Humans have evolved to find prosocial behaviour rewarding, studies find.

Humans have evolved to find prosocial behaviour rewarding, studies find.

A Canadian study has debunked the popular myth that toddlers are inherently selfish, finding that young children, even those under the age of two, are happy when giving to others – and that their happiness increases when giving involves personal sacrifice.

The study, which involved children interacting and sharing toys and treats with puppets, also found that children are happier when giving, rather than receiving.

We want to praise sharing and prosocial behaviour. Bribing children - or worse, using threats - does not achieve anything 

The co-authors of the study, three psychologists at the University of British Columbia, explained that although parents may try to teach children to help and share from a young age, even toddlers are naturally inclined to exhibit prosocial behaviour – that is, behaviour intended to benefit another, without  the promise of external rewards.

“While the role of socialisation can almost never be completely ruled out, the results support the argument that humans have evolved to find prosocial behaviour rewarding,” they wrote.  

The authors also explained that previous research has shown that external reinforcement of prosocial behaviour – giving rewards as ‘prizes’ for sharing – can actually undermine future prosocial acts, both immediately and later in childhood.

Registered psychologist Beulah Warren has over 30 years of experience working with infants and their families, and says that when considering external reinforcement, it’s important to recognise the difference between tangible rewards and external praise.

“We want to praise sharing and prosocial behaviour,” Warren says. “Bribing children – or worse, using threats – does not achieve anything.”

Warren says it’s also important to recognise when children are on their way to achieving social goals. If a child is displaying prosocial behaviours, such as sharing or taking turns, it’s a good opportunity to acknowledge their actions and encourage them to develop further.

“If they get close to what we’re asking then we can guide them further towards the goal,” she says.

The key, Warren says, is focusing on the behaviour, not the child: “We need to express that we love the child no matter what, and that our issue – positive or negative – is with the actual behaviour they are displaying.”

While praise is an important part of guiding social behaviour, Warren says the number one thing is parents’ modelling of respectful behaviour.

“Positive responses from other children and their own positive feelings are great, but ultimately [the parents] are responsible for their socialisation,” she says.

Early childhood teacher Georgina Brito says that being explicit with statements helps encourage positive social interactions. “Making a statement like ‘good sharing’ rather than ‘good girl’ helps them know exactly what behaviour is being praised,” she says.

And while there are certainly situations that require adult intervention, Brito says this can be handled in a positive and supportive way.

“Simple things like redirecting to other activities, negotiating situations and social discussions are important. Carers can also model positive social behaviour by getting involved with games to demonstrate sharing and taking turns.”

Warren also suggests using games at home to help demonstrate fairness, such as playing pass the parcel at birthday parties, where each child receives a turn.

A degree of control and ownership is also vital for children; respecting children’s rights and allowing them to consider what they’ll be willing to share in advance, whether that be with siblings or visitors, helps set boundaries before tricky situations can arise.

“Help children decide what they are willing to share,” she suggests. “We wouldn’t like people to come in and touch everything we own, so it’s unfair to expect that of children.”

Building a sense of working with others, rather than against them, is also essential in developing social attitudes. Warren says reminding children that you’re a team and are there to support each other is a great way for children to understand and develop positive relationships.

For those interested in learning more, psychologist Beulah Warren highly recommends parents read The Emotional Life of the Toddler, by Alicia Lieberman.