Tuesday, October 11, 2011

'It's Mine!' The Selfish Gene

Wall Street Journal
October 11, 2011

A 3-year-old is handed six sets of colorful stickers.

"You can keep all of them," he is told. "Or you can give some to a child you don't know. He doesn't have any stickers. Do you want to keep all of your stickers? Or do you want to give some to a child you don't know?"

That was the basic script for a study that took place recently in an Israeli playroom which doubled as a social-science laboratory. A child-care-professional-turned-researcher asked 136 children, aged 3 and 4 years old, to step one at a time into the playroom to shed light unwittingly on a hot topic in behavioral science: Are children altruistic?

It seems they are, and part of the explanation may be genetic, according to the study, published last month in the online scientific journal PLoS One. About two-thirds of the children chose to give one or more sets of stickers to an unknown recipient, described to them only as a child who had no stickers. There were no significant differences in generosity between boys and girls.

Among those who declined to share, many had something in common: a variation in a gene, known as AVPR1A, that regulates a hormone in the brain associated with social behaviors. Researchers found that this genetic variant was associated with a significant decrease in willingness to share.

Until recently, only limited research existed on altruism in children, and what it showed was younger children acting less generously. "Younger children appear to weigh costs to the self more than do older children when deciding whether to assist others and are less attuned to the benefits," says a professional guide called the Handbook of Child Psychology.

But young children all along have displayed greater levels of altruism than what most adults might expect. "If parents think that generosity isn't possible at age 2, they won't try to encourage it," says Nancy Eisenberg, an editor of the handbook and an Arizona State University psychology professor.


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