Are children hardwired to be selfish or to share?

According to a study, children aged 7 and 8 are inclined to share while younger children aged 3 and 4 are more selfish in this regard.

 According to a study, older children aged seven or eight are naturally inclined to share.

Did you know that children between the ages of seven and eight years old naturally express an aversion to inequality? In short, they want to share.

What the study showed

New research involving 229 Swiss children between the ages of three and eight revealed some surprising findings. The children were asked to take part in three different games. In each game, the child was confronted with two options as to how to distribute portions of jelly beans and other small sweets. He or she was faced with another kid, shown only in a photo to avoid complications arising from face-to-face encounters. One of the options was the same in all three games: divide the sweets equally.

  • In the first game, the child had the alternate option of keeping a single portion of sweets for himself and giving nothing to the other child.
  • In the second, more sweets were added, and the child had the option of giving the other child two portions and keeping one.
  • In the third game, the child had the choice of taking two portions and leaving the other child empty-handed.

Results by age group

Lead researcher, Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich, said the three and four-year-olds were consistently motivated by self-interest, with almost no regard for the well-being of the other child. The next age bracket (five to six-year-olds) was almost as selfish. However, the third age bracket showed a sense of – and understanding of – fairness and equality.

“If we look at the seven to eight-year-olds, a different picture emerges,” Fehr said.

In the first game, nearly 80 percent of the older kids made sure the other child got the same amount of sweets rather than none at all. And in the last game, more than 40 percent of them refused to let the other go away with nothing even when they had the opportunity of gaining a double portion by doing so. By comparison, less than nine percent of three and four-year-olds were willing to do the same.

Generosity is not without its limits

But generosity had its limits. In the second game, the older children were reluctant to let their counterparts have twice as many as themselves. Fehr said the results suggest that “nature and nurture” jointly shaped behavioural responses, although the study was not designed to calculate the share of each influence.

“I think that both genes and culture play a role,” Fehr said. The results, he added, suggest that “social norms of equality can come into being even without extended forms of cultural transmission.”

Children without siblings are “more generous”

“Nobody would dispute that the sexual maturation of children is driven by biology and genes, so why should other phenotypes — like those associated with fairness behaviour — not also be driven by biology and genes?”, Fehr asked rhetorically. At least one result was unexpected, said Fehr: children with no siblings were more, rather than less, generous.