A go-to tactic for many parents when trying to get their children to examine their own behaviour is to ask them to put themselves in the shoes of others.
The results of a recent psychological study show that approach is pretty effective.
A joint study between Dalhousie University Dean of science Chris Moore and Markus Paulus of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat in Munich, published in the journal Social Development, shows that children as young as three can anticipate negative feelings in others and adjust their own behaviour in response.
In the study, children aged three to six were divided into three groups. One group was asked to think about how they feel when someone shares with them or not, and the second was asked about their feelings and about how someone else might feel in the same situation. The third group, the control, was not asked about emotions.
The children were then asked to perform an experimental task in which they were given the option to share stickers with a fictional child.
In the end, children who were encouraged to spend time thinking about their feelings and the feelings of others were more likely to share than the control group.
“If you think about how parents encourage pro-social behaviour with their kids, they’ll often say things like ‘How do you think Jenny felt when you did that?’ That’s actually a pretty good strategy,” Moore said.
“Perspective taking becomes very important.”
The study was an extension of social development research that has been taking place at Dalhousie under Moore, a developmental psychology expert, for the last 20 years. Using simple sharing experiments, Moore has been trying to get a larger picture of what factors influence what’s referred to as pro-social behaviour in children.
“We’re primarily interested in the development of social behaviour and social understanding, so how young children develop the ability to interact with other people in socially appropriate ways and how they understand other people,” Moore said.
Inside Dalhousie’s Life Sciences Centre, a room filled with toys, books and games sits amid corridors of offices and classrooms, bright decals in the hallways contrasting with the drab white walls. It’s the waiting area for kids that come through for testing, Moore said.
In the experiment room, there’s more of the same; a child-sized table with matching chairs sits in the middle.
Though the experiments differ depending on what Moore and his colleagues are studying, the basic task stays consistent.
A child is given a laminated piece of construction paper divided into two columns, each topped with a stick figure, one side representing them and the other a sharing partner. The child is then asked to distribute the resources — always stickers — with the partner however they choose.
In one experiment, the child is asked to think of their best friend and someone they know but aren’t friends with. They are then given the option to share their stickers with both. More often than not, Moore said, the child will share with a friend more than someone they don’t like or a stranger.
“What’s interesting is it’s unlikely they would have acquired that pattern of preferential behaviour from parenting because parents don’t tell children to treat people differently, and yet they still do it,” Moore said.
In another study, a child is shown a video of a little girl who is distraught because she recently lost her dog and another video of a child who is not sad, then asked to share with each. That experiment showed children are more likely to share with the sad child, suggesting that feeling empathy for someone has an effect on pro-social behaviour.
Other experiments show children can be more likely to share with a partner who has similar interests, and envy also plays a role.
The German study showed that thinking about emotions, not just feeling them, also influences sharing behaviour.
“The general point is you can affect children’s pro-social behaviour, how generous they are, by manipulating a number of things,” Moore said.
Moore said plenty of research has been completed, but there hasn’t been a lot looking at factors that influence responses.
He said getting a more complete picture of how these complex thought processes work could be helpful in determining how to encourage pro-social behaviour.
“If we can understand these kinds of things then potentially we can support that in terms of how we parent and how we educate kids.”
This article first appeared in http://thechronicleherald.ca/.