When you ask parents what kind of behavior they want to see develop in their children, most will respond with characteristics such as kindness, compassion and helpfulness. Many want to believe that if someone is in need, their child will be generous enough to help.

These “prosocial behaviors” are the most basic fundamental actions that most of us will try to foster and promote in ourselves and in those around us. Prosocial behaviors are highly valued in our society as their presence can help avoid problem behaviors such as alcohol and substance abuse later in life.

In a study conducted by Gustavo Carlo, Alexandra Davis, Sam Hardy, Janine Oithius and Byron Zamboanga at the University of Missouri, results suggest that female student-athletes who volunteer and exhibit more altruistic prosocial behaviors are less likely to abuse alcohol and marijuana in subsequent years.

“Currently, there’s no clear set of findings that suggests that men or women student-athletes are more or less susceptible to substance use” said social scientist Dr. Carlo. “Although, there is some evidence that men engage in higher substance use than women, but that research was geared toward the general population and not a specific one like student-athletes.”

According to previous studies on alcohol and substance use, about 82% of college students have reported alcohol use in the past year, and 32% of college students have reported marijuana use.

For use of alcohol and substances, academic consequences can vary from institution to institution. Many who abuse alcohol and various substances can also face other negative consequences  whether it be psychologically or physically.

The idea for this study stemmed from Dr. Carlo’s expertise surrounding prosocial and moral development. Throughout his career, he has tried to understand what the origins and changes are that occur across the lifespan, and how people decipher between conceptions of what is right and wrong, and good and bad.

“A lot of our research has demonstrated that people who engage in prosocial actions like sharing, comforting or volunteering demonstrate that people care about each other,” Dr. Carlo said. “We’ve been able to show that those people who frequently express these desirable behaviors are less likely to manifest problem behaviors, including substance use. The interest stems from a desire to understand what some of the protective factors are that may litigate problem behaviors later in life.”

Dr. Carlo contacted a former graduate student, Byron Zamboanga, who is now a professor at Smith College. Zamboanga was collecting data from female athletes for a longitudinal study.

“We talked about this idea of prosocial behaviors and female athletes, and he agreed to include a measure of prosocial behaviors in his study,” Dr. Carlo said.

Studying this population was of particular interest because male sports generally garner more attention and focus, so less is known about female athletes. By studying female student-athletes from Smith College, it gave Dr. Carlo and his colleagues the opportunity to see if general findings from a general population would extend to a specific population.

As Smith College is a division III school, there are higher demands and expectations placed on female student-athletes, such as the expectation to perform at a high level and maintain high grades. Often, athletes who attend a division I school have more resources and support services that might not be the case at a school like Smith College.

Over the course of six years, more than 200 female student-athletes participated in this study. Around the same time each year, each student-athlete was given a questionnaire to fill out. Each questionnaire measured prosocial behaviors, hazardous alcohol use and marijuana use.

Prosocial behaviors were measured using the Prosocial Tendencies Measure (PTM), a 23-item self-report in which respondents were asked questions regarding six different prosocial behaviors.

The six prosocial behaviors were: Public (i.e.,actions exhibited in front of an audience), altruistic (i.e., behaviors without expectation for self rewards), dire (i.e., helping others in emergency situations), emotional (i.e., assisting other in affectively arousing settings), anonymous (i.e.,helping without revealing one’s identity), and compliant (i.e., assisting when requested).

“Prosocial behaviors are behaviors that might be motivated by selfless reasons to benefit other people, or they might be motivated to benefit themselves more than others” Dr. Carlo said. “It just depends on the social context and the situation.”

Alcohol use was measured using the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT). Respondents were asked to respond to questions about their drinking behaviors in the past year.

Marijuana use was measured by a Likert-type scale by asking respondents how many times they used Marijuana in the past 30 days.

The study found some evidence that engagement in prosocial behaviors earlier in life seemed to reduce the likelihood of marijuana use in subsequent years.

“On the other hand, we also found bidirectional effects that are rarely studied that suggested that earlier use of marijuana also predicted lower levels of prosocial behaviors in subsequent years,” Dr. Carlo said.

One of the most surprising findings was that public prosocial behavior in earlier years in life predicted more alcohol use in subsequent years.

“This is an interesting finding because that’s one of the prosocial behaviors that seems to be motivated from desire to gain approval of others” Dr. Carlo said. “It demonstrated that we can’t assume all prosocial behaviors have protective effects against substance and alcohol use, but rather, it depends on whether or not the prosocial behavior is truly intended to benefit others rather than the intention of benefiting oneself.”

The other interesting finding was that the altruistic form of prosocial behavior, which is the most other oriented behavior, predicted lower marijuana use in subsequent years.

“The altruistic behavior is most expressed with the desire to benefit others with little or no expectation of receiving rewards, so the presence of altruistic prosocial behavior is a good thing,” Dr. Carlo said.

Studying prosocial behaviors can help establish possible avenues in reducing undesirable and harmful behaviors.

“These behaviors are important for understanding how we ultimately socialize our kids and structure our environment so that we can actually reward and encourage these positive behaviors in our society,” Dr. Carlo said.

For Dr. Carlo and his colleagues, what comes next is the continuance of testing the limits of these findings, and trying to understand to what extent these findings generalize to other populations.

“We want to know what other kinds of problem behaviors are protected by the presence of prosocial behavior earlier in life,” Dr. Carlo said. “Ultimately we want to develop intervention programs that can really help encourage and promote more of these positive behaviors like helping others, and reduce negative behaviors like alcohol use.”

And that’s something to root for.