Summary: Children constantly assist others every time they need help if there is no personal cost to helping, a new study reports.
Source: University of Queensland
University of Queensland researchers have found children will help people in distress unless there is a personal cost.
Dr. James Kirby from UQ’s School of Psychology and his team worked with 285 children aged 4 and 5 to investigate what drives them to be compassionate.
“We tested if their compassion response changed depending on who they were interacting with,” Dr. Kirby said.
“Adults are an authority figure and children sometimes do what is required just because an adult is asking, which is why we also used puppets who are more on a child’s level.
“Our research found children will assist every time if there is no personal cost to helping and this didn’t change if it was an adult or puppet.”
To understand if the compassion response changed if there was a cost involved, stickers were given to the children when they completed tasks.
“We then saw that if they had to give up their reward stickers it was awfully hard for the children to help, even if the adult or puppet showed distress,” Dr. Kirby said.
To understand if the compassion response changed if there was a cost involved, stickers were given to the children when they completed tasks. Image is in the public domain
“It didn’t mean the children were deliberately selfish because adults also really struggle giving up rewards and resources. Just because they valued the reward it didn’t mean they were uncompassionate, as many of them offered passive compassion such as condolences like ‘that’s okay,’ or ‘maybe next time.’
“Most importantly, this study highlighted that if there were no personal costs or the children didn’t have to give up rewards, they were deeply compassionate and helpful.
“Understanding what drives children to be compassionate is important for setting up positive learning and family environments.”
The study is published in Royal Society Open Science.
It builds on previous research led by Ph.D. candidate Mitchell Green and Professor Mark Nielsen from UQ’s School of Psychology about what factors influence the likelihood that children will be compassionate.
Testing the bounds of compassion in young children
Extensive research shows that, under the right circumstances, children are highly prosocial. Extending an already published paradigm, we aimed here to determine what factors might facilitate and inhibit compassionate behaviour. Across five experiments (N = 285), we provide new insight into the bounds of 4- to 5-year-old children’s compassionate behaviour.
In the first three experiments, we varied cost of compassion by changing the reward (Study 1), using explicit instructions (Study 2) and ownership (Study 3). In the final two experiments, we varied the target of the compassionate behaviour, examining adults compared with puppet targets (Study 4), and whether the target was an in-group member (Study 5). We found strong evidence that cost reduces compassionate responding.
By contrast, the recipient of compassion did not appear to influence responding: children were equally likely to help a human adult and a puppet, and an in-group member and neutral agent.
These findings demonstrate that for young children, personal cost appears to be a greater inhibitor to compassionate responding than who compassion is directed toward.