Prosocial Behavior in Adolescence: Gender Differences in Development and Links with Empathy
Prosocial Behavior in Adolescence: Gender Differences in Development and Links with Empathy
● Gustavo Carlo 0 1 2 4 5
● Elisabetta Crocetti 0 1 2 4 5
● Hans M. Koot 0 1 2 4 5
0 Department of Human Development and Family Science, University of Missouri , Missouri , USA
1 Research Centre Adolescent Development, Utrecht University , Utrecht , The Netherlands
2 Jolien Van der Graaff Susan Branje
3 Jolien Van der Graaff
4 Department of Clinical Neuro and Developmental Psychology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam , Amsterdam , The Netherlands
5 Department of Psychology, Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna , Bologna , Italy
Although adolescents' prosocial behavior is related to various positive outcomes, longitudinal research on its development and predictors is still sparse. This 6-wave longitudinal study investigated the development of prosocial behavior across adolescence, and examined longitudinal associations with perspective taking and empathic concern. Participants were 497 adolescents (Mage t1 = 13.03 years, 43% girls) who reported on their prosocial behaviors, empathic concern, and perspective taking. The results revealed marked gender differences in the development of prosocial behavior. For boys, levels of prosocial behavior were stable until age 14, followed by an increase until age 17, and a slight decrease thereafter. For girls, prosocial behavior increased until age 16 years and then slightly decreased. Regarding longitudinal associations, empathic concern was consistently related to subsequent prosocial behavior. However, perspective taking was only indirectly related to prosocial behavior, via its effect on empathic concern. Tests of the direction of effects showed support for the notion that earlier prosocial behavior predicts subsequent empathyrelated traits, but only for girls. The findings support cognitive-developmental and moral socialization theories of prosocial development and the primary role of moral emotions in predicting prosocial behaviors. Our findings inform strategies to foster prosocial behaviors by emphasizing moral emotions rather than moral cognitions during adolescence.
Prosocial behavior ● Perspective taking ●; Empathic concern ● Adolescence ● Development
Adolescents’ prosocial behavior, or voluntary behavior
intended to benefit others
(Eisenberg, Fabes, & Spinrad,
, has been linked with several positive outcomes,
including high self-esteem, academic success, and high
(Laible et al. 2004; Padilla-Walker and
Carlo 2014; Wentzel 1993)
. Although previous studies have
consistently shown prosocial behavior to increase during
(see Eisenberg et al. 1998)
, research on the
development of prosocial behavior during adolescence has
revealed conflicting results
(Carlo et al. 2007, 2015;
Eisenberg et al. 2005; Luengo Kanacri et al. 2013)
Regarding potential predictors of prosocial behavior,
empathy is thought to provide the motivation to express
helping behavior. Both the understanding of others’ inner
states (i.e., perspective taking) and the experience of
feelings of concern for others (i.e., empathic concern) are
believed to facilitate prosocial behavior
. Conversely, engaging in prosocial behavior
may also foster adolescents’ tendency to exhibit perspective
taking and empathic concern
(Carlo et al. 2015)
no previous studies have investigated the longitudinal links
of both perspective taking and empathic concern with
prosocial behavior (and vice versa) across adolescence.
Therefore, this 6-wave study, first, investigated the
development of prosocial behavior from age 13 to 18 years and,
second, examined the longitudinal links between
perspective taking, empathic concern and prosocial behavior. In
addition, since prior research suggests that gender
differences may exist both in the development
(e.g., Carlo et al.
2007; Van der Graaff et al. 2014)
and the prediction of
prosocial tendencies (e.g., Caravita et al. 2009), we tested
for gender differences in all analyses.
Development of Prosocial Behavior
Although prosocial development has long been studied, and
general age-related increases have been reported from
infancy through early adulthood
(see Eisenberg et al. 1998;
Crocetti et al. 2016)
, only a few longitudinal studies have
examined changes in prosocial behavior across a broad age
range in adolescence
(i.e., Carlo et al. 2015; Luengo
Kanacri et al. 2013)
. Yet, there is considerable evidence that
several physical, cognitive, and relational changes occur
during adolescence that impact social functioning. First,
adolescents’ physical maturity and increasing autonomy
may allow them to engage in a wider variety of prosocial
(Carlo et al. 2012; Fabes et al. 1999)
advances in perspective taking
(e.g., Van der Graaff et al.
may facilitate higher-stage moral reasoning, which in
turn should promote prosocial behavior
Eisenberg and Spinrad 2014; Kohlberg 1969)
increased frequency of peer interactions and interest in
intimate and romantic relationships develop alongside an
increase in social competence
(Steinberg and Morris 2001)
and may also foster adolescents’ other-oriented behavior
(Fabes et al. 1999; Wentzel 2014)
. However, other changes
during adolescence may negatively impact the development
of adolescents’ prosocial tendencies. For instance, changes
in affective processing and brain maturation might
challenge emotion regulation in mid-adolescence (see Crone
and Dahl 2012), which may temporarily diminish
adolescents’ ability to direct their attention to others’ emotional
needs and therefore decrease prosocial tendencies
Eisenberg et al. 1996, 2000; Padilla‐Walker and
. Thus, conceptually, mean levels of prosocial
behavior can be expected either to increase during
adolescence or to show a temporary decrease.
Moreover, the development of prosocial behavior may be
different for boys and girls. According to gender
socialization theorists, girls are socialized to show nurturance and
caring, whereas boys are socialized to inhibit these kinds of
. During adolescence,
gender-specific socialization pressures are thought to
strengthen and boys and girls may increasingly adhere to
(Alfieri et al. 1996; Hill and Lynch
, which may result in gender-specific developmental
trends in prosocial behavior. Moreover, previous research
revealed gender specific developmental trends in moral
reasoning (Eisenberg et al 1991), empathic concern and
(e.g., Carlo et al. 2015; Van der Graaff
et al. 2014)
. Given the conceptual connection between these
constructs and prosocial behavior
(e.g., Hoffman 2000;
, it is important to investigate gender
differences in the development of prosocial behavior as well.
Results from the few previous longitudinal studies on
prosocial development in adolescence are inconclusive.
Whereas increases were found in prosocial behavior
towards strangers between age 13 and 16
(Carlo et al.
, and in helping behavior between age 15 and 18
(Eisenberg et al. 2005)
, other studies found non-linear
growth between age 12 and 14
(Caprara et al. 2015)
levels in self-reported prosocial behavior between age 10
(Nantel‐Vivier et al. 2009)
, and even decreases
between age 13 and 18
(Carlo et al. 2007; Luengo Kanacri
et al. 2013)
. Regarding gender differences, all of these
studies revealed boys to report lower levels of prosocial
behavior than girls, but the issue of potential gender
differences in developmental patterns has received surprisingly
little attention. Only two of the studies investigated gender
moderation, of which one revealed no significant gender
moderation (Carlo et al. 2015) but the other found a
decrease in prosocial behavior that was stronger for boys
than for girls
(Carlo et al. 2007)
Given the inconsistencies in the literature, and the
relative dearth of comprehensive studies on this topic, the aim
of the current study is to expand our understanding of
prosocial development in adolescence. To our knowledge,
this six-wave longitudinal study is the first to investigate
age trends and gender differences from early to late
adolescence (i.e., between ages 13–18 years). The
comprehensive design of the current study allows for a thorough
investigation of potentially complex and gender-specific
growth patterns, which may help explain inconsistencies
between previous studies.
Longitudinal Links between Empathic Concern,
Perspective Taking, and Prosocial Behavior
Empathy is generally deemed a multidimensional construct,
involving affective as well as cognitive processes
1996; Decety and Jackson 2004)
. Affective empathy refers
to the vicarious experience of emotions consistent with
those of the observed person and often results in empathic
concern, which involves feelings of sorrow or concern for
another. Cognitive empathy, or perspective taking, can be
defined as the awareness and understanding of another’s
emotion (Davis 1983). A previous study on the mean-level
development of empathic concern and perspective taking
showed that both traits are still subject to change during
(Van der Graaff et al. 2014)
. Empathic concern
and perspective taking may both facilitate prosocial
(Batson 1991; Hoffman 2000)
, although there is some
debate about the relative importance of “feeling” vs.
“understanding” in predicting such actions, and longitudinal
studies looking at the role of both empathic concern and
perspective taking in prosocial behavior are scarce.
Regarding empathic concern, feelings of sorrow for
someone else are thought to be an important motivation to
alleviate others’ distress, and thus, to show helping or caring
behavior towards others
(Batson 1991; Batson et al. 1989;
Eisenberg and Miller 1987)
. Previous research provides
empirical support for a positive association between
adolescents’ empathic concern and prosocial behavior, although
the evidence mainly comes from cross-sectional studies
(e.g., Berger et al. 2015; Caravita et al. 2009; Eisenberg and
Miller 1987; Eisenberg et al. 2001)
. However, a recent
study showed empathic concern also to predict prosocial
behavior 1 year later during early to middle adolescence
(Carlo et al. 2015)
Regarding perspective taking, individuals who have a
high tendency to imagine the other’s psychological point of
view are likely to be other-oriented and to be aware of
others’ needs. Therefore, they can be expected to be better at
finding ways to help others than are individuals low in
(Eisenberg et al. 2015)
. However, it has
been suggested that although perspective taking may
facilitate positive behavior, it can also be used to manipulate or
take advantage of others
(Hawley 2003; Sutton et al. 1999)
Thus, perspective taking, in and of itself, may not directly
predict prosocial behavior. However, instead perspective
taking may affect prosocial behavior indirectly through
empathic concern. That is, individuals who tend to take
others’ perspectives become more likely to experience
feelings of concern for those others and may subsequently
show prosocial behavior
(Batson et al. 1989; Eisenberg
et al. 2001)
, although a previous study (using latent
variables) showed that perspective taking did not predict
empathic concern between ages 14 and 17 years
et al. 2014)
. Results of previous empirical studies on the
link between perspective taking and prosocial behavior are
(see Carlo et al. 2010a, for a meta-analytic
. For instance, whereas a cross-sectional study
revealed no significant association between perspective
taking and defending bully victims (Caravita et al. 2009), a
longitudinal study revealed that higher levels of perspective
taking did predict a higher willingness to intervene in
(Espelage et al. 2012)
. Further, higher perspective
taking was directly related to higher prosocial behavior
(Carlo et al. 2010b)
, and adolescents high on prosocial
behavior were found to score high on both perspective
taking and empathic concern (Berger et al. 2015). However,
another cross-sectional study showed the association
between perspective taking and prosocial behavior to be
indirect through empathic concern rather than direct
(Eisenberg et al. 2001)
Taken together, there is consistent support for empathic
concern as a predictor of prosocial behavior, although
evidence mainly comes from cross-sectional research.
However, regarding the role of perspective taking in adolescents’
prosocial behavior both the theoretical and empirical
literature is mixed. Therefore, this longitudinal study aims to
clarify how empathic concern and perspective taking are
related to prosocial behavior throughout adolescence.
Prosocial Behavior Predicting Empathic Concern and
Although previous studies have mainly focused on
empathic concern and perspective taking as predictors of
prosocial behavior, it is likely that the associations are
bidirectional. First, engaging in prosocial behaviors
provides adolescents with opportunities to show concern for
others and to take others’ perspectives
(Malti et al. 2009)
Second, prosocial actions often evoke positive feedback
from adults and peers, which may strengthen adolescents’
image of themselves as a caring and understanding person,
and may reinforce them to behave accordingly
Randall 2001; Crocetti et al. 2016)
. Indeed, the possible
reciprocal relations between prosocial behavior, emotions,
and cognitions likely result in a more integrated sense of
moral self, which may account for strong moral identity
(Carlo et al. 2015; Hardy and Carlo 2005)
. Despite these
conceptual foundations, the few previous studies that
examine reciprocal effects of prosocial behavior on
empathy have not included perspective taking, though they do
provide initial support for reciprocal relations between
prosocial behavior and empathic concern
(Carlo et al. 2015;
Eisenberg et al. 1999)
. Thus, the current study is the first to
investigate bidirectional relations across adolescence in the
links among prosocial behavior and both empathic concern
and perspective taking.
Gender Differences in Longitudinal Links
As noted previously, gender and moral socialization
theorists posit gender specific socialization experiences that
orient girls towards nurturing, expressive, and caring
behaviors. In contrast, boys are typically socialized towards
masculine-typed behaviors that include instrumentality,
assertion, and competitiveness
(Eagly and Crowley 1986;
. Gender stereotypes and gender-specific
socialization practices may not only result in differences in mean
levels of prosocial behavior, but may also affect its links with
empathic concern and perspective taking. For instance,
previous research suggests that the cognitive process of
perspective taking is a stronger motivator to show prosocial
behavior for boys, whereas empathic concern may play a
more important role in girls’ prosocial behavior (Eisenberg
et al. 2001). Moreover, girls may receive more positive
feedback when engaging in prosocial behavior than boys
(Brody 1999; Eisenberg et al. 2006)
, which may result in
stronger predictive effects of prosocial behavior on
perspective taking and empathic concern for girls. Although previous
studies provide some support for gender differences in the
associations between perspective taking, empathic concern
and prosocial behavior
(Caravita et al. 2009; Eisenberg et al.
, this issue has not yet been studied thoroughly across
adolescence. Thus, in the current study, we addressed this
aspect, examining whether the pattern of longitudinal
associations between prosocial behavior and the dimensions of
empathy differed for adolescent boys and girls.
Aims and Hypotheses
The first aim of the current study was to investigate the
development of prosocial behavior between age 13 and age
18 years. Given the mixed findings of previous studies, we
explored the mean level development of prosocial behavior
across adolescence without making firm hypotheses.
However, based on theory and results of the few previous
empirical studies, we expected that gender would moderate
the developmental pattern. The second aim of this study
was to examine the longitudinal links between perspective
taking, empathic concern, and prosocial behavior. We
hypothesized that empathic concern would positively
predict prosocial behavior. We also expected perspective
taking to predict prosocial behavior, although this might
mainly be an indirect link through empathic concern.
Conversely, we hypothesized prosocial behavior to predict
subsequent perspective taking and empathic concern.
Finally, we explored whether the strength of the
longitudinal links between perspective taking, empathic concern
and prosocial behavior varied between boys and girls.
Participants and Procedure
The present 6-wave longitudinal study used data from the
ongoing RADAR (Research on Adolescent Development
and Relationships) project. The “RADAR Young” cohort
consisted of 497 adolescents (43% girls), who were recruited
from randomly selected schools in the province of Utrecht
and four cities in The Netherlands. At first measurement (in
2005), the adolescents were in their 1st year of Junior High
school (Mage = 13.03, SD = 0.46). Most adolescents were
native Dutch (95%), lived with both parents (86%), and came
from families classified as medium or high SES (89%). Most
adolescents were native Dutch (95%), lived with both parents
(86%), and came from families classified as medium or high
SES (89%). Although the sample was drawn from the
general Dutch population, due to the inclusion criteria (e.g., good
understanding of written Dutch language) families in the
sample differed on some characteristics from the population
(Van Lier et al. 2008)
. That is, at the time of the data
collection, 15% of the adolescents in the general population was
from non-western ethnic minorities
, 74% lived
with both parents
(Van Gaalen and Stoeldraijer 2009)
13% of the children lived in families classified as low SES
Annual home visits, with 1-year time intervals, were paid
to the participating families, during which adolescents (and
their family members) filled out a battery of questionnaires.
Trained research assistants provided verbal instructions in
addition to written instructions that accompanied the
questionnaires. Adolescents received 20 Euros for their
participation in each of the home visits. Parents were required to
provide written informed consent before adolescents
participated in the study. The “RADAR Young” study has been
approved by the Medical Ethical Committee of Utrecht
University Medical Centre (The Netherlands).
Of the original sample, 425 adolescents (86%) were still
involved in the study at Wave 6, and the average
participation rate over the 6 waves was 90%. Results of Little’s
MCAR test revealed a normed χ² (χ²/df) value of 1.15 for
boys and 1.11 for girls, indicating that the data were likely
missing at random
. Therefore, all 497 cases
could be included in the analyses using a Full Information
Maximum Likelihood procedure in Mplus
Prosocial behavior was assessed using the 11-item subscale
“prosocial behavior” from the Revised Self-Report of
Aggression and Social Behavior Measure
Crick 1998, 1999, reported by Linder et al. 2002)
items are “I’m willing to lend money to others if they really
need it” and “I try to get others involved in group activities”.
Adolescents rated the items on a 7-point scale, ranging from
1 (not at all true) to 7 (very true). Cronbach’s alpha
reliabilities from age 13 to age 18 ranged from α = .90 to α
= .93 for the total sample, from α = .88 to α = .92 for boys,
and from α = .90 to α = .94 for girls. In addition to high
internal consistency, previous research revealed high
convergent validity for this measure
(Hawk et al. 2013;
Clark et al. 2015)
We used two 7-item subscales of the Dutch version
et al. 2013)
of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index
to assess adolescents’ perspective taking (PT)
and empathic concern (EC). A sample item of the PT
subscale is “I try to look at everybody’s side of a
disagreement before I make a decision”, and a sample item of
the EC subscale is “I often have tender, concerned feelings
for people less fortunate than me”. Adolescents scored the
items on a 5-point scale, ranging from 0 (doesn’t describe
me at all) to 4 (describes me very well). The Dutch version
of the IRI has adequate internal consistency and validity
(Hawk et al. 2013)
. On PT, Cronbach’s alpha reliabilities
from age 13 to age 18 were for the total sample,
respectively, α = .59, α = .66, α = .77, α = .76, α = .78, and α
= .76, for boys: α = .56, α = .56, α = .71, α = .70, α = .72,
and α = .72, and for girls: α = .62, α = .71, α = .77, α
= .79, α = .82, and α = .81. On EC, Cronbach’s alpha for
the total sample was α = .62 at age 13 and ranged from α
= .72 to α = .77 from age 14 to age 18. For boys,
Cronbach’s alpha on EC was α = .58 at age 13, and ranged
between α = .65 and α = .73 from age 14 to age 18. For
girls, it was α = .60 at age 13, and ranged between, α = .69
and α = .74 from age 14 to age 18.
Statistical Analytic Approach
First, as a preliminary step, we tested whether adolescents’
self-reports of prosocial behavior, empathic concern, and
perspective taking showed longitudinal measurement
(Little 2013; Van de Schoot et al. 2012)
each of the three constructs, we composed a model
consisting of six latent variables (one for each measurement
wave) and three observed indicators for each latent variable.
The indicators were constructed using the item parceling
(Little et al. 2002)
. Details of the parceling solution
for prosocial behavior can be found in
Crocetti et al. (2016)
and for empathic concern and perspective taking in
et al. (2013)
. We started with a baseline model (M1), testing
configural invariance. Then, we compared the configural
model with the metric model (M2) in which factor loadings
are constrained to be equal across time. Since metric
invariance is required for reliably examining over time
associations between variables
, we conducted
this test for each of the three constructs that were included
in the longitudinal path analyses (i.e., prosocial behavior,
empathic concern, perspective taking). In addition, since
(partial) scalar invariance is required for making meaningful
(Byrne et al. 1989)
, we composed a third
model for prosocial behavior in which indicator intercepts
were constrained across time (M3). If full scalar invariance
could not be established, we tested for partial scalar
invariance (M4), constraining two out of three indicator
intercepts to be equal across time
(Byrne et al. 1989)
Analyses were conducted in MPlus 8
, using the Maximum Likelihood
Robust estimator (MLR). We used three goodness-of-fit
indices: the comparative fit index (CFI), the root
meansquare error of estimation (RMSEA), and the standardized
root mean-square residual (SRMR), with CFI > .90,
RMSEA < .08, and SRMR < .08 indicating adequate model
(Byrne 2012; Chen 2007; Cheung and Rensvold 2002)
We examined changes in fit indices to test if the various
levels of invariance could be established. ΔCFI ≥ −.01,
ΔRMSEA ≥ .015, and ΔSRMR ≥ .030
(Chen 2007; Cheung
and Rensvold 2002; Little 2013)
. If at least two out of three
indices were below its threshold, invariance was assumed.
Second, to examine developmental trajectories in
prosocial behavior, we used latent growth curve modelling (LGM).
A model with two latent factors (i.e., intercept and linear
change), a model with three latent factors (i.e., intercept,
linear, and quadratic change) and a model with four latent
factors (i.e., intercept, linear, quadratic, and cubic change)
were compared to determine which growth curve best
captured observed changes, as indicated by results of
scaled chi-square difference tests (S-Bχ2).
Third, we constructed a cross-lagged panel model to
examine longitudinal bidirectional associations between
perspective taking, empathic concern, and prosocial
behavior. A stepwise procedure was followed to determine the
best fitting, but most parsimonious, model. We started with
a baseline model, which included all within time
correlations between variables, and the 1-year and 2-year stability
paths for all variables to establish a baseline model with
acceptable fit to the data. In this baseline model, within time
correlations and stabilities were constrained across time if
this did not significantly worsen the model fit, indicated by
results of S-Bχ2 tests. Subsequently, we separately added
series of cross-paths, and tested whether adding these
crosspaths resulted in a better model fit compared to the baseline
model. The final model included stability paths, within-time
correlations, and only the series of cross-paths that were
found to improve the model fit. Cross-paths were
constrained across time if this did not result in a significantly
worse model fit. Longitudinal indirect effects were tested
using the command “model indirect” in Mplus. using
maximum likelihood estimator (ML) and bootstrapping, with
95% confidence intervals based on 1000 random samples,
to account for non-normality of the indirect effects
(Preacher and Hayes 2008)
A multi-group approach was used in all analyses to test
whether gender moderated growth and/or longitudinal links.
Models in which specific parameters were constrained to be
equal across the two gender groups were compared to a
model in which these parameters were free to vary. The
parameter was assumed to differ between boys and girls if the
results of the S-Bχ2 test indicated the constrained model to fit
significantly worse than did the model in which the
parameter was free to vary across gender groups
Results of longitudinal measurement invariance tests
(Table 1) revealed that configural and metric invariance
could be established for prosocial behavior, empathic
concern, and perspective taking, as required for analyses on
longitudinal links. For prosocial behavior, partial scalar
invariance was established, as is required for examining
mean level changes.
Development of Prosocial Behavior
Table 2 shows the means and standard deviations for the
study variables for boys and girls. To examine mean level
changes in prosocial behavior, we conducted LGMs.
Adding a quadratic growth term to the model improved the
model fit, ΔS-Bχ2 (8) = 16.94, p < .05. Comparing
quadratic and cubic models revealed the cubic model to capture
growth in prosocial behavior significantly better than the
quadratic model, ΔS-Bχ2 (2) = 12.62, p < .01. Multiple
group analyses revealed significant gender differences in
initial levels, ΔS-Bχ2 (1) = 14.51, p < .001, with boys
(intercept = 5.36, p < .001) showing lower levels of
prosocial behavior than did girls (intercept = 5.76, p < .001).
Moreover, gender also moderated the developmental
pattern, ΔS-Bχ2 (3) = 10.56, p < .05 (see Fig. 1). Since the
cubic growth term appeared significant for boys (p < .01)
but far from significant for girls (p = .83), the cubic growth
term was included for boys only. The final model, in which
all growth parameters were free to vary between boys and
girls, showed good fit to the data, S-Bχ2 (22, N = 497) =
26.59, p = .27, CFI = .98, RMSEA = .03. For boys, stable
levels between age 13 and 14 were followed by an increase
until age 17, and a slight decrease thereafter (linear slope =
−.12, p = .15, quadratic slope = .11, p < .01, cubic slope =
−.02, p < .01). For girls, prosocial behavior increased until
age 16 with a slight decrease thereafter (linear slope = .20,
p < .001, quadratic slope = −.03, p < .001).
Longitudinal Links between Perspective Taking,
Empathic Concern, and Prosocial Behavior
The baseline model, including 1- and 2-year stabilities of
perspective taking, empathic concern, and prosocial
behavior, and including the within-time correlations between
these variables, showed acceptable model fit, S-Bχ2 (275, N
= 497) = 442.76, p < .001, CFI = .93, RMSEA = .05.
Regarding the prediction of prosocial behavior, adding the
cross-paths from empathic concern to prosocial behavior
significantly improved model fit, ΔS-Bχ2 (5) = 23.64, p
< .001, whereas adding cross-paths from perspective taking
to prosocial behavior did not significantly improve model fit
(p = .10). Regarding the reversed cross-paths, adding the
cross-paths from prosocial behavior to empathic concern
significantly improved model fit, ΔS-Bχ2 (5) = 13.74, p
< .05, but adding the cross-paths from prosocial behavior to
perspective taking did not (p = .23). In addition, adding the
cross-paths from perspective taking to empathic concern
improved the model fit, ΔS-Bχ2 (5) = 25.96, p < .001, as
did the reversed cross-paths, from empathic concern to
perspective taking, ΔS-Bχ2 (5) = 25.17, p < .001.1 All
cross-paths could be constrained across time without
worsening the model fit. Regarding gender differences, only for
the cross-paths from prosocial behavior to empathic
concern, the model fit improved significantly if the parameters
were allowed to vary between boys and girls, ΔS-Bχ2 (1) =
7.63, p < .01.2 The final model, including 1- and 2-year
stability paths, within time correlations (see Table 3),
cross1 Including all series of crosspaths in the model, instead of using a
model building approach, revealed the same results, with significant
crosspaths between empathic concern and prosocial behavior,
significant crosspaths between empathic concern and perspective taking,
but insignificant crosspaths between perspective taking and prosocial
2 We arrived at the same model (including all crosspaths except those
between perspective taking and prosocial behavior) if estimates were
allowed to vary between boys and girls when testing if adding a series
of crosspaths to the baseline model improved model fit.
paths from empathic concern to prosocial behavior and vice
versa, and cross-paths from perspective taking to empathic
concern and vice versa, showed good fit to the data, S-Bχ2
(270, N = 497) = 353.514, p < .001, CFI = .97, RMSEA
= .04. The percentage explained variance in prosocial
behavior ranged for boys between 8.9–27.9%, and for girls
between 12.0–27.5%, in empathic concern for boys
between 18.6–44.4%, and for girls between 22.0–48.8%,
and in perspective taking it ranged for boys between
21.7–45.7%, and for girls between 16.1–44.5%.
Figure 2 depicts the cross-lagged results from the final
model, showing that higher empathic concern significantly
predicted higher prosocial behavior for boys and girls at all
ages. Conversely, higher prosocial behavior significantly
predicted higher empathic concern at all ages, but only for
girls. For boys, the paths from prosocial behavior to
empathic concern were not significant. Further, for both
boys and girls, higher empathic concern significantly
predicted higher perspective taking, and higher perspective
taking significantly predicted higher empathic concern, at
all ages. Although there were no direct cross-lagged effects
between perspective taking and prosocial behavior, higher
perspective taking did predict higher prosocial behavior
indirectly via empathic concern for boys and girls (b = .015,
95% CI = .009, .024). Further, within-time correlations
indicated that higher empathic concern was related to higher
prosocial behavior at all ages for boys and girls, and higher
perspective taking was related to higher prosocial behavior
at all ages, except Age 16 for boys and girls.
The tendency to engage in prosocial behavior is thought to
be subject to change during adolescence. Yet, evidence
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a o 3 4 5 6 7 8 3 4 5 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 p
tS ag 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 e e e e e e e e e **
3 id eag eag eag eag eag eag eag eag eag ag ag ag ag ag ag ag ag ag ;5
e w C C C T T T T T T .0
l o B B B B B B C C C E E E P P P P P P
ab le P P P P P P E E E . . . . . . . . . <
. . . . . . . . . 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 p
T (b 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 *
Fig. 2 Standardized estimates of
cross-lagged paths for boys
(printed bold) and for girls
(printed italic). Black arrows
represent paths that are
significant for both boys and
girls, dashed arrows represent
paths that are significant for girls
only. Although not displayed,
this model includes within-time
correlations and 1- and 2-year
stability paths. **p < .01;
***p < .001
from previous research regarding the direction of this
change is inconsistent: increases
(e.g., Eisenberg et al.
, as well as, decreases
(e.g., Carlo et al. 2007)
(e.g., Nantel‐Vivier et al. 2009)
have been reported.
These contrasting results suggest that the development of
prosocial behavior may follow a complex developmental
pattern during adolescence, which could not be captured in
the relatively short age span of adolescent years that mainly
has been used in previous studies
(e.g., Caprara et al. 2015;
. Therefore, the first aim of the current
sixwave longitudinal study was to investigate mean-level
development in prosocial behavior between ages 13 and 18
years, and to take potentially complex and gender-specific
growth patterns into account. The second aim of this study
was to investigate the longitudinal links of both empathic
concern and perspective taking with prosocial behavior
across adolescence. Both are generally deemed important
predictors of prosocial behavior
(Batson 1991; Hoffman
, but studies that have investigated the links of both
constructs with prosocial behavior are sparse. Moreover,
since most of the research on this topic has been
crosssectional, the potentially reciprocal nature of the
associations hasn’t been taken into account yet. Therefore, we
investigated the bidirectional links of empathic concern and
perspective taking with prosocial behavior across
Regarding the first aim of this study, we indeed found
increases in prosocial behavior between early and
midadolescence, which is in line with the notion that physical,
cognitive, and relational advances foster adolescents’
otheroriented behavior. This result is consistent with previous
findings of increasing prosocial behavior between age 13
and 16 years
(Carlo et al. 2015)
and between age 15 and 17
(Eisenberg et al. 2005)
. Our result is distinct,
however, from the previously reported decrease in prosocial
behavior in mid-adolescence
(Carlo et al. 2007)
mixed findings may be due to differences in the sample
characteristics. For example, in contrast to the present
sample of Dutch adolescents from primarily urban areas and
from families of medium to high level SES, the
Carlo et al.
sample consisted of adolescents from primarily rural
communities and from families of relatively low SES in the
United States. Prosocial behavior in rural areas may be
relatively low as a result of depleted social capital and
(Carlo et al. 2007)
and youth from
low SES families may have limited opportunities to develop
their tendency to show prosocial behavior, because they are
not often involved in structured and adult-supervised
(Hart and Atkins 2002)
. Given previous
evidence of significant links between SES and prosocial
(Eisenberg et al. 2006)
, these findings underline
the need for future research to examine in more diverse
samples whether age trends in prosocial behavior differ
between adolescents from high and low SES families, and
from urban and rural communities. If differences in the
agerelated trends between studies are partly due to SES
differences, then the findings suggest efforts to enrich low-SES
communities with activities and resources that provide
prosocial behavior opportunities.
Of additional interest is the finding that the
developmental trend in prosocial behavior was gender-specific.
Consistent with previous research, boys reported lower
levels of prosocial behavior than girls
(e.g., Carlo et al.
2015; Crocetti et al. 2016; Eisenberg et al. 2005)
whereas girls’ prosocial behavior increased between age 13
and age 16 years, boys’ prosocial behavior increased
between age 14 and age 17 years. This finding may reflect
gender differences in cerebral cortical development. During
early adolescence, girls undergo a faster acceleration in
cerebral cortical development than boys
Styles 1994; Colom and Lynn 2004)
, and therefore girls are
generally about 2 years ahead of boys in intellectual and
social-cognitive functioning until mid-adolescence
(Silberman and Snarey 1993; Porteous 1985)
. Furthermore, as a
result of the different timing of the increase for boys and
girls, the gender difference in mean levels of prosocial
behavior was largest in mid-adolescence. This result is in
line with gender role intensification theory, which suggests
that the adherence to gender role expectations is particularly
strong during mid-adolescence
(Alfieri et al. 1996; Fabes
et al. 1999; Hill and Lynch 1983)
, and is also consistent
with the previous finding of increasing gender differences in
levels of empathic concern and perspective taking between
early- and mid-adolescence
(Van der Graaff et al. 2014)
However, prosocial behavior showed a decrease between
age 16 and 18 years for girls, and between age 17 and 18
years for boys
(Carlo et al. 2007; Luengo Kanacri et al.
. An explanation for this finding may be that Dutch
adolescents usually finish high school, start a study either at
a university or a vocational school, and/or have their first
paid job between age 16 and 18 years. Such changes in
adolescents’ lives and roles may lead them to focus
(temporarily) on their own rather than others’ needs.
Interestingly, across adolescence, mean-level changes in
prosocial behavior showed a quadratic pattern for girls, and
a cubic pattern for boys. This finding is in accordance with
previous studies that demonstrated complex patterns of
agerelated changes during adolescence as well
(e.g., Carlo et al.
2007; Eisenberg et al. 2005)
. Moreover, the fact that growth
in prosocial behavior appears to be gender-specific and
nonlinear may also explain the inconsistencies between
previous studies that investigated prosocial behavior during
different stages of adolescence. For instance, the findings of
stable levels between age 12 and 14 years (Nantel‐Vivier
et al. 2009), increasing levels between age 13 and 16 years
(Carlo et al. 2015)
, and non-linear increases between age 12
and 14 years
(Caprara et al. 2015)
all fit within the findings
of the current study showing that levels of prosocial
behavior are stable for boys between age 13 and 14 years,
increase for both boys and girls until age 16, and slightly
Regarding the second aim of this study, consistent with
posited models of prosocial development
Eisenberg and Miller 1987; Hoffman 2000)
, we found that
empathic concern was longitudinally related to subsequent
prosocial behavior for both boys and girls. Moreover,
perspective taking was indirectly related to later prosocial
behavior, via its effect on empathic concern. These findings
are in accord with scholars’ assertions regarding the central
role of empathic concern in predicting prosocial behavior
(Batson et al. 1989; Eisenberg et al. 2001)
perspective taking did not predict prosocial behavior directly,
which affirms the importance of empathic concern rather
than perspective taking as a relatively stronger predictor of
such actions and is consistent with prior research on the
mixed relations between perspective taking and prosocial
(see Carlo et al. 2010a, for a meta-analytic
. On the other hand, the present findings showed that
perspective taking still plays an indirect role, by its
longitudinal association with empathic concern, which in turn
was related to subsequent prosocial behavior. Indeed, there
were bidirectional relations between perspective taking and
empathic concern across all ages and for both genders. This
result is conflicting however, with the finding of a previous
study that showed perspective taking not to predict later
(Van Lissa et al. 2014)
. This may be
explained by the use of latent constructs in that study,
resulting in high rank-order stability of empathic concern.
The findings of the current study showing consistent
bidirectional relations between perspective taking and
empathic concern and indirect effects of perspective taking
on later prosocial behaviour are consistent with moral
(Eisenberg et al. 2006; Hoffman
that highlight the interplay of perspective taking and
empathic concern in the prediction of prosocial behavior,
Because no prior research examined the bidirectional
relations among prosocial behavior, perspective taking, and
empathic concern, these relations are of particular interest.
The present study reveals limited evidence for prosocial
behavior as a predictor of empathic concern; prosocial
behavior was associated with later empathic concern, but
only for girls. In contrast, earlier prosocial behavior was not
related with subsequent perspective taking. The former set
of findings suggests that adolescence may be a particularly
sensitive period for the development of prosocial traits for
girls relative to boys perhaps as a result of social feedback
on overt expressions of empathic concern. Gender
differences in empathic concern are relatively consistent with
gender stereotypes regarding the expression of such
emotions in girls
(Brody 1999; Hoffman 1977)
. A previous
study demonstrated increasing gender differences in
empathic concern, favouring girls, between early and
(Van der Graaff et al. 2014)
. The present
findings support the notion that the interplay between
empathic concern and prosocial behavior may have a
stronger reinforcing quality for girls relative to boys. This
latter explanation is in accord with scholars who note that
early to middle adolescence is an age period of gender
intensification, whereby boys and girls are subjected to
strong pressures to conform to gender-type behaviors
(Fabes et al. 1999). Therefore, the gender-related findings
may result from stronger gender-consistent stereotyped
notions of prosocial behaviors as feminine-acceptable
(Carlo et al. 2012; Eagly and Crowley 1986)
Despite the relatively large sample and the cross-lagged
design, there were some study limitations. First, the
measures of prosocial behavior were adolescents’ self-reports,
which raises concerns regarding shared method variance
and self-presentational demands. Future research using
multiple methods (e.g., observational) and/or multiple
reporter (e.g., peer ratings) measures is desirable to reduce
such concerns. And second, the sample is relatively
homogenous and the findings may not generalize to broader
or more diverse (e.g., across SES, ethnicities) populations of
adolescents. Future studies that include larger and more
representative youth samples might better address possible
moderating effects of other demographic variables (e.g.,
SES, ethnicity). Nonetheless, the present findings
significantly extend our understanding of age-related changes
in prosocial behavior and in the links among sociocognitive
and socioemotive traits, and prosocial behavior across
The present study yields evidence suggesting that prosocial
behavior increases until mid-adolescence, and slightly
decreases thereafter. Moreover, our results underscore that
the development of prosocial behaviour during adolescence
is gender-specific: growth in prosocial behavior starts earlier
for girls than for boys, and, in accordance with gender role
intensification theory, gender differences increase between
early and mid-adolescence
(Hill and Lynch 1983)
complex and gender-specific growth patterns as found in
this comprehensive study may explain the inconsistencies
between previous studies that investigated shorter age spans
during adolescence and/or did not take gender differences in
developmental patterns into account. Our finding that
prosocial behavior increases during mid-adolescence, is in line
with the notion that adolescents’ physical maturity,
increasing autonomy and cognitive advances (which come
earlier for girls than for boys) facilitate the tendency to
engage in prosocial behavior
(Carlo et al. 2012; Fabes et al.
. The slight decreases in later adolescence may result
from changes in adolescents’ roles and lives as they move
away from their familiar surroundings and start attending
college or having their first job. The current study also
demonstrated reciprocal relations between empathic
concern and prosocial behavior (especially for girls), and
mediating effects of empathic concern in the relations
between perspective taking and prosocial behavior.
Moreover, there were no direct over time effects of perspective
taking on prosocial behavior. These findings suggest that
moral emotions may be relatively more intractably tied to
prosocial behavior than moral cognitions; though moral
cognitions can still play an important role in fostering moral
emotions and specific forms of prosocial behavior (e.g.,
those that require social understanding, cost-benefit
analyses, or reasoning). Future research that examines the
ageand gender-related correlates of adolescents’ prosocial
behavior and the conditions under which moral cognitions
and moral emotions predict such actions is needed. The
current results suggest that prevention and intervention
strategies should focus on promoting empathic concern
among adolescents to facilitate growth in prosocial
behavior. In addition, promoting adolescents’ perspective taking
may be beneficial as well, as it facilitates empathic concern,
which in turn stimulates helping behavior. Finally, given
the pattern of gender-related findings, such efforts may
need to be modified for boys and girls to enhance their
Funding This research utilizes data from the ‘RADAR’ projects.
RADAR has been financially supported by main grants from the
Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (GB-MAGW
48003-005), and Stichting Achmea Slachtoffer en Samenleving (SASS),
and various other grants from the Netherlands Organisation for
Scientific Research, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Utrecht
Authors’ Contributions J.G. conceived of the study, performed the
statistical analysis, interpreted the results, and coordinated and drafted
the manuscript. G.C. conceived of the study, was involved in the
interpretation of the results, wrote parts of the draft, and revised the
manuscript critically. E.B. and H.K. revised the manuscript critically.
S.B. was involved in the interpretation of the results, revised the
manuscript critically, and is principal investigator of the RADAR
project of which the current study uses data. All authors read and
approved the final manuscript.
Data Sharing Declaration The datasets generated and/or analyzed
during the current study are not publicly available but are available
from the corresponding author on reasonable request.
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of Interest The authors declare that they have no
Ethical Approval The Medical Ethical Committee of Utrecht
University Medical Centre (The Netherlands) has approved this project.
Informed Consent We obtained informed consent from parents of
all participating adolescents in the study.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://crea
tivecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give
appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a
link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were
Hans M. Koot Ph.D., RN, is emeritus professor of developmental
psychology and developmental psychopathology in the Department of
Clinical, Neuro and Developmental Psychology at Vrije Universiteit
Amsterdam, The Netherlands. His research interests include emotional
and behavioral development, developmental psychopathology,
prevention in mental health care, quality of life, intellectual
disability, and autism.
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Jolien Van der Graaff is an assistant-professor at the Department Youth and Family, Utrecht University, The Netherlands. She received her Ph.D. in 2014 . Her research focuses on the development of empathy and prosocial behavior in adolescence, as well as the associations with adolescents' relationships and social adjustment .