Skip to main content Accessibility help

Prosocial behavior in aging: which factors can explain age-related differences in social-economic decision making?

  • Alessia Rosi (a1), Marta Nola (a1), Serena Lecce (a1) and Elena Cavallini (a1)



Older adults tend to exhibit more prosocial behavior than younger adults. However, little research has focused on understanding the factors that may explain such differences in the social decision-making process. The first aim was to examine if, and to what degree, the content of social information about a recipient has an impact on young vs. older adults’ prosocial behavior. The second aim was to understand if empathic concern, Theory of Mind, and reasoning explain the (expected) age differences in prosociality.


Cross-sectional study.


The study was conducted in northern Italy in a laboratory setting.


Forty-eight younger adults (Mage = 23.29; SD = 2.20) and 48 older adults (Mage = 70.19; SD = 5.13).


Prosocial behavior was measured using the Dictator Game in which participants split a sum of money with recipients presented with four levels of description: no information, physical description, positive psychological description, and negative psychological description. In addition, participants performed tasks on emphatic concern, Theory of Mind, and reasoning.


Results showed that older adults are more prosocial than younger adults in the Dictator Game. This finding was evident when the recipient was described with positive psychological and physical features. This pattern of results was statistically explained by the reduction in reasoning ability.


These findings suggest a relationship between age-related reduction in reasoning ability and older adults’ prosocial behavior. The theoretical and practical implication of the empirical findings are discussed.


Corresponding author

Correspondence should be addressed to: Alessia Rosi, Department of Brain and Behavioral Sciences, P.zza Botta 6, Pavia 27100, Italy. Phone: +39 0382 986133; Fax: +39 0382 986132. Email:


Hide All
Bailey, P. E., Ruffman, T. and Rendell, P. G. (2013). Age-related differences in social economic decision making: the ultimatum game. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 68, 356363.
Baron, R. M. and Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator-mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: conceptual, strategic, and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 11731182.
Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y. and Plumb, I. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 42, 241251.
Batson, C. D. (2010). Empathy-induced altruistic motivation. In Mikulincer, M. and Shaver, P. R. (eds.), Prosocial Motives, Emotions, and Behavior: The Better Angels of Our Nature (pp. 1534). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Beadle, J. N., Sheehan, A. H., Dahlben, B. and Gutchess, A. H. (2013). Aging, empathy and prosociality. Journal of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 702, 215224.
Benjamin, D. J., Brown, S. A. and Shapiro, J. M. (2013). Who is ‘behavioral’? Cognitive ability and anomalous preferences. Journal of the European Economic Association, 11, 12311255.
Bowman, C. H. and Turnbull, O. H. (2003). Real versus facsimile reinforcers on the Iowa Gambling Task. Brain and Cognition, 53, 207210.
Burnham, T. C. (2003). Engineering altruism: a theoretical and experimental investigation of anonymity and gift giving. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 50, 133144.
Carstensen, L. L., Fung, H. H. and Charles, S. T. (2003). Socioemotional selectivity theory and the regulation of emotion in the second half of life. Motivation and Emotion, 27, 103123.
Charness, G. and Gneezy, U. (2008). What’s in a name? Anonymity and social distance in dictator and ultimatum games. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 68, 2935.
Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.
Ebner, N. C., Riediger, M. and Lindenberger, U. (2010). FACES-A database of facial expressions in young, middle-aged, and older women and men: development and validation. Behavior Research Methods, 42, 351362.
Engel, C. (2011). Dictator games: a meta study. Experimental Economics, 14, 583610.
Fehr, E. and Fischbacher, U. (2002). Why social preferences matter-the impact of non-selfish motives on competition, cooperation and incentives. The Economic Journal, 112, C1C33.
Fehr, E. and Schmidt, K. M. (1999). A theory of fairness, competition and cooperation. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114, 817868.
Folstein, M. F., Folstein, S. E. and McHugh, P. R. (1975). Mini mental state: a practical method for grading the cognitive state of patients for the clinician. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 12, 189198.
Forsythe, R., Horowitz, J. L., Savin, N. E. and Sefton, M. (1994). Fairness in simple bargaining experiments. Games and Economic Behavior, 6, 347369.
Frith, C. D. and Singer, T. (2008). The role of social cognition in decision making. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363, 38753886.
Hayes, A. F. (2013). Introduction to Mediation, Moderation, and Conditional Process Analysis: A Regression-Based Approach. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
Henninger, D. E., Madden, D. J. and Huettel, S. A. (2010). Processing speed and memory mediate age-related differences in decision making. Psychology and Aging, 25, 262270.
Henry, J. D., Phillips, L. H., Ruffman, T. and Bailey, P. E. (2013). A meta-analytic review of age differences in theory of mind. Psychology and Aging, 28, 826839.
Hubbard, J., Harbaugh, W. T., Srivastava, S., Degras, D. and Mayr, U. (2016). A general benevolence dimension that links neural, psychological, economic, and life-span data on altruistic tendencies. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 13511358.
Huepe, D. and Salas, N. (2013). Fluid intelligence, social cognition, and perspective changing abilities as pointers of psychosocial adaptation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 287.
Imuta, K., Henry, J. D., Slaughter, V., Selcuk, B. and Ruffman, T. (2016). Theory of mind and prosocial behavior in childhood: a meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 52, 11921205.
Isaacowitz, D. M., Wadlinger, H. A., Goren, D. and Wilson, H. R. (2006). Is there an age-related positivity effect in visual attention? A comparison of two methodologies. Emotion, 6, 511516.
Kettner, S. E. and Waichman, I. (2016). Old age and prosocial behavior: social preferences or experimental confounds? Journal of Economic Psychology, 53, 118130.
Kiiski, H. S., Cullen, B., Clavin, S. L. and Newell, F. N. (2016). Perceptual and social attributes underlining age-related preferences for faces. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10, 437.
Kim, S. and Hasher, L. (2005). The attraction effect in decision making: superior performance by older adults. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58A, 120133.
Kim, S., Healey, M. K., Goldstein, D., Hasher, L. and Wiprzycka, U. J. (2008). Age differences in choice satisfaction: a positivity effect in decision making. Psychology and Aging, 23, 3338.
Kogut, T., Slovic, P. and Västfjäll, D. (2016). The effect of recipient identifiability and neediness on children’s sharing behavior. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 29, 353362.
Lemerise, E. A. and Arsenio, W. F. (2000). An integrated model of emotion processes and cognition in social information processing. Child Development, 71, 107118.
Lim, K. T. K. and Yu, R. (2015). Aging and wisdom: age-related changes in economic and social decision making. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 7, 120.
Ma, H. K. and Leung, M. C. (1991). Altruistic orientation in children: construction and validation of the child altruism inventory. International Journal of Psychology, 26, 745759.
Malti, T., Gummerum, M., Ongley, S., Chaparro, M., Nola, M. and Bae, N. Y. (2015). “Who is worthy of my generosity?” Recipient characteristics and the development of children’s sharing. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 40, 3140.
Marchetti, A., Castelli, I., Harlé, K. M. and Sanfey, A. G. (2011). Expectations and outcome: the role of proposer features in the Ultimatum Game. Journal of Economic Psychology, 32, 446449.
Mata, R., Josef, A. K., Samanez-Larkin, G. R. and Hertwig, R. (2011). Age differences in risky choice: a meta-analysis. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1235, 1829.
Mather, M. et al. (2012). Risk preferences and aging: the “certainty effect” in older adults’ decision making. Psychology and Aging, 27, 801816.
McAdams, D. P., Diamond, A., de St. Aubin, E. and Mansfield, E. (1997). Stories of commitment: the psychosocial construction of generative lives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 678694.
Millet, K. and Dewitte, S. (2007). Altruistic behavior as a costly signal of general intelligence. Journal of research in Personality, 41, 316326.
Penner, L. A., Dovidio, J. F., Piliavin, J. A. and Schroeder, D. A. (2005). Prosocial behavior: multilevel perspectives. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 365392.
Preacher, K. J. and Hayes, A. F. (2008). Asymptotic and resampling strategies for assessing and comparing indirect effects in multiple mediator models. Behavior Research Methods, 40, 879889.
Radloff, L. S. (1977). The CES-D scale: a self-report depression sale for research in the general population. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1, 385401.
Raven, J., Court, J. H. and Raven, J. C. (1983). Manual for Raven’s Progressive Matrices and Vocabulary Scales (Section 3)– Standard Progressive Matrices. London: H. K. Lewis.
Redemacher, L., Salama, A., Gründer, G. and Spreckelmeyer, K. N. (2014). Differential patterns of nucleus accumbens activation during anticipation of monetary and social reward in young and older adults. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance, 9, 825831.
Rieger, M. and Mata, R. (2013). On the generality of age differences in social and nonsocial decision making. Journal of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 70, 200212.
Rilling, J. K. and Sanfey, A. G. (2011). The neuroscience of social decision-making. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 2348.
Roalf, D. R., Mitchell, S. H., Harbaugh, W. T. and Janowsky, J. S. (2012). Risk, reward and economic decision making in aging. Journal of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67, 289298.
Salthouse, T. A. (2005). Effects of aging on reasoning. In Holyoak, K. J. and Morrison, R. G. (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Servátka, M. (2010). Does generosity generate generosity? An experimental study of reputation effects in a Dictator Game. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 39, 1117.
Singer, T. and Fehr, E. (2005). The neuroeconomics of mind reading and empathy. American Economic Review, 95, 340345.
Sobel, M. E. (1986). Some new results on indirect effects and their standard errors in covariance structure models. In: Tuma, N. (ed.), Sociological Methodology. Washington, DC: American Psychology Association.
Sun, B., Luo, Z., Zhang, W., Li, W. and Li, X. (2017). Age-related differences in affective and cognitive empathy: self-report and performance-based evidence. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 4, 118.
Sze, J. A., Gyurak, A., Goodkind, M. S. and Levenson, R. W. (2012). Greater emotional empathy and prosocial behavior in late life. Emotion, 12, 11291140.
Thurstone, T. G. and Thurstone, L. L. (1963). Primary Mental Ability. Chicago, IL: Science Research Associates. San Antonio, TX: Harcourt Assessment.
Weidman, C. S. and Strayhorn, J. M. (1992). Relationships between children’s prosocial behaviors and choices in story dilemmas. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 10, 330341.
Wiepking, P. and James, R. N. III. (2013). Why are the oldest old less generous? Explanations for the unexpected age-related drop in charitable giving. Ageing and Society, 33, 486510.
Zebrowitz, L. A., Franklin, R. G., Hillman, S. and Boc, H. (2013). Older and younger adults’ first impressions from faces: similar in agreement but different in positivity. Psychology and Aging, 28, 202212.


Prosocial behavior in aging: which factors can explain age-related differences in social-economic decision making?

  • Alessia Rosi (a1), Marta Nola (a1), Serena Lecce (a1) and Elena Cavallini (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed