Psychologist and lead researcher Jonas Miller of the University of California – Davis, said, “The findings provide us with a new understanding of how children’s altruistic behaviours, family wealth, and physiological health are intertwined.”
Past studies have shown a link between altruism (defined as giving at a personal cost) and better physical and psychological health, what we might call happiness, in adults. The purpose of the research was to see how children’s bodies react during altruistic acts. It also looked into how altruism is linked to family wealth.
In the study, 74 pre-school participants, an average 4 years in age, individually played a game with a researcher. They were told that during the game they could earn tokens which they could exchange for prizes later. After the game the children were asked whether they were willing to donate some or all their tokens to (nonexistent) sick children who were not able to attend the event.
The researchers used sensors attached to each child to measure physiological data such as heart rate and vagal tone. Vagal tone is a measure of the activity of the vagus nerve, which connects the brain with other organs. The higher the vagal tone, the more it indicates that the person is feeling safe and calm. High vagal tone indicates better health, behaviour, and social skills in children.
Children who donated tokens showed a more positive nervous-system response at the end of the session.
“We usually think of altruism as coming at a cost to the giver, but our findings suggest that when children forgo self-gain to help people who are less fortunate, they may get something back in the form of higher vagal tone,” Miller explains. “It means we might be wired from a young age to derive a sense of safety from providing care for others.”
Researchers also examined the link between family socioeconomic status (SES) and the giving away of tokens. The families of the participants were in the middle- to upper-middle income range. The data showed that kids who had more wealthy families tended to donate less tokens than those from families who were not considered wealthy.
“This implies that certain aspects of high-SES culture that have been observed in adults, such as increased self-focus and decreased social sensitivity, might be present in children as young as four years of age,” says Miller.
While the study doesn’t say money doesn’t bring happiness, it does indicate that giving it way makes people as young as 4 years feel better.
“Our findings suggest that fostering altruistic tendencies might be one path to promoting better health and well-being for all children,” Miller concluded.
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The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.