Do Traumatic Life Events Lead to Increases in Volunteerism?

Study by:
Patricia A. Frazier - University of Minnesota
The vast majority of people experience some traumatic event in their lifetime, such as a sudden bereavement, a life-threatening illness, or a violent crime. However, our knowledge of the effects of traumatic life events is severely limited because virtually all of our information comes from studies of people who have already experienced some traumatic event. In addition, although most research has focused on the negative effects of traumatic events, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a growing body of research suggests that the vast majority of trauma survivors report positive changes in their lives as a result of the trauma, such as greater life appreciation and closer relationships. 
Although research on posttraumatic positive life changes has yielded a more comprehensive understanding of the effects of trauma, it also is limited in certain respects. First, concerns increasingly are being raised about whether self-reports of growth can be taken at face value (e.g., whether individuals' relationships really are closer after a trauma). Indeed, there are several reasons why self-reports of personal growth following trauma may not reflect actual life changes (e.g., people may report growth merely because they feel it is expected of them). Second, most research on posttraumatic growth has focused on internal self-oriented changes rather than changes in outward prosocial behaviors. However, many important social movements (e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) have been started by people who have suffered traumatic events and have subsequently devoted their lives to reducing the frequency and impact of those events. We know little about the frequency with which individuals engage in such behaviors after traumatic events. Funding from CSIS allowed us to address this question. The results of this study are summarized below (see Frazier, Greer, Gabrielsen, Tennen, Park, & Tomich, P. [2012]. The relation between trauma exposure and prosocial behavior. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, online first publication.
The purpose of this study was to assess the relation between trauma exposure and prosocial behavior. Undergraduate students (N = 1,528) completed online measures of prosocial behavior (both daily helping behavior and volunteering), lifetime trauma exposure, and 5 other known correlates (i.e., empathy, agreeableness, religiosity, extraversion, and gender) of prosocial behavior at Time 1. At Time 2, 2 months later, participants (n = 1,281) completed measures of trauma exposure between Time 1 and Time 2 (to identify individuals who experienced a trauma between Time 1 and Time 2; n = 122), prosocial behavior, event-related distress, and well-being. Individuals who had experienced more lifetime traumas engaged in more prosocial behavior, and lifetime trauma exposure explained additional variance in prosocial behavior after accounting for other known correlates. In addition, individuals who had experienced a recent trauma reported engaging in more daily helping behavior than a matched no-trauma comparison group (n = 122). Among recent trauma survivors, engaging in prosocial behavior was associated with greater well-being.