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Prosocial Behavior in the Context of Childhood Interpersonal Trauma: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Evidence


Prior theory and research examining relations between trauma exposure and prosocial behavior (e.g., Rao et al., 2011; Vollhardt, 2009) has led some to suggest that altruism may be born of suffering (ABS; Staub & Vollhardt, 2008). However, extant research on these relations has focused on communally-experienced traumatic events, with little consideration accorded to individually-experienced events and the potential significance of contextual and developmental influences on these relations. This dissertation adopted a developmental lens of analysis to systematically evaluate extant research on childhood interpersonal trauma (i.e., maltreatment, bullying victimization, violence exposure) and prosocial behavior (i.e., behavior intended to benefit others; Batson & Powell, 2003) with particular emphasis on contextual factors that may modify these associations (e.g., sample age and geographic region, trauma type and assessment, prosocial type and assessment). In this comprehensive meta-analysis, I collected 35,383 articles from various sources and retained 24 studies as unique assessments of the impact of childhood interpersonal trauma on prosocial behavior. Meta-analytic procedures revealed a significant negative effect of childhood interpersonal trauma on prosocial behavior (r = -.16, 95%, CI [-.23, -.09], k = 26, I2 = 87.57,  = .03). However, this association was qualified by several moderators. Specifically, the negative association between childhood interpersonal trauma and prosocial behavior was stronger for samples in the U.S., child survivors of maltreatment as opposed to other trauma types, studies using administrative records to assess trauma exposure, and studies using teacher, peer, and examiner informants to assess the child’s prosocial behavior outside the family context as opposed to caregiver or child self reports. Younger samples evidenced marginally stronger and more negative associations between trauma exposure and prosocial behavior. Although I explored the potential moderating impact of trauma assessment scale (i.e., dichotomous versus continuous), prosocial behavior type (i.e., global versus specific assessments), and prosocial behavior measurement modality (i.e., observed versus reported), no other significant moderating effects emerged. Findings speak to the importance of considering the role of development as it may refine the ABS model. Further, I explicate several promising avenues for future research aimed at clarifying whether, when, and for whom altruism may follow from suffering.

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