Retrospective Self-Reported Childhood Experiences in Enriched Environments Uniquely Predict Prosocial Behavior and Personality Traits in Adulthood

Evol Psychol. 2022 Jul-Sep;20(3):14747049221110603. doi: 10.1177/14747049221110603.


What features of people's childhood environments go on to shape their prosocial behavior during adulthood? Past studies linking childhood environment to adult prosocial behavior have focused primarily on adverse features, thereby neglecting the possible influence of exposure to enriched environments (e.g., access to material resources, experiences with rich cooperative relationships, and interactions with morally exemplary role models). Here, we expand the investigation of childhood environmental quality to include consideration of enriching childhood experiences and their relation to adult prosociality. In two cross-sectional studies, we found promising evidence that enriched childhood environments are associated with adult moral behavior. In study 1 (N = 1,084 MTurk workers), we adapted an existing measure of enriched childhood environmental quality for retrospective recall of childhood experiences and found that subjects' recollections of their enriched childhood experiences are distinct from their recollections of adverse childhood experiences. In Study 2 (N = 2,208 MTurk workers), we found that a formative composite of subjects' recollections of enriched childhood experiences is positively associated with a variety of morally relevant traits in adulthood, including agreeableness, honesty-humility, altruism, endorsement of the principle of care, empathic responding to the plights of needy others, and charitable donations in an experimental setting, and that these associations held after controlling for childhood environmental adversity, childhood socioeconomic status, sex, and age. We also found evidence suggesting that some, but not all, of the relationship between enrichment and adult prosociality can be explained by a shared genetic correlation. We include a new seven-item measure as an appendix.

Keywords: cooperation; evolutionary psychology; life history theory; moral development; morality; prosociality.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Altruism*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Personality*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Self Report