Specific brain markers predict generosity in children, report developmental neuroscientists. Those neural markers appear to be linked to both social and moral evaluation processes.
Although young children are natural helpers, their perspective on sharing resources tends to be selfish. Jean Decety, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, and Jason Cowell, a postdoctoral scholar in Decety’s lab, wanted to find out how young children’s brains evaluate whether to share something with others out of generosity.
In this study, generosity was used as a proxy for moral behavior. “We know that generosity in children increases as they get older,” says Decety. He adds that neuroscientists have not yet examined the mechanisms that guide the increase in generosity.
“The results of this study demonstrate that children exhibit both distinct early automatic and later more controlled patterns of neural responses when viewing scenarios showing helping and harmful behaviors. It’s that later more controlled neural response that is predictive of generosity.”
The ‘dictator game’
The study included recording brain waves by EEG and eye tracking of 57 children, ages three to five, while they viewed short animations depicting prosocial and antisocial behaviors of cartoon-like characters helping or hurting each other.
Following that testing, the children played a modified version of a scenario called the “dictator game.” The children were given ten stickers and were told that the stickers were theirs to keep. They were then asked if they wanted to share any of their stickers with an anonymous child who was to come to the lab later that day.
The children had two boxes, one for themselves and one for the anonymous child. In an effort to prevent bias, the experimenter turned around while the child decided whether or how much to share.
On average, the children shared fewer than two stickers (1.78 out of 10) with the anonymous child. There was no significant difference in sharing behavior by gender or age. The authors also found that the nature of the animations the children watched at the outset could influence the children’s likelihood of behaving in a generous way.
The study shows how young children’s brains process moral situations presented in these scenarios and the direct link to actual prosocial behavior in the act of generosity by sharing the stickers.
The developmental scientists found evidence from the EEG that the children exhibited early automatic responses to morally laden stimuli (the scenarios) and then reappraised the same stimuli in a more controlled manner, building to produce implicit moral evaluations.
“This is the first neuro-developmental study of moral sensitivity that directly links implicit moral evaluations and actual moral behavior, and identifies the specific neuro markers of each,” says Decety.
“These findings provide an interesting idea that by encouraging children to reflect upon the moral behavior of others, we may be able to foster sharing and generosity in them.”
Decety adds that these findings show that, contrary to several predominant theories of morality, while gut reactions to the behavior of others do exist, they are not associated with one’s own moral behavior, as in how generous the children were with their stickers.
Decety and Cowell are now conducting similar work with even younger children, ages 12 to 24 months, to look at when these neural markers for generosity emerge.