Researchers have discovered certain neural markers that can predict childhood generosity.
These neural markers appear to be linked to the child’s observation of another’s prosocial (or antisocial) behaviors. Their findings are published online in the journal Current Biology.
For the study, neuroscientists at the University of Chicago wanted to find out how young children’s brains evaluate whether or not to share something with others out of generosity. In this study, generosity was used as a proxy for moral behavior.
“We know that generosity in children increases as they get older,” said Dr. Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry. He added that neuroscientists have not yet examined the mechanisms that guide the increase in generosity.
“The results of this study demonstrate that children exhibit both distinct early automatic and later more controlled patterns of neural responses when viewing scenarios showing helping and harmful behaviors. It’s that later more controlled neural response that is predictive of generosity.”
Using electroencephalography (EEG), researchers recorded the brain waves of 57 children, aged three to five, while they viewed short cartoons of characters helping or hurting each other.
Then the children played the “dictator game.” The children were given ten stickers and told that the stickers were theirs to keep. They were then asked if they wanted to share any of their stickers with an anonymous child who was going to come to the lab later that day.
The children were given two boxes, one for themselves and one for the other child. In an effort to prevent bias, the researcher turned around while the child distributed the stickers.
On average, the children shared fewer than two stickers (1.78 out of 10) with the anonymous child. There was no significant difference in sharing behavior by gender or age.
Interestingly, however, the nature of the animations the children had previously watched influenced their generosity.
The researchers found evidence from the EEG that the children had early automatic responses to the prosocial cartoon scenarios and then acted these out in a more controlled manner.
“This is the first neuro-developmental study of moral sensitivity that directly links implicit moral evaluations and actual moral behavior, and identifies the specific neuro markers of each,” said Decety.
“These findings provide an interesting idea that by encouraging children to reflect upon the moral behavior of others, we may be able to foster sharing and generosity in them.”