Whether or not a three year-old will share with others strongly hinges on how well that child can predict and understand another’s sadness when left out, according to researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich.
In a new study, researchers asked preschool children of different ages to imagine how they feel, or another child would feel, depending on whether someone shares with them or not.
They found that understanding what it feels like to be left out when everyone else has received his or her share differs from one child to the next and has a strong impact on their willingness to share with others.
In fact, understanding and wishing to avoid the disappointment caused to another child by being left out was a stronger incentive for generosity than the idea of making the recipient happy.
“The children who had a greater awareness of how badly one feels when others fail to share with one were more generous in a subsequent resource allocation task,” said researchers Markus Paulus (Professor of Developmental Psychology and the Psychology of Learning in Early Childhood) and Professor Chris Moore of Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia).
The study involved 82 children between the ages of three and six years, who were divided into three groups. The children in the first group were individually asked to think about how they feel when another person shares things with them or not, and to rate their emotions using a set of pictures showing a range of sad-to-happy facial expressions.
The second group was asked to imagine what another child might feel in the same situation. The children were then given colored stickers to share with each other and with another child (represented only as a picture).
The responses of the first two groups were then compared to those of a control group, consisting of children who had been asked simply to infer another’s child’s state of knowledge in a situation without an emphasis on emotions.
“A heightened awareness of the emotional consequences of being shared with, or not, has an influence on one’s own generosity,” says Paulus.
“The children who had been encouraged to think about the emotions associated with being left empty-handed when some resource has been allocated to others proved to be more generous than those in the control group.”
Furthermore, anticipating — and wishing to avoid — the disappointment caused to another child by being left out was a stronger incentive to generosity than the idea of making the recipient happy.
“One possible explanation for this is what is called ‘negativity bias’, which implies that our behavior is more strongly influenced by the desire to avoid negative emotions than by a wish to provoke positive ones,” Paulus adds.
The findings showed that three-year-olds are very capable of anticipating what another person might feel if ignored in a round of sharing. The degree to which this capacity was present varied between individuals in all age groups tested.
In the first two or three years of life, learning is very strongly influenced by emotions. Earlier research has found that children whose parents talk to them about feelings are better able to anticipate another child’s emotional state, says Paulus.
Paulus’ latest work shows how one can foster children’s readiness to share with others: “It helps if one makes clear to them what someone else feels when left out.”
The findings are published in the online edition of the journal Social Development.