Research in western nations suggests older adults are more prosocial than younger adults; however, it is unclear whether this is the case in non-western nations as well. In a large, international study, researchers used prosocial behaviors (behaviors that are positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship) during the COVID-19 pandemic to investigate this topic.
The study used data from 46,576 participants, age 18 to 100, from 67 countries. As measures of prosocial behavior, participants were asked to self-report their level of social distancing during the pandemic and their willingness to donate to a national or international charity. As a control for the social distancing prosocial measure, participants also reported their physical health and their perceived risk of infection with COVID-19. Participants’ wealth was used as a control for the donation prosocial measure.
Researchers found that older adults reported more prosocial behavior than younger adults, reflected in increased social distancing and higher donations. Participants overall tended to donate more to national charities rather than international, regardless of age. However, older adults were even more likely to prefer national over international charities. These findings were relatively consistent across countries, meaning older adults around the world (not just in western countries) are more prosocial than younger adults.
Importantly, this was true for two types of prosociality. Increased social distancing was not just informative of compliance with public health measures, but also represented a behavior that hadn’t been an established habit. Controlling for physical health did not change this outcome, and perceived risk was not related to social distancing, which supports the prosocial motivations of increased distancing. Charitable donations, on the other hand, revealed how preferences for in-group prosocial behavior increase with age. Interestingly, this was not due to greater accumulated wealth. In fact, participants who reported greater wealth actually donated the least to charity. This increased desire to help those around them is one clear benefit of an aging population, and future research will need to explore more ways in which older adults can direct their prosocial behaviors.
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