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Choice Promotes Sharing in Preschoolers

Update Date: Aug 19, 2013 07:44 AM EDT

Coaxing kids to share can be hard, but a new study reveals that giving children a choice to sacrifice their own toys in order to share with someone else makes them more likely to share in the future.

Psychological scientists Nadia Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir of Cornell University explains that helping children think of themselves as individuals who like to share makes them more likely to act in a prosocial manner.

Researchers say that sharing when given a difficult choice helps children see themselves in a new, more charitable light, whereas rewarding children for sharing can backfire. This "over-justification effect" makes children perceive themselves as people who don't like to share since they had to be rewarded for doing so, and because they don't perceive themselves as "sharers," they are less likely to share in the future.

In the latest study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers wanted to see whether freely chosen sacrifice might have the opposite effect on childrens' willingness to share.

"Making difficult choices allows children to infer something important about themselves: In making choices that aren't necessarily easy, children might be able to infer their own prosociality," researchers wrote.

In the study, researchers introduced three to 5-year-old children to a puppet named Doggie who was feeling sad. The children were split into three groups.  The first group had a choice to share a precious sticker with 'Doggie', or keep it for themselves. The second group were given a choice between sharing and putting the sticker away, while children in a third group were required to share.

Afterwards, the children were introduced to another sad puppet named 'Ellie'. All children were given the choice of how many stickers to share (up to three).  Researchers found that the children in the first group, who earlier made the difficult choice to share with 'Doggie', shared more stickers with 'Ellie'.  In contrast, children in the second and third group shared fewer stickers with 'Ellie'.

"You might imagine that making difficult, costly choices is taxing for young children or even that once children share, they don't feel the need to do so again," Chernyak said in a news release. "But this wasn't the case: Once children made a difficult decision to give up something for someone else, they were more generous, not less, later on."

Another experiment revealed that children are more generous after choosing to share valuable toy frogs compared to non-valuable ripped pieces of paper.  Kids who initially shared the frogs with 'Doggie' shared more stickers with 'Ellie' later on.  However, those who readily shared the torn pieces of paper shared fewer stickers with 'Ellie'. Researchers said this proves that children didn't benefit from simply choosing to give something up, but rather from willingly choosing to give something up of value.

"Given the high amount of emphasis we place on choice during early childhood, especially in this culture, it is important to delineate specifically what choice might do - and not do - for young children," Chernyak said.

"Children are frequently taught to share, be polite, and be kind to others. In order to bring us closer to one day figuring out how to best teach children these skills, it is important to figure out which factors may aid in young children's sharing behavior," she explained.

"Allowing children to make difficult choices may influence their sharing behavior by teaching them greater lessons about their abilities, preferences, and intentions towards others," Chernyak concluded.

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