Children learn ‘sophisticated’ adult sharing behaviours at a surprisingly young age

Posted by iChild, April 15, 2020 9:00 AM


By Liverpool Hope University


The study illustrated how children as young as three share more resources with ‘competent’ peers than incompetent ones.


Children Sharing GettyImages-493788214

And author Dr Jim Stack, a lecturer in Developmental Psychology and Early Childhood Studies at Liverpool Hope University, says it’s a skill that’s ‘crucial when it comes to negotiating life.’


Dr Stack examined whether preschool girls and boys would share a cache of stickers with others they knew to be either competent or incompetent. 


He says the preschoolers in his study were able to weigh up the relative merit of a co-worker’s contribution within a joint task. 


And they were then able to use this information in a similar way to adults when decisions about how much of the earned resources were available to share.


He explains: “Naturally, we want our children to be prosocial and altruistic. And the fact these scenarios are being played out in children as young as three or four will probably come as a shock to many.


“But when a child shares less with a low-merit peer, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. 


“These are behaviours that appear to be driven by evolution and are actually crucial when it comes to negotiating life. 


“It’d be nice to be generous in all instances, but it’s simply not the way the world works. 


“What we’ve shown is that children are able at a young age, are prosocial in their sharing behaviours but are also aware of contextual factors that influence such actions.”


The study itself, published in the journal PLOS One, quizzed 131 youngsters attending nurseries in West Yorkshire and Lancashire.


The task involved the child playing a game with a glove puppet - either ‘Tommy the Tiger’ or ‘Polly the Parrot’ - in order to win stickers. 


The child was asked to say the name of a series of objects shown on picture cards - such as a flower, ball, cat, drum or bird. 


During a practice round, and with enough prompting, each child was able to name all 12 pictures. 


The child was also told, ‘Tommy was watching while you got all of those correct, so he should know the answers, too’. 


The child then played the game again - only this time for stickers.


In the high merit condition  they named the first six picture cards and the glove puppet co-worker correctly named the remaining six.


Thus, both competent puppet and child had equally contributed in their attempt to obtain all 12 stickers.


In contrast, in the ‘low merit’ condition, the incompetent glove puppet would get its six responses all wrong. Therefore, in order to obtain the full amount of 12 stickers the child here had to rectify each mistake by correctly labelling the picture item themselves. 


When it ultimately came to the sharing of the stickers in the pot at the end, the study reports: “Children who interacted with the low-merit puppet kept a higher amount of stickers than those interacting with the high-merit puppet.”


Scores showed kids kept, on average, around 9.5 stickers for themselves when confronted by an incompetent glove puppet compared with around 7.5 stickers when working with a competent one. 


Interestingly, Dr Stack notes that girls, on the whole, tended to share more than boys, regardless of the puppet’s level of competence. 


He adds: “There’s a stereotype that preschoolers are quite selfish and egocentric and so not inclined to share.  


“But our research is interesting because it shows that young children are simply discerning in their sharing habits - and they’re far more prosocial than might have previously been thought at this early developmental period. 


“Even three year olds were able to look at the situation, and tune in to whether they’re working with someone who has a level of deserving and competence similar to their own.


“And, quite rightly, if you’re working alongside someone else to acquire a common pool of resources, and your co-worker is incompetent, you would be much less inclined to want to share equally with that person. 


“You might feel inclined to make some sort of charitable gesture but even that might be done through gritted teeth. It’s just something we’re not prone to do as human beings. 


“Imagine I set up a window cleaning business with my friend. We’ve got 20 houses to clean. I start work at 8am, while my friend waltzes in at noon and lazes around for the rest of the day. 


“Come 5pm, I’m not going to be too inclined to give him an equal share of the money earned.


“It’s important young children are learning these behaviours.”


Dr Stack says the new research builds on previous work by academics like Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, but is also thought to be the first of its type. 


And while he suspects the behaviours being displayed appear to have some evolutionary basis, the scenarios used in the research could be utilised to teach kids about working to achieve a shared goal. 


He adds: “We just need to find the conditions to create the appropriate context for children to learn, develop and demonstrate these social behaviours - the things we’re keen to see in our own children.


“Let’s create spaces where children can play alongside other children and have meaningful, rich interactions which allow them opportunities to work together, collaborate and have shared intentions - and shared successes.


“You’d argue there’s a genetic predisposition for children to work as teams and to collaborate based on the shared spoils. 


“But you then need the environmental input. 


“Without these situations being in place, you might have the seed of sharing in teams, but it’s not being fertilised. It’s not being nurtured.”


Our thanks to Liverpool Hope University



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