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Neuroscience looks at what makes kids generous

It’s no secret that people are judgmental, and young children are no exception. When children witness “good” or “bad” behavior, their brains show an immediate emotional response. But, according to a study in the Cell Press journal Current Biology, it takes more than that kind of automatic moral evaluation for kids to act with generosity and share their stickers.

By recording kids’ brain activity, the study found that generous behavior requires a controlled thought process. The neurodevelopmental findings are the first to link implicit moral evaluations to actual moral behavior and to identify the specific neural markers of each, the developmental neuroscientists say.

“Moral evaluation in preschool children, similar to adults, is complex and constructed from both emotion and cognition,” says Jean Decety, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago. “However, we found that only differences in neural markers of the latter predict actual generosity.”

Young children have a reputation for being selfish, and they often are, Decety says. But earlier studies have shown that even infants are sensitive to inequality and that toddlers have the ability to act for the benefit of others. As children grow up, they tend to show an increase in generosity.

To find out where that kind of generosity comes from, Decety and his colleague Jason Cowell monitored the electrical brain activity of children, aged 3 to 5, while they watched helpful and harmful scenes and while they made decisions in the real world about how to treat an unfamiliar child.

Children were given ten stickers and told that the “rewards were theirs to keep.” They were informed that the next child to come in wouldn’t be given any stickers and then asked if they wanted to give any of theirs to this anonymous other child. If they were feeling generous, the children could place the stickers they were willing to part with into a box while no one was looking.

On average, the children shared a little under two of their ten stickers. The neural evidence indicated that children’s moral judgments depended on a combination of early and automatic processing while observing helping and harming scenarios and, later, more thoughtful reappraisal of those scenes. But it was that second step alone that predicted whether a child would share his or her stickers.

The study may offer useful insight for parents this holiday season looking for their children to join in the spirit of giving, Decety suggests. “These findings provide an interesting idea that by encouraging children to reflect upon the moral behavior of others, we may be able to foster generosity,” he said.


Current Biology, Cowell et al.: “The neuroscience of implicit moral evaluation and its relation to generosity in early childhood”

Cell Press