Study Proves Kids Really Are Little Selfish Animals

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Remember how amazing it used to be when Oprah would buy people homes and cars and take them to Australia? Did you ever wonder how much of those actions were motivated by a studio audience cheering and praising her wildly for her generosity? Personally, I think Oprah is amazing and would donate her billions anyway – but I’m sure she loved all of the attention her extravagant generosity brought her.

It turns out that kids have an innate sense of what being charitable does for their reputations, too. They somehow understand that there are social repercussions to sharing that lollypop. A new study shows that when someone is watching, kids are more likely to share.

In a study conducted jointly by Yale University and University of Chicago, five-year-olds were presented with the option of giving away one to four stickers to a familar friend. There were two scenarios. In the first, the children could see the recipient of the stickers, and the recipient could see them as well as the number of stickers they were given. In the second, the children were given opaque containers to put the stickers they wanted to give away in – with the contents being only visible to them. Results of the study from

Children were consistently generous only when the recipient was fully aware of the donation options; in all cases in which the recipient was not aware of the donation options, children were strikingly ungenerous. These results demonstrate that five-year-olds exhibit “strategic prosociality,” behaving differentially generous as a function of the amount of information available to the recipient about their actions.

Basically, only the children who knew the recipients could see them donated the maximum amount of four stickers. If they knew they would not be “seen” they were less willing to give. What does this mean for us as a species? If five-year-olds already understand the correlation between charity and reward, and only give when being watched – does that mean that we are intrinsically selfish?

When I see my child having a tug-of-war for a toy with another child at the playground, my general reaction has been to let them work it out. I tend to feel that parents get too involved in child’s play. But this study makes me rethink that approach a little. It seems it is never to early to teach a toddler about sharing and generosity – especially if this study is true and children are just not naturally inclined to act selflessly.

Maybe kids really are selfish little animals. But they are learning that behavior somewhere, right?

(photo: Cheryl Casey/