Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Children Can Adopt a Sharing Mindset

When children make hard choices, they learn to share with others.

We tend to think of children as selfish creatures. Parents talk about the importance of teaching their kids to share and to play well with others. Yet, the human species needs to be cooperative to survive. Individually, humans are rather weak creatures, but because of our collective ability to share our experiences and to teach each other, we have come to dominate the planet. 

So, is sharing and cooperation something that needs to be taught?

This question has been explored by many researchers. For example, Mike Tomasello and his colleagues demonstrate that even young children tend to share, to cooperate in pursuing shared goals, and to want to punish people who harm others. 

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A fascinating paper by Nadia Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir in the October 2013 issue of Psychological Science explores a related question: Can children adopt a mindset to share with others? They suggest that if children are given the choice to share with someone else, then that can create a more lasting state of mind that leads them to continue sharing.

In one study, 3- and 4-year-old children were introduced to a puppet dog and were told that the dog was sad. One group was told to give the dog a sticker to make him feel better. A second group was given a choice to either give the dog a sticker or to put the sticker in the trash. For this group, the choice was not personally costly. A third group made a costly choice. They could either give the sticker to the dog to make it happy or keep it for themselves. Kids of this age love stickers, so giving up the sticker would come at a personal cost. After making this choice, the children were introduced to a puppet elephant who was also sad and were given some more stickers. They could either keep the stickers or give them to the elephant to make her happy. The key question was whether children would keep the last set of stickers or give them away. 

In all conditions, there was a tendency for the children to give the sticker to the dog. Even the children who had to make the costly choice between keeping the sticker or giving it to the dog tended to give the sticker away to make the dog happy. 

The children who had no choice and those who chose to give the sticker to the dog rather than throwing it away were not that generous to the elephant. Only about 20% of these children tended to give the stickers to the sad elephant rather than keeping them. In contrast, about 70% of the children who had to make the difficult choice in the first part of the study also gave the stickers away to the sad elephant. This finding suggests that children adopted a mindset of sharing when they had to make a difficult choice.

A few other studies in this paper helped to clarify this effect.

In one study, children were either given the chance to play with a sticker immediately or to make the difficult choice to save the sticker until a later time. Children find it hard to delay gratification, though most children in this study did put the sticker away to play with later. Afterward, the children were given the chance to give stickers to a sad elephant or keep the stickers. Most children in this condition chose to keep the stickers, suggesting that just making a difficult choice is not enough to create a sharing mindset.

One final study had two groups. Each group had an opportunity to keep an item or give it to the puppet dog to make it happy. One group had an easy choice. They either kept or gave away a small scrap of paper. The other group had a difficult choice, they either kept or gave away a toy frog. Afterward, both groups had the chance to give stickers to a sad elephant.

Again, most children chose to make the dog happy by giving up the object. The children who made the hard choice, though, were much more likely to give their stickers to the sad elephant than those who made the easy choice.

Putting all of this together, children do have a tendency to want to keep things for themselves rather than to give them away. Most of the children in this study kept the stickers for themselves rather than giving them away to make a puppet happy. However, getting children to make a hard choice promoted a sharing mindset. When children actively chose to give something valuable to someone else, they continued that behavior later in the study.

This finding is consistent with work on adults suggesting that giving things away tends to make people happy. For example, a study published in Science by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton suggests that when people give money to others, it increases their happiness. One possibility is that by giving stickers away in this study, children are also learning that giving things to others has its own rewards. Future work will have to explore what children learn from these difficult choices that promotes sharing.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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