The effect of language on prosocial behaviors in preschool children

Eszter Somogyi, Thuy Tuong Uyen Tran, Bahia Guellai, Ildikó Király, Rana Esseily

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The present study investigated how linguistic group membership influences prosocial behaviors, namely helpfulness and cooperation, in preschool children. Whilst research indicates that children preferentially direct their prosocial behavior towards members of their own groups, the influence of perceived linguistic group membership on actual helpfulness and cooperation has not been investigated. We presented an experimenter to 4- and 5-year-olds either as a foreigner, who did not speak the local language or as a native person. Children were then given the opportunity to help or cooperate with this experimenter in a series of nonverbal playful tasks. Whilst 4-year-olds helped and cooperated equally with the foreign and the native experimenter, 5-year-olds required significantly more cues and prompts in order to help or cooperate in the foreign condition. We also found that children were overall more reluctant to respond prosocially in the cooperation tasks than in the helping tasks. We tested children in two European countries (France and Hungary) and found the same pattern of responses in the two locations, suggesting that our findings are not specific to the local culture. Our results extend the findings of earlier research that showed selectivity according to the language spoken by the partner for sharing and imitation. Studies that looked at helpfulness or cooperation used the minimal group paradigm to induce group membership (based on arbitrary cues) and used indirect measures of prosociality, such as different forms of reasoning about the partner. In our study, we used language, a natural cue for group membership (versus arbitrary cues or cues based on social conventions) and directly observed children’s helpful and cooperative behaviors toward the experimenter. Our results also confirm previous results indicating that with age, children become selective in their prosocial behaviors as they acquire new means of social evaluation and categorization. We conclude that the language associated with a potential social partner is not only a cue for affiliation and shared knowledge but also a cue mediating children’s prosocial acts.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0240028
Number of pages19
JournalPLoS One
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 6 Oct 2020


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