Science-- there's something for everyone

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Three year olds choose to share

If you are the parent of young children, this finding may surprise you. When left to their own devices, three-year-olds who cooperated to acquire prizes willingly shared those prizes. So says a new study by Felix Warneken of Harvard University and his colleagues from the University of Göttingen and from the Max Planck Institute.

The researchers put a pile of treasures (gummy bears, stickers etc.) inside a transparent box that was placed on a wheeled board. The box, which contained either one or two child-hand sized windows, was placed out of reach. However, the board was attached to a rope that could be used to pull the box within reach. The catch was that the board was too heavy for a single child to pull. Only if two three-year-olds worked together could they pull the box close enough to reach the prizes through the windows. Once the bounty was within range, the children almost always divided the spoils more or less equally. This was true even if there was only one window and only one child could pull out all the goodies. There was virtually no conflict, and in fact, sometimes one child would insist that the other take his share.

This kind of sharing was thought to be possible only for children over six years old. Even the authors were surprised to find that three-year-olds could share so willingly. To be clear, the children only shared the prizes with those who had cooperated with them to get those items. This does not necessarily translate to be willing to share toys with peers who have no claim on them. Still, it's a nice result.