Paper Review: Children’s Prosocial Behaviour after an Earthquake

Vezzali, L., Drury, J., Cadamuro, A., & Versari, A. (2015). Sharing distress increases helping and contact intentions via one-group representation and inclusion of the other in the self: Children’s prosocial behaviour after an earthquake. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. doi: 10.1177/1368430215590492

As a study of real-life social identities, and among children, I couldn’t wait to read this paper. So, not put off by my university’s lack of access, I approached an author for a copy. And having read it, I can confirm that it is very well conceived. The authors looked at 517 Italian children’s (aged 7-12 years) responses to other children said to be similarly affected by two major earthquakes in the country (details of the earthquake are linked below).


This was a first – to test a social identity account of disaster responses among survivors, rather than third party helpers in a quantitative way – and to do so with children as participants. The authors found positive support for a social identity account, showing that social identity processes can explain positive responses towards survivors who were once seen as “other” outgroup members– but what does that mean exactly?

Identity Fusion 

Work in adults suggests that if you are psychologically adversely affected  by an event (and experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress) this can lead to feeling closer to other disaster survivors, and to inclusion of those other survivors in your concept of yourself. The authors employed an oft-used pictorial measure (Aron, 1992) to tap into into this – with one circle representing “you” and one “another survivor” . The circles were drawn with increasing degree of overlap between them, and children had to choose the circles-pair showing how close they felt to other survivors.

And it was found that there was a positive association between the degree of post-traumatic stress reported, and identity fusion (closeness to other survivors). And while I could argue that closeness is just the emotional part of one’ s social identity, and the authors could also have measured the cognitive and centrality aspects of social identity,this is compelling and face-valid evidence that being affected by the earthquake is linked to feeling close to others similarly affected.

Common Ingroup Identity
The authors tested the Common Ingroup Identity model (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000) as a framework for understanding how identity fusion could lead to positive responses to other survivors. This model posits that certain circumstances, like earthquake disasters, can lead to people in the ingroup, formerly “us”, and in the outgroup, formerly “them”, being subsumed , in the mind’s eye, into the same superordinate category “all of us”. This, in turn, means that people once seen as “them”, will now be evaluated using the same positive regard once reserved for “us”.

Based on this, the authors hypothesized that perceiving other child survivors of the earthquake as part of a common group should explain why identity fusion is asssociated with a greater desire for contact with, and help-giving to, other, formerly outgroup member, survivors. This was measured with one item, “Children involved in the earthquake belong to the same group, the group of children.”. Only contact, but not help-giving was linked with the perception of being one, common group. This could be due to the use of just one item, or due to differential understandings in the sample regarding what this “one group” meant. We know from other research that belonging to a group, and what that means, is understood differently by 7, 9, and 12 year-olds (e.g, Sani & Bennett, 2004).

Helping and Contact Intentions

The authors outcome measures were contact and help-giving intentions towards formerly “other” outgroup members who were also earthquake survivors. The rationale for this was that adults are more likely to want to meet and help people perceived as belonging to the ingroup (Haslam, Reicher, & Levine, 2012), so to might children.

They used three items, adapted from Cameron and Rutland (2006), and from Vezzali, Capozza, Stathi, and Giovannini (2012) to measure outgroup contact. Children were asked, if they met at the park an unknown child involved in the earthquake as they were, whether they would like to meet, play, and have an ice cream with him/her. For help-giving, three items from Vezzali, Stathi, et al. (in press), were used, asking whether participants would help an unknown child involved in the earthquake as they are writing, doing mathematics, and finding a book s/he has lost.

Here, it was found that the greater the perceived identity fusion, the greater intent to help and make contact with other child survivors. However, it may be argued that the term “unknown child” is ambiguous here. Might the unknown child actually have been seen as an ingroup member before the earthquake? Perhaps they were not in the same class or friendship group – but they were told that the child was in the same school.  As other research (e.g., Nipedal, Nesdale, & Killen, 2010 ) uses ingroup / outgroup distinctions along school lines, a definite attempt to situate the unknown child as a formerly “outgroup” member might fruitfully be made in future research.

So, there was a positive link between most of the variables that were considered here. Greater post traumatic stress symptoms were linked with greater identity fusion. Greater identity fusion was linked to a greater desire fore contact and for help-giving – and there was also a positive link between identity fusion, common ingroup perception and contact. And, as with the best of research, there is now a multitude of questions remaining. What about other aspects of “social identity”? How does age play a role here? How do children understand the notion of a “common ingroup” and an “outgroup member” in this context? What about intentions to agress / be unhelpful towards / avoid other survivors? And then other, related questions spring to mind: What if the other child was worse / better off than them before / after the disaster? How do children’s perceptions relate to those of their parents? Do cultural norms associated with helping matter? Children’s capacity for prosociality in the face of adversity is indeed a rich area of research.

Book Review: Mermaid

When I heard that a new picture book that has a protagonist with a disability – and that had been written by a person with a disability – had hit the bookshelves, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Helping children develop positive attitudes towards children with disabilities forms part of my research (as I’ve blogged before), and the Guardian’s  review struck a chord.

Like Burnell, although I spent a fair amount of time as a child at the back of my wardrobe, and managed to devastate my parents, aged nine years, with the news that I wanted to leave for boarding school,  there were never really characters in books I could identify with because of their disability*. The closest I got was Matilda  who could mysteriously move things with her eyes (if I stare hard enough at my right hand fingers, they will move  without my conscious intention). I liked that. And yes, things have improved, since the days when disability was tragedy, and children in books were healed of it, (cf. What Katy Did, The Secret Garden, Heidi) to a place where disability is more positively represented, (Curious Incident)  representation from within – and with an under-the-sea theme (am a bit of a fish, myself) had me hooked.

photo (4)

The story itself (beware: spoilers) is about a little girl, Sylvia, who can swim, and a little boy, Luka, who can’t. Sylvia appears at the beach one day, and teaches Luka how to swim, and he loves it. And, when Sylvia appears as a new pupil in Luka’s class, and the children “murmur” why are you in a wheelchair?  Luka tells them that she is a mermaid: the focus is on what Sylvia can do.

And this has to be a strength of the (mermaid’s) tail. Often, when it comes to characters with disabilities, the illustrations and story centre on what the child cannot do. This story is different, and highlights the positive ways in which friendships can be built around commonalities. It also flips the whole ‘I must help the child with the disability’  mantra, that children seem to develop when I talk with them about disability, on its head: it is Sylvia that helps Luka, not the other way around.

From a research perspective? There are two empirical questions I’d like to follow up. The first is about friendships. Are friendships with children in a wheelchair easier for children to imagine in this context (the swim), than in the context of the classroom / playground – or somewhere where the character with a disability would likely need help?

And relatedly, if it were easier, why is this? Is it because the taboo is less of an issue when help isn’t needed? It would be interesting to know what children pick up from this story about the taboo surrounding disability. It is mentioned that Luka “hardly noticed” the wheels of Slyvia’s chair – yet to the children in her class – and in the illustrations – they are very prominent. What would happen if the words about the wheelchair were omitted?  If Luka did notice the wheelchair? If the children in her class didn’t? If Sylvia was introduced to the class as a swimmer, or as a child who uses a wheelchair?

I liked this story. It gives a positive message about the possibilities of friendship and playing together and helping one another. It focuses on can, rather than on cannot.  Plus, I love swimming :-). Realistically, I’m not so sure about Luka’s not noticing the wheelchair, nor about whether dismissing Slyvia’s wheelchair to the class is helpful. But both could be empirically investigated to determine the effects on children’s attitudes (any eye-tracking colleagues wish to collaborate here…?). As I head for a BPS symposium on children growing up with diversity on Thursday, it will make for a silvery sea of discussion. Before that – I’m off to the pool 🙂

Mermaid  is written by Cerrie Burnell and Laura Ellen Anderson

32pp, £6.99


*For newer readers, it’s worth knowing that I have a congenital right hemiplegia.