As young as five years old, children begin to show the “bystander effect,” meaning that they are less likely to help a person in need when there are other children available to help, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.
Children are quick to help, however, when they realize they are the only one available.
“The children in our study helped at very high levels only when responsibility was clearly attributable to them,” said psychological scientist and lead researcher Dr. Maria Plötner of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
“These findings suggest that children at this age take responsibility into account when deciding whether to help.”
Earlier research has shown that children are generally very helpful, but the new study is one of the first to specifically investigate whether the presence of other children affects this helping behavior.
For the study, researchers recruited 60 children at the age of five to participate in the study, with their parents’ permission. The children were told that they could choose a picture to color. Some children colored with only the researcher in the room, while others colored alongside two other children.
Unbeknownst to the participants, the two other children were actually part of the experiment and were instructed by the researchers to role play according to a script.
Before the children began coloring, the researcher noticed a water puddle and wiped it up with paper towels. She left the remaining paper towels on the floor, just “in case something needs to be wiped up later.”
A little while later, the researcher “accidentally” knocked over her cup of colored water. She tried to hold the water back with her arms and, after about 15 seconds, she looked at the water, said “Oops,” and groaned.
She made increasingly more obvious displays of distress and, eventually, if no one had helped her, she asked the children to bring her the paper towels. And if no one helped after 90 seconds, the researcher retrieved the paper towels herself.
According to the findings, when other children were present and available to help, participants were less inclined to retrieve the paper towels for the researcher. If the other children were unavailable for helping (because their path to the researcher was obstructed), however, the participants were just as likely to retrieve the paper towels as those who were alone with the researcher. Participants who were alone with the researcher in the room were faster to help than those who were in the room with other children.
In post-experiment interviews, participants revealed that they had recognized that the researcher needed help; therefore, awareness of the problem could not explain the difference in behavior.
Interestingly, far fewer children said that it was their responsibility to help the researcher if there had been other children in the room to help.
“This study shows that although children are typically extremely helpful, this tendency to help can be overridden in certain circumstances,” said Plötner.
Together, the findings “illustrate the surprising complexity of young children’s helping behavior by demonstrating that when others are present, children will help more in some circumstances and less in others,” said Plötner.
The findings show that the bystander effect — a social phenomenon so prominent in adults — is evident in children as young as five years old, suggesting that it is a strong behavioral response that emerges early in life.
The researchers believe it would be helpful if interventions designed to encourage prosocial, helping behavior in children included the issue of diffusion of responsibility.