Media Releases

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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