Research Article: Temporal predictability promotes prosocial behavior in 5-year-old children

Date Published: May 28, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Yingjia Wan, Hong Fu, Valerio Capraro.


Although interpersonal coordinative activities have been shown to produce prosocial effects in both adults and children, the underlying mechanisms remain unclear. While most approaches focus on the effect of mimicry and synchronous behavioral matching, we hypothesize that temporal predictability might play a central role in producing prosocial effects, as it directs coordination and might therefore strengthen shared intentionality. In a percussion task with pairs of 5-year old children, we manipulated temporal predictability and movement similarity/predictability between the pair’s movements. Temporal predictability was manipulated by instructing the pair to play the instruments either to beats that were evenly-spaced, and therefore predictable, or to beats that were random, and therefore unpredictable. Movement similarity/predictability was manipulated by having the pair play rhythmic patterns that were similar, predictable, or independent from each other. Children who played to predictable beats were more willing to solve problems cooperatively with their partners and to help when their partners had an accident. In contrast, there was no positive effect of rhythmic predictability or similarity. These results are the first to show that temporal predictability affects prosociality independent of movement similarity or predictability. We conclude that the predictable time frame commonly seen in coordinative activities may be key to strengthening shared intentionality and producing prosocial effects.

Partial Text

The ubiquity of cooperating, helping and sharing distinguishes human societies from those of other primates, and is arguably what makes human societies so successful in the animal world [1–4]. In recent years, understanding the origins and development of prosocial behavior has attracted widespread interest from a variety of fields including psychology [1–3], anthropology [5], economics [6,7], education [8] and public policy [9,10]. Elucidating the bases of prosocial behavior not only helps us better conceptualize ourselves as humans from an evolutionary perspective, but also provides important insights for understanding communication, interaction, collaboration and other aspects of social cognition [1,3,11]. Moreover, an emerging body of research on enhancing prosociality provides guidance for promoting cooperation in real-life circumstances and organizations, which is essential for addressing some of the most pressing issues in the modern society, including climate change, large scale conflicts, and inequality [3,4,12].

Playing percussion instruments to consistent, even-spaced beats increased prosocial behaviors in five-year-old children, regardless of whether the rhythmic patterns were similar to or predictive of one another. This indicates that temporal predictability might be a central contributor to prosocial effects of music activities and other similar forms of interpersonal coordination, beginning in early childhood.