Toddlers imitate prosocial demonstrations in bystander but not transgressor contexts

Meghan Rose Donohue, Rebecca A. Williamson, Erin C. Tully

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Although prosocial abilities are associated with a wide range of healthy outcomes, few studies have experimentally examined socialization practices that may cause increased prosocial responding. The purpose of this study was to investigate conditions under which 2- and 3-year-old children can acquire prosocial behaviors through imitation. In Study 1 (N = 53), toddlers in the experimental condition watched a video of an adult comfort a woman in distress by performing a novel prosocial action without depicting how the woman was hurt. Parents then pretended they hurt their own finger and feigned distress. Children in the experimental condition were more likely to imitate the novel action relative to two control groups: (a) children who did not watch the video but witnessed a distressed parent, and (b) children who watched the video but witnessed parents engage in a neutral interaction. Thus, in a bystander context where children witnessed parent distress, toddlers imitated a general demonstration of how to respond prosocially to distress and applied this information to a specific distress scenario. In Study 2 (N = 54), the procedures were identical to those in the first study except that children were led to believe that they had transgressed to cause parent distress. In a transgressor context, children in the experimental condition were not more likely to imitate the prosocial behavior relative to children in either control group. These studies demonstrate that whether or not children have caused a victim's distress greatly affects their ability to apply a socially learned prosocial behavior, possibly due to self-conscious emotions such as guilt and shame.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104776
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
StatePublished - Apr 2020


  • Guilt
  • Imitation
  • Prosocial behavior
  • Reparative behavior
  • Self-conscious emotion
  • Transgression


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