Your son or daughter might know that sharing with others is good behavior, but a University of Michigan study, “I Should but I Won’t: Why Young Children Endorse Norms of Fair Sharing but Do Not Follow Them,” found this doesn’t mean she’s quick to follow her own advice. The Michigan study revealed that even though children younger than seven years of age thought it was right for their peers to share and for them to share, when faced with an opportunity, their impulse was to take for themselves. According to Craig E. Smith, lead author of the study, “Although 3-year-olds know the norm of equal sharing, the weight that children attach to this norm increases with age when sharing involves a cost to the self.”

Reputation Concerns Increase Fair Sharing

A Yale University study, “Young Children Are More Generous When Others Are Aware of Their Actions,” spotlights the connection between generous behaviors — sharing, for instance — and gains in reputation. In the study, researchers presented five-year-olds with stickers that they could gift to a peer. Sometimes, the peer could see the stickers; at other times, the peer could not. When the five-year-olds knew that their peers were aware there were stickers to give, they acted generously. On the other hand, when the five-year-olds knew that their peer recipients did not know that there were stickers available, the five-year-olds made a consistent choice—not to act generously.

The Yale researchers explain, “While existing evidence shows that children do not begin to understand self-promotional reputation enhancement until around eight years of age, our findings reveal that children as young as five years of age behave in ways consistent with adult patterns of prosociality in response to audience and transparency cues.”

Who Is More Generous — Your Young Child or a Chimp?

Are good deeds only driven by an inherent human desire to “look good” in front of others? A German research team seems to confirm theories that behavior meant to enhance reputation — also called “impression management” — is solely a human concern…and the desire to act in accordance of whether or not it will affect reputation is prevalent at an early age.

Their study, “Five-Year Olds, but Not Chimpanzees, Attempt to Manage Their Reputations,” involved a series of tests concerning five-year-old children and chimpanzees where subjects could either choose to share with a peer or steal from a peer. 

The study explains, “5-year-old human children share more and steal less when they are being watched by a peer than when they are alone. In contrast, chimpanzees behave the same whether they are being watched by a group mate or not.”  When viewed in the context of the University of Michigan study — in which young children advocated for sharing but still responded to their instinct to take selfishly — it appears that humans are programmed to share (or not) in very specific ways.

Of course, we all know people who remain their five-year-old selves forever, who are generous only when it affects their reputations. But, chances are as your child spends more time with others he will share despite his early instincts.

Also of interest: Plays Well with Others


Engelmann, Jan M., Herrmann, Esther, Tomasello, Michael. “Five-Year Olds, but Not Chimpanzees, Attempt to Manage Their Reputations.” PLos One 7.10 (2012).

Leimgruber KL, Shaw A, Santos LR, Olson KR. “Young Children Are More Generous When Others Are Aware of Their Actions.” PLos One 7.10 (2012).

Smith CE, Blake PR, Harris PL. “I Should but I Won’t: Why Young Children Endorse Norms of Fair Sharing but Do Not Follow Them.” PLoS ONE 8.3 (2013).

Photo Credit: <a href=""">">clappstar</a> via <a href=""">">photopin</a> <a href=""">">cc</a>

Copyright @ 2013 by Susan Newman

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