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Disasters can prompt older children to be more giving, younger children to be more selfish

January 30, 2013

Growth of empathy as children develop seems to be the reason

TORONTO, ON – A natural disaster can bring out the best in older children, prompting nine-year-olds to be more willing to share, while six-year-olds become more selfish, researchers at the University of Toronto, the University of Chicago, and Liaoning Normal University found in a rare natural experiment in China around the time of a horrific earthquake.

A crucial difference between the two age groups emerged one month after the disaster.  Six-year-olds’ willingness to share in a test to measure altruism, dropped by a third, while among nine-year-olds, willingness to give to others nearly tripled.  Three years later children in the age groups returned to pre-earthquake levels of altruism.

“The study provides the first evidence to suggest that experiencing a natural disaster affects children’s altruistic giving significantly,” said Kang Lee, University Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto.

Six-year-olds opted for self-preservation, whereas nine-year olds opted for enhanced altruism, the study showed.  “The immediate negative effect of the earthquake on six –year-olds suggests that altruism at that age is still fragile,” Lee said.

“We think that empathy is the intervening variable,” said Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at UChicago, a member of the research team.  The study demonstrates the developmental differences in the growth of empathy, Decety explained.

As children grow up, their prefrontal cortexes mature with improved connections among the circuits involved with emotion. “As they grow older, children become able to better regulate their own vicarious emotions and understand better what they feel and more included to act pro-socially.

“Even with the group of nine-year-olds, we show that not only are they more altruistic and give more than the six-year-olds, but those nine-year olds with higher empathy scores donated significantly more than nine-year-olds with lower scores,” Decety added.

The study will be published in a paper “Experiencing a Natural Disaster Alters Children’s Altruistic Giving,” in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.  Lee, who is a professor at the Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, was lead author. Two Chinese academics, Drs. Hong Li and Yiyuan Li from Liaoning Normal University were also part of the team.

Researchers had already been in Sichuan, China in 2008 beginning a study of empathy and altruism among children and finished the first portion of its study when an earthquake struck in May. The earthquake killed 87,000 people.

The team immediately decided to change the course of the study and explore what the experience of a disaster might mean to the children’s concern for others.

In the study, the team tested children’s altruism by having them individually pick 10 favorite stickers from a set of 100.  Afterwards they were told some of their classmates were not included in the test and asked if they would give up some of the stickers for them to enjoy.

Without the researcher watching, children would put stickers into an envelope and seal it if they wanted to share. The amount of stickers they chose to give up was determined to be a measure of altruism.

The children were also given a standard test of empathy in which they were asked their reactions after seeing animated vignettes of people who are injured. Nine-year-olds had significantly higher scores on empathy on the test than six-year-olds.

Although there was a significant impact on altruism one month after the disaster, the study showed that groups of six-year-olds and nine-year-olds had similar levels of altruism in follow up tests three years after the disaster as did similar six-year-olds and nine-year-olds immediately before the earthquake.

“Experience with adversity, though generally having negative impacts on children, may in fact be beneficial, at least for older children, in evoking empathy towards and others and in turn enhancing their altruistic giving, albeit temporarily,” the authors write.

The research was supported by the John Templeton Foundation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Chinese National Science Foundation.


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