Children’s Moral Motivation, Sympathy, and Prosocial Behavior


  • This research is part of the Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development at the University of Zurich (director, Marlis Buchmann) and was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The authors would like to express their sincere thanks to the children, parents, and (kindergarten) teachers for participating in the study. Moreover, the authors are grateful to all the interviewers and undergraduate students for their help in data collection and coding.

concerning this article should be addressed to Tina Malti, Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development, University of Zurich, Culmannstrasse 1, 8006 Zurich, Switzerland. Electronic mail may be sent to


Two studies investigated the role of children’s moral motivation and sympathy in prosocial behavior. Study 1 measured other-reported prosocial behavior and self- and other-reported sympathy. Moral motivation was assessed by emotion attributions and moral reasoning following hypothetical transgressions in a representative longitudinal sample of Swiss 6-year-old children (= 1,273). Prosocial behavior increased with increasing sympathy, especially if children displayed low moral motivation. Moral motivation and sympathy were also independently related to prosocial behavior. Study 2 extended the findings of Study 1 with a second longitudinal sample of Swiss 6-year-old children (= 175) using supplementary measures of prosocial behavior, sympathy, and moral motivation. The results are discussed in regard to the precursors of the moral self in childhood.