribution of primary goods unless an unequal distribution is to the benefit of the least favoured (Rawls, 1980). Our emphasis is however on behaviour instead of attitudes, intentions, reasons or motives, as only actual behaviour is relevant for those situations in which moral choices really matter, e.g. helping victims of repressive or genocidal regimes to flee or to hide or discontinuing abusive treatment of isolated individuals in a setting stressing conformity to authority or majority.

In this presentation we discuss neurobiological, parental and situational factors that shape children’s prosocial behaviour. Prosocial as well as antisocial behaviours emerge in infancy, which lead to the question whether prosociality is inborn or socialized by parents. Twin studies suggest a genetic component in prosociality, but molecular genetic studies so far fail in the identification of these genetic factors. Studies on gene-by-environment interaction, in particular on differential susceptibility, seem to be promising, and the role of parents appears undeniable. Using intranasal oxytocin administration we studied hormonal influences on prosocial behaviour moderated by adverse childhood experiences and we examined how prosociality is embedded in neural (re-)activity and brain morphology.

With Robert Hinde we conclude that how the situation is perceived and impinges on the individual, and the ‘nudges’ incorporated in the situation, might play a more important role than is currently acknowledged in human development research and theories of moral development.

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