What makes kids generous? Neuroscience has some answers

December 18, 2014

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 appearing in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on December 18, 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

Related Brain Activity Articles from Brightsurf:

Inhibiting epileptic activity in the brain
A new study shows that a protein -- called DUSP4 -- was increased in healthy brain tissue directly adjacent to epileptic tissue.

What is your attitude towards a humanoid robot? Your brain activity can tell us!
Researchers at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy found that people's bias towards robots, that is, attributing them intentionality or considering them as 'mindless things', can be correlated with distinct brain activity patterns.

Using personal frequency to control brain activity
Individual frequency can be used to specifically influence certain areas of the brain and thus the abilities processed in them - solely by electrical stimulation on the scalp, without any surgical intervention.

Rats' brain activity reveals their alcohol preference
The brain's response to alcohol varies based on individual preferences, according to new research in rats published in eNeuro.

Studies of brain activity aren't as useful as scientists thought
Hundreds of published studies over the last decade have claimed it's possible to predict an individual's patterns of thoughts and feelings by scanning their brain in an MRI machine as they perform some mental tasks.

A child's brain activity reveals their memory ability
A child's unique brain activity reveals how good their memories are, according to research recently published in JNeurosci.

How dopamine drives brain activity
Using a specialized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sensor that can track dopamine levels, MIT neuroscientists have discovered how dopamine released deep within the brain influences distant brain regions.

Brain activity intensity drives need for sleep
The intensity of brain activity during the day, notwithstanding how long we've been awake, appears to increase our need for sleep, according to a new UCL study in zebrafish, published in Neuron.

Do babies like yawning? Evidence from brain activity
Contagious yawning is observed in many mammals, but there is no such report in human babies.

Understanding brain activity when you name what you see
Using complex statistical methods and fast measurement techniques, researchers found how the brain network comes up with the right word and enables us to say it.

Read More: Brain Activity News and Brain Activity Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.