Study finds children clever helpers

Babies
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

According to a new Yale study, children as young as three years old have already learned not to blindly carry out requests.

The study is the first of its kind to show that even young kids can override direct requests in deciding the best way to help someone else achieve their goals. The researchers observed examples of such “paternalistic helping” in children who, in one example from the study, chose to give a fully functional cup when asked for a broken one to pour liquid. Although plenty of studies have been conducted on how quickly children can identify others’ goals, this is the first child paternalism study of its kind, said study lead author and Yale psychology graduate student Alia Martin.

“In order to really respond best to somebody, it’s not enough just to understand the surface meaning of their words or actions,” said Martin. “Our study forces kids to show what their abilities are and shows that kids are actually able to override obvious goals and go for that thing that actually helps the person.”

In the study’s first trial, experimenters familiarized kids with four pairs of functional and dysfunctional objects — a normal cup and a broken cup, a working marker and a dried-out marker, a real hammer and a soft toy hammer and a working cell phone and a plastic cell phone. Martin said she initially pilot tested a real apple, fake apple pairing but rejected the idea because kids often thought the fake apple was real, adding, “One kid actually bit into it.” She said they decided to work with three-year-olds because the age group is just learning how to balance external requests with internal reasoning.

A researcher then asked kids to hand over certain objects after stating one of four goals: pouring water, writing a note, putting the note on a wall and making a phone call. More than two thirds of the time, when an experimenter requested a dysfunctional object, the child handed over the functional one instead. The children’s ingenuity surprised study author and University of Washington professor of psychology Kristina Olson.

“I didn’t think kids would be able to engage in this kind of helping until they were a little older,” said Olson, who was on the Yale psychology faculty from 2008 through 2013.

In the second part of the study, researchers asked children to give them objects that would ultimately be thrown out. Martin said they wanted to rule out the possibility that the result from the first part of the study was simply a consequence of kids liking to give functional objects regardless of their purpose. The investigators found that the subjects were equally likely to give functional and dysfunctional objects.

“I’m a big fan of this research,” Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom said in an email. “It tells us something interesting and important about early kindness — that when young children help someone, it is genuinely motivated by a desire to help the other person achieve his or her ultimate goals.”

Martin is currently expanding the research to look at five-year-olds’ ability to override detrimental requests. In one study, subjects hear a request for chocolate along with a warning that giving the sweet will make the recipient sick and must decide whether or not to grant the food.

The study was conducted with 58 young children from the New Haven area.

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