Study finds children are naturally disposed to help others – with one exception

Scientists also find that recipients of children’s kindness did not matter – they are likely to help puppets as much as humans

Vishwam Sankaran
Thursday 16 February 2023 07:22 GMT
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Young children are naturally inclined to help others, revealed a new study that also underscored the one exception when they stop showing compassion.

When kindness came at a personal cost, it reduced compassionate responding, researchers also found.

The research, published on Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, assessed the nature of over 280 four- and five-year-old children to help others.

Scientists, including James Kirby from The University of Queensland in Australia, conducted experiments to determine what factors facilitated and inhibited compassionate behaviour in them.

Compassion is a widely studied behaviour that is strongly linked to how people help and comfort others.

The trait comes with a complex motive and sensitivity to one’s own suffering as well as to others, along with a commitment to alleviate or prevent it.

Previous studies have shown that children tend to have a natural tendency to show compassion whenever they can.

It has, however, remained unclear under what conditions they can drop out of helping others.

In the new study, scientists sought to examine what factors may facilitate greater compassionate behaviour in young children and what conditions may lead to them being less helpful to others.

Researchers asked children to play a puzzle game, on the completion of which they received a sticker as a reward.

Before being introduced to the games, the children picked their three favourite stickers from a large selection.

They played the games alongside adults or puppets – Millie the Monkey, Ellie the Elephant and George the Giraffe – who did not have sufficient pieces to finish the task.

The children became visibly distressed in three different ways after being unable to receive stickers.

“This allowed three opportunities for the child to help,” scientists explained in the study.

“If the child helped after the suffering was shown by the puppet, it was operationalised as compassionate behaviour,” they added.

The tasks were ended either when the child helped or after three prompts when the child did not help.

Researchers found the children helped across all the studies whenever they had extra puzzle pieces.

But when they had only enough pieces to complete the puzzle themselves, they were found to not help others.

“We found strong evidence that cost reduces compassionate responding,” researchers explained.

Scientists also found that the recipient of compassion did not influence the children’s behaviour as they were equally likely to help a human adult and a puppet.

The findings suggested that in children who are four and five years of age, personal cost could be a “greater inhibitor” to responding compassionately than to who the compassion is directed.

Researchers also tried to vary study conditions to understand what factors may increase the chances of children giving up the puzzle piece and forgoing their sticker reward.

They did this by telling the children in a separate experiment that they could share pieces, adding that they were on the same team with the puppet or adult. However, this too was without success, researchers said.

“It is possible that children saw the ‘finite’ amount of resources available in the shared bucket and realised they had to get the pieces they needed before the puppet,” researchers added.

Taken together, the results of the experiments suggest that personal cost is a key inhibitor to compassionate behaviour in children, implying that reducing this cost may facilitate compassion.

The findings, according to the scientists, can help facilitate compassionate behaviour in young children.

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