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

January 30, 2013 by William Harms
In early 2008, Profs. Jean Decety, Kang Lee and Hong Li were in Sichuan, China, working on a study on empathy and altruism among children and had completed the first portion of it. In May 2008, an earthquake struck the region and killed 87,000 people. The team immediately decided to change the course of their study and explore what the experience of a disaster might mean to the children’s concern for others. Credit: Hong Li, Jean Decety, Kang Lee

(Medical Xpress)—A natural disaster can bring out the best in older children, prompting 9-year-olds to be more willing to share, while 6-year-olds become more selfish. Researchers at the University of Toronto, the University of Chicago, and Liaoning Normal University made this finding in a rare natural experiment in China around the time of a horrific earthquake.

A crucial difference between the two emerged one month after the disaster. The 6-year-olds' willingness to share in a test measuring dropped by a third, while among 9-year-olds, willingness to give to others nearly tripled. Three years later, children in the age groups returned to pre- 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.

"The immediate negative effect of the earthquake on 6–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 and at the University of Chicago, a member of the research team and a study co-author. 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 they are more inclined to act pro-socially," said Decety.

"Even with the group of 9-year-olds, we show that not only are they more altruistic and give more than the 6-year-olds, but those 9-year olds with higher empathy scores donated significantly more than 9-year-olds with lower scores," Decety added.

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

In early 2008, the researchers were in Sichuan, China, working on a study on empathy and altruism among children and had completed the first portion of it. In May 2008, an earthquake struck the region and killed 87,000 people.

The team immediately decided to change the course of their 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. Afterward, 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 also were given a standard test of empathy, which gauged their reactions to seeing animated vignettes of people who are injured. Nine-year-olds had significantly higher scores on empathy on the test than 6-year-olds.

Although there was a significant impact on altruism one month after the disaster, the study showed that groups of 6-year-olds and 9-year-olds had similar levels of altruism in follow-up tests three years after the disaster—equivalent to the levels observed among 6-year-olds and 9-year-olds immediately before the earthquake.

"Experience with adversity, though generally having negative impacts on children, may in fact be beneficial, at least for , in evoking toward others and in turn enhancing their altruistic giving, albeit temporarily," said Hong Li, also a lead author of the paper.

Explore further: 5 year olds are generous only when they're watched

Related Stories

5 year olds are generous only when they're watched

October 31, 2012
Children as young as five are generous when others are aware of their actions, but antisocial when sharing with a recipient who can't see them, according to research published Oct. 31 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by ...

Four-year-olds know that being right is not enough

August 18, 2011
As they grow, children learn a lot about the world from what other people tell them. Along the way, they have to figure out who is a reliable source of information. A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue ...

Children find human-made objects more likely to be owned than natural objects

October 6, 2011
Children as young as 3 are likely to say that things made by humans have owners, but that natural objects, such as pine cones and sea shells, are not owned, according to a new study published by the American Psychological ...

Recommended for you

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

Precision medicine opens the door to scientific wellness preventive approaches to suicide

August 15, 2017
Researchers have developed a more precise way of diagnosing suicide risk, by developing blood tests that work in everybody, as well as more personalized blood tests for different subtypes of suicidality that they have newly ...

US antidepressant use jumps 65 percent in 15 years

August 15, 2017
(HealthDay)—The number of Americans who say they've taken an antidepressant over the past month rose by 65 percent between 1999 and 2014, a new government survey finds.

Child's home learning environment predicts 5th grade academic skills

August 15, 2017
Children whose parents provide them with learning materials like books and toys and engage them in learning activities and meaningful conversations in infancy and toddlerhood are likely to develop early cognitive skills that ...

Obesity and depression are entwined, yet scientists don't know why

August 15, 2017
About 15 years ago, Dr. Sue McElroy, a psychiatrist in Mason, Ohio, started noticing a pattern. People came to see her because they were depressed, but they frequently had a more visible ailment as well: They were heavy.

Givers really are happier than takers

August 15, 2017
(HealthDay)—Generosity really is its own reward, with the brain seemingly hardwired for happiness in response to giving, new research suggests.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.