The current review presents a model for how prosocial development is driven by socio-cognitive mechanisms that have been shaped by natural selection to translate critical environmental factors into locally adaptive levels of prosociality. This is done through a synthesis of two existing literatures. Evolutionary developmental psychologists have demonstrated a biological basis for the emergence of prosocial behavior early in youth, and work based on social learning theory has explored how social experiences can influence prosociality across development. The model forwarded organizes this latter literature in a way that is specific to how the biological mechanisms underpinning prosociality have evolved. This consists of two main psychological mechanisms: 1) A domain-specific program that is responsive to environmental factors that determine the relative success of different levels of prosociality. It uses the local prevalence of prosocial others (i.e., support) and expectations for prosocial behavior (i.e., structure) to guide prosocial development. 2) The domain-general process of cultural learning, by which youth adopt local social norms based on the examples of others. Implications and hypotheses are articulated for both the socio-cognitive structure of the individual and the role of social contexts.
Evolutionary theory and models have done much to advance our understanding of prosocial behavior, including both hypothesizing and demonstrating a biological basis for its function. The present article has argued that this biological basis continues to be relevant throughout development, absorbing information from the local environment and translating it into locally adaptive levels of prosocial behavior. I have advocated here for a synthetic approach, one that acknowledges two different socio-cognitive systems, and incorporates both social cognitive theory and models of the evolution of prosociality.