The Effect of Supportive Social Interaction Priming on Children's Prosocial Comforing Responses to Distressed Others
Brett, Bonnie Erin
Cassidy, Jude A
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The ability to sensitively care for others’ wellbeing develops early in ontogeny and is an important developmental milestone for healthy social, emotional, and moral development. One facet of care for others, prosocial comforting, has been linked with important social outcomes such as peer acceptance and friendship quality, underscoring the importance of determining factors involved in the ability to comfort. Although social support has been linked with a number of important social outcomes, no study has directly examined whether felt social support can foster children’s positive behavior toward others. The purpose of the current investigation was to use an experimental priming paradigm to demonstrate that felt social support a) enhances children’s ability to respond prosocially to the distress of others and b) decreases children’s expressions of personal distress when faced with the distress of another person. Participants were 94 4-year-old children (M = 53.56 months, SD = 3.38 months; 52 girls). Children were randomly assigned to either view pictures of mothers and children in close, personal interactions (supportive social interaction condition), happy women and children in separate pictures, presented side-by-side (happy control condition), or pictures of colorful overlapping shapes (neutral control condition). Each set of 20 pictures was presented in the context of a categorization computer game that participants played 4 times throughout the course of the study. Immediately following the first three computer games, children were given the opportunity to comfort someone who was distressed; twice it was the adult experimenter working with the child, and once it was an unseen infant crying over a monitor that participants had been trained to use. Comforting behaviors and distress/arousal were coded in 10-second time segments and yielded a global comforting score and a distress proportion score for each task. Results indicated that priming condition had no effect on either prosocial comforting behavior or expressions of personal distress. I discuss these null findings in light of the available literatures on priming mental representations in children and on prosocial comforting, and suggest some future directions for continued investigation in both fields.