What makes kids and adolescents share: sympathy or respect?

Sharing is caring, but what makes young kids and adolescents share? A paper published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology suggests that children who sometimes lack sympathy for others are more likely to share resources with those friends if they respect their morals.

From the press release:

The study, undertaken by Antonio Zuffianò and colleagues from the University of Toronto, sought to explore the reciprocal relations of sympathy and respect in promoting sharing among children and adolescents.

Antonio explained: “Previous research suggests that moral feelings may motivate children to help others. However, as much of this work has focused on the role of sympathy alone, we explored the combined role of children’s respect for moral others and sympathy in relation to sharing.” Two groups of children aged seven years old (84) and 15 years old (62) participated in the dictator game. This involved each child having six chocolate coins that they could share or not share with an anonymous, hypothetical child of the same age and gender. Participants were also asked to indicate how much respect they felt towards hypothetical children portrayed in stories as being fair, prosocial, socially inclusive, and non-aggressive towards others.

The children were tested in a designated room while their caregiver completed a questionnaire regarding their child’s ability to share with others and feel sympathy for those in need. Analyses showed that children who demonstrated low levels of sympathy were more likely to share their resources with a hypothetical child when they felt respect towards moral peers. Antonio said: “This appears to set the stage for a compensatory relationship in children’s sharing of valuable resources. In other words, the present findings suggest that unique, positive feelings of respect towards moral others may compensate for a lack of sympathetic concern when sharing resources.”

“Children and adolescents are routinely faced with an array of multifaceted social situations involving conflicting moral and amoral concerns. Providing them with an equally diverse toolbox of moral emotions, such as sympathy and feelings of respect, may help them navigate towards prosocial solutions, even in the event that sympathy for others is lacking.”

Abstract of the study:

We examined links between sharing, respect for moral others, and sympathy in an ethnically diverse sample of 7- and 15-year-olds (= 146). Sharing was assessed through children’s allocation of resources in the dictator game. Children reported their respect towards hypothetical characters performing moral acts. Sympathy was evaluated via caregiver and child reports. Respect and caregiver-reported sympathy interacted in predicting sharing: Higher levels of respect were associated with higher levels of sharing for children with low, but not medium or high, levels of sympathy. The motivational components of other-oriented respect may compensate for low levels of sympathetic concern in the promotion of sharing.

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