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Mental Health - Pediatrics and Child Health

Young Children Are More Generous When Others Are Aware of Their Actions
Published: Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Author: Kristin L. Leimgruber et al.

by Kristin L. Leimgruber, Alex Shaw, Laurie R. Santos, Kristina R. Olson

Adults frequently employ reputation-enhancing strategies when engaging in prosocial acts, behaving more generously when their actions are likely to be witnessed by others and even more so when the extent of their generosity is made public. This study examined the developmental origins of sensitivity to cues associated with reputationally motivated prosociality by presenting five-year-olds with the option to provide one or four stickers to a familiar peer recipient at no cost to themselves. We systematically manipulated the recipient’s knowledge of the actor’s choices in two different ways: (1) occluding the recipient’s view of both the actor and the allocation options and (2) presenting allocations in opaque containers whose contents were visible only to the actor. 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. These findings suggest that long before they develop a rich understanding of the social significance of reputation or are conscious of complex strategic reasoning, children behave more generously when the details of their prosocial actions are available to others.