This was an interesting recent article in the NY Times, "Understanding How Children Develop Empathy," but I thought some of the parts about the source and development of prosocial behavior were just as interesting--particularly that it is not just about (or even primarily) about empathy:
By itself, intense empathy — really feeling someone else’s pain — can backfire, causing so much personal distress that the end result is a desire to avoid the source of the pain, researchers have found. The ingredients of prosocial behavior, from kindness to philanthropy, are more complex and varied.
They include the ability to perceive others’ distress, the sense of self that helps sort out your own identity and feelings, the regulatory skills that prevent distress so severe it turns to aversion, and the cognitive and emotional understanding of the value of helping.
And this part about how people can be taught to feel the rewards of prosocial acts:
Experimental studies have shown that the same brain region that is activated when people win money for themselves is active when they give to charity — that is, that there is a kind of neurologic “reward” built into the motivational system of the brain.
“Charitable giving can activate the same pleasure-reward centers, the dopaminergic centers, in the brain that are very closely tied to habit formation,” said Bill Harbaugh, an economist at the University of Oregon who studies altruism. “This suggests it might be possible to foster the same sorts of habits for charitable giving you see with other sorts of habits.”
The other theory of prosocial behavior, Dr. Huettel said, is based on social cognition — the recognition that other people have needs and goals. The two theories aren’t mutually exclusive: Cognitive understanding accompanied by a motivational reward reinforces prosocial behavior.
But shaping prosocial behavior is a tricky business. For instance, certain financial incentives seem to deter prosocial impulses, a phenomenon called reward undermining, Dr. Huettel said.
I thought that made a lot of sense, that a lot of prosocial acts stem from a greater cognitive understanding that other people have needs and goals. I feel like the more aware I have been taught to be about the inner worlds of others, the more I am naturally inclined to defer to those needs and goals, especially when it is hardly any trouble to me and means so much to them.