When children are given the choice of whether they would like to share their toy with someone else or not, they end up sharing more in the future, according to new research.
The study suggests that choosing to share after being given a difficult choice leads children to see themselves in a positive light. When they can perceive themselves as people who like to share, they are more likely to act in a pro-social manner in the future.
“Making difficult choices allows children to infer something important about themselves: In making choices that aren’t necessarily easy, children might be able to infer their own pro-sociality,” said researchers Nadia Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir of Cornell University.
Prior research supports this theory and has shown that rewarding children for sharing can backfire. Children come to perceive themselves as people who don’t like to share since they had to be rewarded for doing so.
Because they don’t view themselves as “sharers,” they are less likely to share in the future.
For the study, the researchers wanted to find out if freely chosen sacrifice might have the opposite effect on kids’ willingness to share.
To test this, they introduced young children, ages 3-5, to Doggie, a puppet who was feeling sad. Some of the children were given a difficult choice: share a precious sticker with Doggie, or keep it for themselves.
Other children were given an easy choice between sharing and putting the sticker away, while children in a third group were required to share.
Later, the children were introduced to Ellie, another sad puppet. They were given the option of how many stickers to share (up to three).
Children who had made the difficult choice earlier on to help Doggie shared more stickers with Ellie.
Those who were initially given an easy choice or who were required to give their sticker to Doggie, on the other hand, shared fewer stickers with the new puppet.
“You might imagine that making difficult, costly choices is taxing for young children or even that once children share, they don’t feel the need to do so again,” Chernyak said.
“But this wasn’t the case. Once children made a difficult decision to give up something for someone else, they were more generous, not less, later on.”
“Given the high amount of emphasis we place on choice during early childhood, especially in this culture, it is important to delineate specifically what choice might do — and not do — for young children,” Chernyak said.
“Children are frequently taught to share, be polite, and be kind to others. In order to bring us closer to one day figuring out how to best teach children these skills, it is important to figure out which factors may aid in young children’s sharing behavior,” Chernyak said.
“Allowing children to make difficult choices may influence their sharing behavior by teaching them greater lessons about their abilities, preferences, and intentions towards others.”
The study was published in Psychological Science.
Source: Psychological Science