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This essay will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of observational and experimental studies on prosocial behaviour in children.  An observational study is where the investigator records behaviour as far as possible without influencing it (Colman, 2015) while an experimental study involves the direct manipulation of independent variables and control of extraneous variables that could influence the dependent variable or variable’s (Colman, 2015). Consequently, this essay will first define children’s prosocial behaviour, and then look at two observational studies and experimental studies in this area by explaining them and then evaluating each research method as a whole with reference to those studies. BH1 Finally, reaching a conclusion that is able to answer the proposed question.

Children’s prosocial behaviour is any behaviour enacted in order to benefit others, (The British Psychological Society & Wiley and Sons Ltd, 2017) by individuals below the age of 18 years old (Charity Commission for England and Wales, 2014). The purpose of this behaviour has many theories, for example, evolutionary psychologists have suggested that prosocial behaviour has generationally passed down due to kin-ship selection theory (Barrett, 2002). While, Eilenberg’s theory of prosocial moral reasoning, states that children go through a series of ‘prosocial stages’ due to the result of an emotional reaction (Gross, 2015 ).  Thus, observational and experimental studies are vital in providing reliable support to theories and concepts like these.

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An observational study by Kato- Shimizu, Onishi, Kanazawa, and Hinobayashi (2013) used a naturalistic observation at a Japanese nursery school containing five to six-year-olds (Kato-Shimizu, Onishi, Kanazawa, & Hinobayashi, 2013).  Recorded observations took place during playtime four times a week between June 2009 and March 2010 (Kato-Shimizu, Onishi, Kanazawa, & Hinobayashi, 2013). Researchers observed each child randomly for prosocial behaviour (either object offering or helping) extending observations if children demonstrated those behaviours. (Kato-Shimizu, Onishi, Kanazawa, & Hinobayashi, 2013). They found that bystanding children were more likely to perform prosocial and co-operative behaviours towards observed children more frequently after the observed child’s prosocial behaviour towards another child, compared with control conditions (Kato-Shimizu, Onishi, Kanazawa, & Hinobayashi, 2013). In terms of prosocial behaviour, this suggests that prosocial behaviour in five to six-year-olds increases with the observation of their own peers’ prosocial behaviour. Furthermore, it suggests that prosocial behaviour is a spontaneous act due to observers not praising nor discouraging prosocial actions of the children (Kato-Shimizu, Onishi, Kanazawa, & Hinobayashi, 2013).

A further observational study conducted by Crick et al. (1997) focused on aggression, a form of antisocial behaviour, in three and four-year-old pre-schoolers (The British Psychological Society & Wiley and Sons Ltd, 2017). Teachers rated children on items that onset:  overt aggression i.e. kicking others, aggression connected with others i.e. the child tries to get others do dislike other children, prosocial behaviour i.e. is nice to others, and depression i.e. looks sad.  Students then named three children they liked to play with the least and the most (The British Psychological Society & Wiley and Sons Ltd, 2017).  Firstly, they found that children rated by teachers to have higher overt and relational aggression were lower in prosocial behaviour. Secondly, the study found that peers rejected children rated more aggressive by teachers compared with less aggressive children. Lastly, children who were judged to be higher in negative emotions e.g. depression, were more likely high in aggression compared with those with lower in negative emotion (The British Psychological Society & Wiley and Sons Ltd, 2017).  In terms of prosocial behaviour, this suggests that aggression has a role in reducing prosocial behaviour with children.

Subsequently, observational studies have both strengths and weaknesses when focused on prosocial behaviour. Observations in this area tend to be in the naturalistic form as the studies previously discussed. Naturalistic observations involve studying the spontaneous behaviour of participants in their natural surroundings (Colman, 2015). A strength of this is that researchers are able to capture realistic examples of prosocial behaviour; as a result, this makes studies higher in ecological validity, making the results generalizable to other real-life settings. The observations also meant that children’s prosocial behaviour could be more easily studied. This is because it is difficult to obtain co-operation with children when conducting a study, as well as  allowing the study of children’s prosocial development without the worry of damaging it by experimental manipulation making it more of an ethical option for researchers to choose. As a result, it allows research to be expanded giving better understandings behind children’s prosocial behaviour. In addition to this, naturalistic observations like the studies by Kato- Shimizu, Onishi, Kanazawa, and Hinobayashi (2013) and Crick et al. (1997) are often useful in generating new ideas. This is because it offers researchers to look at the whole situation, allowing for new investigations that had not been previous thought about, furthering explanations of prosocial behaviour. On the other hand, research in this area also has some weaknesses. Due to them being naturalistic observations, it makes it harder to control extraneous variables, which could affect the results. This makes the results less reliable as cause and effect would be difficult to establish. Moreover, it makes it difficult for researchers to repeat the study in exactly the same way due to not being able to replicate the exact same conditions, making them unfalsifiable. A further weakness of the naturalistic observations is that you cannot grantee that the observers were not identified or suspected by the children being observed as a result validity of the observation is weakened, causing the research to may not be valid. Observations also require that the researchers are trained to be able to recognise significant aspects of a situation that are worth further attention. Not only is this costly, but it opens up the research to observer bias, this is because it is difficult for observers to remain objective due to their own expectations and experiences of the world. This could mean that observers see or not see prosocial behaviour even if it did occur, resulting in less valid results. To overcome this, often more than one observer is used while Crick et al. (1997) used this technique, the study by Kato- Shimizu, Onishi, Kanazawa, and Hinobayashi (2013) did not, making the research less reliable. The final weakness of observational research focusing on prosocial behaviour in children is that it is unable to have access to what children are thinking or feeling when exhibiting prosocial behaviours, as a result observation are only able to give surface level explanations behind this behaviour weakening the method of research.

An experimental study by Leeuw et al. (2015) aimed to see if prosocial behaviour seen on the news on TV would affect children’s prosocial intentions and behaviours (Leeuw, Kleemans, Rozendaal, Anschütz, & Buijzen, 2015). Three-hundred-and seventy-two Dutch children aged nine to thirteen-years-old participated in a between-subjects design (Leeuw, Kleemans, Rozendaal, Anschütz, & Buijzen, 2015). Researchers exposed children to either prosocial news showing children organizing a fundraising action for UNICEF or to news about UNICEF without prosocial behaviour included (Leeuw, Kleemans, Rozendaal, Anschütz, & Buijzen, 2015). Afterwards, to measure prosocial behaviour, children had the opportunity to donate to UNICEF, while questionnaires revealed their prosocial intentions (Leeuw, Kleemans, Rozendaal, Anschütz, & Buijzen, 2015). The study found that children exposed to the prosocial news were significantly more willing to help with donating more money as well as setting up a project for UNICEF compared with children who did not watch the prosocial news (Leeuw, Kleemans, Rozendaal, Anschütz, & Buijzen, 2015). In terms of prosocial behaviour, these findings suggest that prosocial television can implement positive social change among children (Leeuw, Kleemans, Rozendaal, Anschütz, & Buijzen, 2015).

Grusec (1971) conducted a further experimental study on prosocial behaviour. Twenty-four boys and twenty-four girls aged seven to eleven witnessed a model play a game of bowling in a New York playground (Grusec, 1971). The model was either powerful, a person who could distribute large rewards (in this case organising a visit to an airport) or less powerful, someone who was unable to offer rewards (Grusec, 1971).  The winner of the bowling game gained two marbles, which they could exchange for a better prize. Children then witnessed the model donate their marbles to poor children to use as toys after winning the game of bowling (Grusec, 1971). The children then played bowling themselves with the number of children imitating this prosocial behaviour being measured (Grusec, 1971).  The study found that participants imitated prosocial behaviour displayed by a powerful model more frequently than the less powerful model (Grusec, 1971) In terms of prosocial behaviour, this study suggests children observing prosocial behaviour by a generous powerful model will increase the child observer’s prosocial behaviour  (Grusec, 1971).

Subsequently, experimental studies have both strengths and weaknesses when focused on prosocial behaviour.  Although the majority of studies in this area tend to be laboratory based, like the study Leeuw et al. (2015) other types of experimental studies have been used such as field based, like the study above by Grusec (1971).