The Family Cycle of Kindness and Generosity


Principal Investigator: Ariel Knafo, Psychology, Hebrew University

Co-Investigators: Richard P. Ebstein, Psychology, Hebrew University and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

How does one become generous? Undoubtedly, the process of promoting, developing and internalizing the practices and dispositions contributing to generous behavior–social cognition, empathic concern, regard for the welfare of others–falls in no small part to the responsibility of the parents. Classic socialization research starts with the parent and looks at the child for effects; but the idea that children are blank slates to be unidirectionally affected by parental intervention is no longer generally accepted.

Twin studies, which provide estimates of the heritable and environmental influences for a given trait, have found that the constitution of a generous disposition also contains significant genetic aspects. Furthermore, there is an increasing awareness that children also influence their parents. For many years, the field of child development has focused efforts on the classical “Nature versus Nurture” question; but the last two decades have seen important breakthroughs moving toward a focus on the combination of “Nature AND Nurture.”

This project aims to delineate the biological and environmental processes that contribute to the development of a generous disposition, and to examine how they intertwine with parenting to create a family cycle of kindness and generosity.

The researchers will perform three complementary longitudinal twin studies. The first study will investigate genetic aspects; the second will look at environmental elements; and the third will look at the psychobiological underpinnings of the generous disposition. In addition, all three studies will inventory parental behaviors and values.

Collectively, these studies promise to go beyond single explanatory mechanisms and to start unraveling the complex interplay of genetic, social and developmental factors in contributing to the origins of generosity. This complementary approach allows us to encroach on the holy grail of causality by directly examining many points along the causal pathways between genes, expression, endophenotypes, temperament, and behavior.

The impact of these combined studies can serve to highlight molecular targets associated with generosity and shed further light on how parenting and other environmental features might re-program the child’s epigenome, attesting to the combined influence of nature and nurture on the development of generosity.