Helping family members is an important and common aspect of family relationships that youth engage in across many cultures and contexts by caring for siblings, doing household chores, and providing financial assistance (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002
; Telzer & Fuligni, 2009a
). During the transition to young adulthood, youth begin to place heightened value on family assistance (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002
). Although family assistance provides individuals with a sense of meaning, fulfillment, and connection to the family, it also may require youth to sacrifice their time, money, educational or career goals, or social relationships, thereby forcing them to consider the relative value of helping their family (Fuligni, Yip, & Tseng, 2002
; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995
; Telzer & Fuligni, 2009b
). While altruistic behaviors may come at a cost to oneself, individuals may nonetheless help others because they gain a sense of personal and social reward from helping (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008
; Fehr, Bernhard, & Rockenbach, 2008
; Homans, 1958
; Izuma, Saito, & Sadato, 2009
; Weiss, Buchana, Altstatt, & Lombardo, 1971
). Indeed, recent neuroimaging research has shown that altruistic behaviors, including giving to others, may be guided by feelings of reward (Harbaugh, Mayr, & Burghart, 2007
; Izuma et al., 2009
; Moll et al., 2006
), and behavioral work has shown that youth gain a sense of happiness from taking care of their kin (Telzer & Fuligni, 2009a
). Thus, the sacrifices associated with family assistance may be offset by the rewards one gains from helping the family. Given that the sense of reward individuals attain from helping their family may be driven by both cultural factors and early family experiences, the current study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine (1) cultural differences in neural reward activity during online experiences of family assistance and (2) how prior family experiences related to neural reward activity when helping the family.
The transition from adolescence to young adulthood marks an important developmental period when youth strive for autonomy and exploration. Coupled with their increased autonomy, young adults may gain an awareness of their social obligations (Arnett, 1998
) and begin to explore the ways in which they can help their family. Indeed, a sense of family obligation increases during this time period, reaching levels higher than those in the adolescent years (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002
). In addition, youth transitioning into adulthood begin to help their family by providing financial support (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002
), something they may not have been able to do earlier in adolescence. Thus, the transition to young adulthood is an important developmental period when family relationships change, youth begin to place greater value on helping their family, and youth gain the independence and ability to provide substantial financial support.
Decisions to help the family are often driven by social and cultural factors (Bergstrom, 1996
), with variations in assistance behaviors and values across cultural groups. For instance, youth from Latin American backgrounds place heightened value on helping their family, spend more time assisting their family, and are more likely to contribute financially to their family than are youth from European backgrounds (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002
; Hardway & Fuligni, 2006
), suggesting that such behaviors are socially and culturally driven. Although Latino youth may help their family due to a sense of obligation (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995
), another possibility is that youth from these backgrounds actually value altruistic behaviors toward family members to such a degree that helping one’s family may be more
rewarding than is a personal gain. Thus, altruistic behavior towards family members may be guided by cultural differences in the reward one attains from helping.
In addition, early family experiences, through which youth acquire an understanding of the goals and values of their family, may affect how family assistance is experienced by youth. For example, social identification leads to the internalization of group values (Fuligni & Flook, 2005
). Family membership serves as an important social identity for adolescents, and youth who feel like valued members of their family are more likely to provide support to their family and gain a sense of wellbeing from that assistance (Hogg, 2003
). Particularly during a developmental transition characterized by increased autonomy, youth who feel that their family is important to their sense of self may internalize the value of family assistance and, over time, may derive more reward when assisting their family. Further, the daily lives and routines of children reinforce the cultural values and goals of their family (Weisner, Matheson, Coots, & Bernheimer, 2005
). Whether adolescents find helping the family to be an enjoyable and meaningful activity will likely affect how family assistance is experienced. For example, adolescents who assist their family and feel that they are fulfilling important roles within their family, such as that of a good son or daughter, have more positive psychological and physical well-being (Fuligni et al., 2009
; Telzer & Fuligni, 2009b
). Thus, rather than placing a burden on youth, family assistance may provide them with a sense of fulfillment and purpose and give meaning to their daily activities. This sense of meaning and fulfillment may be internalized by youth, reinforcing the cultural value of family support, and making family assistance a more rewarding activity over time.
In the current study, we used fMRI in order to examine neural responses during online experiences of family assistance. Because social sacrifices (e.g., time and money) may be offset by the experience of reward, we examined whether family assistance decisions were associated with reward system processes. Providing financial assistance is a key type of family assistance during late adolescence (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002
). Therefore, we examined whether decisions to provide monetary contributions to one’s family recruited the mesolimbic reward system, brain regions consistently linked with the rewarding experience of helping others (Harbaugh et al., 2007
; Izuma et al., 2009
; Moll et al., 2006
). For example, Moll and colleagues (2006)
found that decisions to donate to charities recruited the ventral and dorsal striatum and ventral tegmental area. Similarly, Harbaugh and colleagues (2007)
found that both mandatory and voluntary contributions to charities recruited the ventral and dorsal striatum. Finally, Izuma and colleagues (2009)
reported that ventral striatum activity to charitable donations increased in the presence of others, suggesting that this region may be particularly sensitive to social rewards. Together, these findings suggest that the mesolimbic reward system, including the ventral and dorsal striatum and ventral tegmental area, may be involved in the rewards associated with helping and donating to others.
Given the cultural emphasis placed on family assistance among Latin American cultures, we examined whether Latino youth would show more reward system activation than White youth when assisting their family. If such decisions were driven only by feelings of obligation, we would not expect to see neural evidence of reward processing. In addition, to better understand the internalization and experience of family assistance across an important developmental stage, we examined the implications of earlier family experiences for reward system processing at the time of the scan. Specifically, we examined whether identification with the family and a sense of fulfillment from one’s daily family assistance during the 12th grade would be associated with reward system activation when assisting the family two years later. During this developmental phase, youth are transitioning from secondary school to college or the workforce, and family relationships are often renegotiated (Arnett, 1998
). Thus, the quality of family experiences during high school may play an important role in how family assistance is experienced as youth transition into young adulthood.