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Study: As of age 8, children demonstrate influence of social norms when choosing between selfishness and generosity

Findings of international study including Freie Universität published in “Nature Human Behaviour”

№ 277/2019 from Sep 24, 2019

According to a recent study, children at the age of eight are influenced by social norms when choosing between selfishness and generosity. In a large-scale study involving researchers at Freie Universität Berlin, eight different communities around the world were examined to find out how children and adults make decisions when they can share rewards. Teams of researchers from the United States, Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Germany worked together. At Freie Universität Dr. Patricia Kanngießer and Süheyla Yilmaz, both at the Department of Education and Psychology, were involved. As a Freigeist Fellow of the Volkswagen Foundation, Patricia Kanngießer has been heading a research group on cross-cultural developmental psychology since 2016.

At first, the researchers examined the sharing behavior of adults in the eight communities. Next, they looked at how children in the same communities shared rewards. The children were given a choice between a generous and a selfish distribution of reward. In the selfish distribution, the child received two rewards and another child – unknown to the first child – got nothing. In the generous distribution, the two children each received a reward.

Children under seven generally chose two rewards for themselves. Between the ages of eight and twelve, children in some of the communities increasingly opted for generosity. These children began to behave more like adults in their society. At the same age, children in all the communities began to respond more to social norms. They often chose the generous distribution, when they had previously viewed a video demonstrating that the generous distribution was “right.” After being shown a video indicating that “self-interest” was “right,” they were likely to behave selfishly.

The findings indicate that across cultures, children in middle childhood – i.e., between the ages of seven and ten – are particularly susceptible to culture-specific norms and their behavior becomes increasingly similar to adult behavior. These social learning processes are probably responsible for the differences in different sharing behavior in different communities. According to Dr. Kanngießer, “The study can help us to better understand how psychological developmental processes and cultural environments interact and generate diversity in cooperative behavior.”

The investigation was conducted in eight different groups in urban areas in Germany, the US, Argentina, and India and in rural communities in Ecuador, Vanuatu, Argentina, and Tanzania. Dr. Bailey House at the University of York (UK) led the project.

Further Information


House, R. B., Kanngiesser, P., Barrett, H. C., Broesch, T., Cebioglu, S., Crittenden, A., Erut, A., Lew-Levy, S., Sebastian-Enesco, C., Smith, A., Yilmaz, S., Silk, J. (2019). Universal norm psychology leads to societal diversity in prosocial behavior and development. Nature Human Behaviour


DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0734-z

More Information and Interview Requests

Dr. Patricia Kanngießer, Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838-59554, Email: patricia.kanngiesser@fu-berlin.de