Researchers believe age-inappropriate selfishness, or the inability to consider the preferences of others, may be linked to an immature brain region.
The findings, published by Cell Press in the journal Neuron, may help to explain why young children often struggle to control selfish impulses, even when they know better.
Experts believe this new knowledge can support new educational strategies designed to promote successful social behavior.
Human social interactions often involve two parties who want to maximize their own outcomes while reaching a mutually satisfactory result. A sign of increasing maturity is the shift from a more selfish focus to an increased tendency to consider the benefits to others. This new perspective occurs over the course of childhood to adolescence.
Researchers are interested in discovering the underlying neuronal mechanisms associated with the increasing maturity known as strategic social behavior.
European investigators conducted behavioral and brain-imaging studies comparing children of different ages as they engaged in two carefully constructed games called “The Dictator Game” and “The Ultimatum Game.”
In the Dictator Game, children were asked to share a reward with another child who could only passively accept what was offered.
In the Ultimatum Game, the recipient had to accept the offer or neither child received a reward. Therefore, the games differed in the demand for strategic behavior for the child making the offer.
“We were interested in whether children would share more fairly if their counterparts could reject their offers, and to what extent strategic behavior was dependent on age and brain development,” said lead study author Dr. Nikolaus Steinbeis.
“We observed an age-related increase in strategic decision making between ages 6 to 13 years and showed that changes in bargaining behavior were best accounted for by age-related differences in impulse-control abilities and underlying functional activity of the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a late-maturing brain region linked with self-control,” said Steinbeis.
Researchers found that an immature prefrontal cortex appears to reduce altruistic behavior when an individual is faced with a situation that has a strong self-serving incentive.
“Our findings represent a critical advance in our understanding of the development of social behavior with far-reaching implications for educational policy and highlight the importance of helping children act on what they already know,” said Steinbeis.
“Such interventions could set the foundation for increased altruism in the future.”
Source: Cell Press