This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

← Why Children Like to Share

Why Children Like to Share - Comments

GordonYKWong's Avatar Comment 1 by GordonYKWong

The Fehr study differs from prior studies of inequality aversion in children by scrupulously preventing such an interpretation. They made all behaviors anonymous so children could never identify their partners, and therefore could not sacrifice in hopes of gaining in the future.
It doesn't imply that their behavior is not rooted in self interest. It could be a mis-firing of instinct. Or they may think that their "reputation" is inhanced by their behaviour.

Tue, 28 Oct 2008 20:08:00 UTC | #259871

Titania's Avatar Comment 2 by Titania

Proof that DP is an evolutionary anomaly.

Tue, 28 Oct 2008 20:17:00 UTC | #259872

LeeC's Avatar Comment 3 by LeeC

Why Children Like to Share

... because parents have told them from an early age that is what they should do[question mark]

A two year old does not want to share their toys - they are told to do so and praised when they do.

By sharing, they are praised.

Just a thought


Tue, 28 Oct 2008 20:28:00 UTC | #259878

Christopher Davis's Avatar Comment 4 by Christopher Davis

As kids get older, they learn that sharing is a good other words it's a socially reinforced behavior (the article mentions this).

Just confirms my suspicion that humans aren't so much selfish as they are status-seeking. Sharing, to a certain degree, enhances social least among one's group. Which of course dovetails wonderfully with the results that inequality-reduction was more prevalent within one's own group.

There is no such thing as conspicious altruism.

Tue, 28 Oct 2008 20:34:00 UTC | #259881

Ubiquitous Che's Avatar Comment 5 by Ubiquitous Che

#4: Christopher Davis: "There is no such thing as conspicious altruism."

Actually, I'm not too sure about that.

I'm not qualified to say this with certainty, but I think there's an evolutionary argument to be made for why we could have the capacity for genuine altruistic feeling.

Basically, skill in deceit is one of the greatest natural weapons ever evolved in the animal kingdom. Much in deception can be learned through trial and error - but to be really good, it helps if the deceiver can get inside the head of the deceived, see the world from their perspective, think what they're thinking, feel what they're feeling.

So once you can see things from someone else's perspective, all of your 'selfish' cognitive equipment can easily misfire and respond to the perceived plight of the other on similar terms as if it were the plight of the self.

So just to repeat myself - I can't claim this kind of thing with any degree of authority or credibility. I haven't the expertise for that. But I can say that there is an argument to be made for how altruism could have wormed its way into humans without being specifically selected for by the environment. It's just the same thing that makes us such skillful liars and manipulators also forms the basis of compassion and altruism. The same knife can be used to prepare a salad just as easily as it can be used to murder, after all.

Tue, 28 Oct 2008 21:11:00 UTC | #259890

moderndaythomas's Avatar Comment 6 by moderndaythomas

their "reputation" is inhanced by their behaviour

Their reputation? These are kids we're talking about. A four year old is not concerned with image.
I personally don't know what to make of this study though.
I'm all too familiar with kids, as my domesticated automobile will tell you, and they do indeed have an over baring self interest in getting what another has that they don't.
But why?
A throw back from an earlier age of survival while at a tender and fragile stage perhaps.
It would be absolutely essential to obtain enough nutrition to make it beyond a vulnerably infant/toddler age...and this may explain the seemingly strict human characteristic resultant from an early child birth due to cranial size.
Enter natural selection.

Tue, 28 Oct 2008 21:27:00 UTC | #259894

Christopher Davis's Avatar Comment 7 by Christopher Davis


The point I meant to convey by the use of the term "conspicious altruism" is that if a person is overly concerned about people knowing of their good deeds, then it could very easily be argued that what they stand to gain (status, feelings of self-worth and goodness) offset any sacrifice they are making...thereby casting doubt on whether or not their actions are truly altruistic.

Tue, 28 Oct 2008 22:03:00 UTC | #259905

GordonYKWong's Avatar Comment 8 by GordonYKWong


Perhaps I could have worded it better, but the "reputation" I am refering to is the one refered to by the article:

Although it's now generally recognized that children are inequality averse, one experimental difficulty has been separating out strategic behavior, such as reputation building, from true preferences for sharing.
I don't know if 4yo kids are concerned with image but I wouldn't rule against some kids wanting to (or appearing to) be the "good boy/girl" vs. the "spoilt little brat"

BTW, I was always curious about your handle, are u a modern day Paine or modern day Edison? or a modern day tank engine? Just curious ;-)

Tue, 28 Oct 2008 22:20:00 UTC | #259913

godskesen's Avatar Comment 9 by godskesen

5. Comment #273542 by Ubiquitous Che:
"I'm not qualified to say this with certainty, but I think there's an evolutionary argument to be made for why we could have the capacity for genuine altruistic feeling."

There is. If I'm not mistaken it was most convincingly presented by Herbert Gintis et al. in 2003*. The authors call it ‘Strong Altruism’. It's meant to supplement ‘Reciprocal Altruism’ and ‘Kin Altruism’. It’s based on a game theoretical setup so anyone who wants to understand it may need to brush up on the relevant chapters in (for instance) The Selfish Gene.

The gist of the argument goes that people have psychological adaptations in the form of an emotional system that produces anger (and thus a motivation to punish in ways that impact cheater's inclusive fitness negatively) when cheaters are detected in social contract interactions. Since these adaptations for cheater detection and punishment are well developed in humans the costs of cheating begin to outweigh the benefits in many situations. This means that other adaptations for genuine (or strong) altruistic motivation because at least as evolutionarily adaptive as a Tit-for-Tat-type strategy (“start with cooperation and punish cheaters but be quick to forgive”).
‘Inequality Aversion’ (as the present article calls it) in children could be a expression of the same psychological adaptation.

This new piece of research is important because it uses children for subjects instead of adult (as Gintis et al. did – indeed I just noticed that the new research was headed by Ernst Fehr who also contributed to the 2003 piece).

There is however a counter-argument to be made for ‘Reputation Management’ over Strong Altruism but the ‘Misfiring Instinct’-explanation (as GordonYKwong terms it) isn’t it, I think. The experimental setup is highly contrived – anonymous social contract interaction was not something our ancestors would ever encounter – and thus completely lacking ecological validity. The Misfiring Instinct-interpretation is actually consistent with Strong Altruism since the misfiring of instincts is to be expected when people are put in evolutionarily novel situations. This research of course assumes genetic selfishness on behalf of the children but that doesn’t imply that the children aren’t being personally motivated to altruistic cooperation (even towards non-kin and past non-reciprocators).
Also, the Nurture-argument (made by LeeC) that children are praised for sharing is sort of difficult to make since there probably are many brain circuits that are not developed at birth. It could be that circuits for Strong Altruism are only just reaching maturity around age four. The objection that upbringing plays a role isn’t refuted by this. I think the relevant question is whether children really wish for cooperative relationships with others independently of how they’re raised.

I am not claiming that this piece of research settles the question once and for all. There’s a lot of work to be done. You all make valid points however. And I hope that my comment isn’t made unreadable by Evolutionary Psychology-jargon.

* Gintis, H., Bowles, S., Boyd, R. & Fehr, E. (2003). Explaining altruistic behavior in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, pp. 153-172.

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 01:38:00 UTC | #259958

ColdFusionLazarus's Avatar Comment 10 by ColdFusionLazarus

Inequality averse[questmark]

That's God's programming isn't it[questmark]

I'll get me coat, and read the article properly later.

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 01:52:00 UTC | #259964

Cluebot's Avatar Comment 11 by Cluebot

Interesting research, but really... is there anything here that doesn't fit with the neo-Darwinian model? It seems to me the story this journalist presents in the opening paragraphs is a travesty. That we may have hardwired neurological mechanisms to recognise the difference between fairness and inequality, bond with fair agents and shun cheaters should come as no great surprise to anyone who's actually read Richard's books.

What exactly is "bleak" about the idea our goodness came into being because these traits are stable evolutionary maxima in social species? That we prosper by being good seems anything but bleak to me. 30 years on and the title of "The Selfish Gene" is still being misunderstood...

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 02:29:00 UTC | #259976

Ishruul's Avatar Comment 13 by Ishruul

Scratch my back, I'll scratch yours! Isn't that the whole idea of 'Nice guy finish first''

Sharing is cooperation after all.

Edit- And is it me or Richard Dawkins is misquoted (redundant) about the Selfish gene'

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 05:23:00 UTC | #260020

mco35's Avatar Comment 14 by mco35

One simple equation: rB>C

Hamilton's rule.'s_rule


The Origins of Virtue - Matt Ridley

Moral Minds, How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong - Marc Hauser


Wed, 29 Oct 2008 05:35:00 UTC | #260021

Serdan's Avatar Comment 15 by Serdan

What's so great about True Altruism™?

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 05:42:00 UTC | #260022

TalkyMeat's Avatar Comment 16 by TalkyMeat

I had always understood the Selfish Gene Theory to mean that in biological evolution, selection pressures always ultimately concern the replicative success or failure of genes, and only indirectly the success or failure of individuals, families or species. A genetic variant at time t that causes there to be proportionately more bearers of the variant compared to non-bearers at time t than t-1 will be subject to a positive selection pressure, irrespective of whether the variant's phenotypic manifestation in the bearer benefits the bearer directly. I took it that the Selfish Gene Theory was formulated as a way of explaining how traits that do not benefit the bearer directly, such as altruism, could evolve. It never fails to cause me to facepalm when I hear some instance of evolved traits that are "unselfish" on the level of the individual organism proudly declared (usually by a journalist rather than an actual scientist) to be a nail in the coffin of the selfish gene.

On the other side, it worries me how much of an easy ride those who like to argue against the possibility of genuine altruism like to give themselves an easy ride - by presuming that if any motive for an action can be found besides altruism, the claim of altruism is immediately invalidated. I doubt very much that it often, perhaps ever, happens that people act out of one single motive and no other, when they do anything. Insisting that a claim of altruism must satisfy some impossible Kantian standard to count is simply bad science.

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 05:49:00 UTC | #260024

Jeremy Nel's Avatar Comment 17 by Jeremy Nel

I'm glad that others have noticed it too: this author hasn't the faintest clue what The Selfish Gene was about! Far from being a refutation, the book PREDICTS findings such as these. It must be incredibly frustrating for Richard. And from Scientific American, I'd have expected better.

I sometimes wonder why people so often misinterpret one of the clearest thinkers and writers in the world of science. I wonder whether his clarity is a double-edged sword - it may give the casual reader an inflated sense of having got the picture, when in fact the crucial points have still been overlooked. A more abstruse or arcane author would leave all but the experts baffled, and thus potentially insulate him from misinterpretation by journalists. They would be too confused to even attempt to put pen to paper. What do you think?

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 05:58:00 UTC | #260028

TalkyMeat's Avatar Comment 18 by TalkyMeat

Not having the faintest idea what they're writing about has never been a deterrent to a dedicated journalist. Or at least, not to a journalist under deadline pressure.

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 06:19:00 UTC | #260034

Cluebot's Avatar Comment 19 by Cluebot

And is it me or Richard Dawkins is misquoted (redundant) about the Selfish gene'

It's not just you, Ishruul, I find hardly a week goes by without observing the media misrepresenting Richard Dawkins' opinions. Apparently, this includes science journalists (who should know better.) Explaining the evolutionary framework in which pro-social behaviour can emerge has been a major part of Richard's science writing, but anyone who relied on the media to inform them would never know this...

As for the idea that morality coming from evolutionary psychology somehow devalues the end product, my question is why? How is having morality imposed by some arbitrary spooky authority figure better than the solution finding mechanisms of natural selection?

If the same mindless processes that brought us "nature red in tooth and claw" happens to bring something kinder into the world, why reject the source? Why ignore the rational explanation and attribute it to some other made-up confabulatory cause based on no evidence? To choose the latter path is just an expression of poor judgement; a badge of ignorance and sloppy thinking.

Evolutionary psychology also solves the problem of divine evil that has had theists squirming and babbling for centuries. Since natural selection is not a moral agent (as God is presumed to be) we need not worship a being that brought suffering and evil into the world. We need not worship anything.

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 06:30:00 UTC | #260037

Ishruul's Avatar Comment 20 by Ishruul

Well, mentionning Richard Dawkins for whatever is a good way to sell papers it seem.

All glory to the uninformed-informers for their lack of research are the Truth of the mass.

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 06:33:00 UTC | #260038

moderndaythomas's Avatar Comment 21 by moderndaythomas



A pain maybe, sadly no Edison, and worked on a tank.
Is matador not a descriptive enough explanation of what I do? Huh? lol.

moderndaythomas....Doubting Thomas? That wacky guy that so foolishly insisted on a bit of proof so many Easters ago?

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 07:01:00 UTC | #260046

Ishruul's Avatar Comment 22 by Ishruul

Still he was dubbed a Saint, yet is teaching are reviled by churches.

Welcome to a land of contradiction, Religionville, population: Way too much!

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 07:06:00 UTC | #260047

Cluebot's Avatar Comment 23 by Cluebot

I propose an explanation for this sloppy journalism, and it's the same reason people invoke God to "explain" things: They're lazy, and it's easy.

I think there's a cure, too:

Complain. Calmly, rationally confront them with their own malpractice. Make sure they know they're doing it wrong.

Expose. Let the audience know they're being mislead. Nobody likes to be misled, or those who mislead them.

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 07:25:00 UTC | #260055

debaser71's Avatar Comment 24 by debaser71

My issue with all these sorts of evolutinary explanations for pyschology is that it ignores the fact that people are different. It could be thayt people are different because of how they are brought up and/or their genetics (i'll include pre-natal chemistry here too). That it is a good thing that people are 'programmed' differently. A good thing that wombs are cheically different, etc. Some people might be altruistic because of their genes whiule other people might be selfish because of their genes. Why is it all or nothing? /rant off

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 08:08:00 UTC | #260088

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 25 by bendigeidfran

I recently re-read Richard's books and was surprised at how much they had improved since I last read them. I am ashamed to say that the constant drip of decades of media misrepresentation must have interfered with my memory.

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 08:30:00 UTC | #260102

SilentMike's Avatar Comment 26 by SilentMike

Richard Dawkins, for instance, has claimed that “we are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior.”

Bloody read the book. Don't quote mine. It's a book about cooperation and altruism OK? It explains why individual altruism can happen (because it is the genes whose selfish interest must be served). I'm getting sick of this stuff.

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 09:22:00 UTC | #260128

Eshto's Avatar Comment 27 by Eshto

Inequality averse, eh?

Here's a follow-up study: if children are so "inequality averse", what the hell happens in between then and adulthood that makes human beings such intolerant assholes?

(Yeah, cynical, I know. I didn't have my coffee yet today)

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 09:31:00 UTC | #260137

82abhilash's Avatar Comment 28 by 82abhilash

3. Comment #273530 by LeeC on October 28, 2008 at 8:28 pm

Why Children Like to Share

... because parents have told them from an early age that is what they should do[question mark]

A two year old does not want to share their toys - they are told to do so and praised when they do.

By sharing, they are praised.

Just a thought


Same thought came to my mind. Three to eight years old are not inequality averse while children above age eight are. So what could be happening is that by age eight parents and teachers as well as society at large has convinced the child to share their stuff and equalize resources. In addition it puts pressure on their guardians to provide equally, and this can prevent them from rewarding the more talented among them, as is seen in the case with the teacher and the golden stars. Also have anyone noticed how it penalizes the child with a bit more of anything, even making him/her feel guilty, as if someone has more because they stole it from the one with less. All this means it is a learned behavior not an inherent natural condition.

I for one do not look favorably on it for I see it as the proto form of behavior that in adult life can lead to communism, or more likely today leads to socialism, along with which comes 'spread the wealth' schemes that taxes people who are talented enough to earn more than their peers, stifling entrepreneurship and decreasing the quality of life for one and all.

Seems like a tall tale' Perhaps, but I am open to criticism.

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 09:55:00 UTC | #260158

SilentMike's Avatar Comment 29 by SilentMike

28. Comment #273810 by 82abhilash

I for one do not look favorably on it for I see it as the proto form of behavior that in adult life can lead to communism, or more likely today leads to socialism, along with which comes 'spread the wealth' schemes that taxes people who are talented enough to earn more than their peers, stifling entrepreneurship and decreasing the quality of life for one and all.

Maybe by considering these results we can see why such ideas (communism, socialism etc.) seem to appeal to many people, regardless of whether or not they work (and I personally think it is clear that all but the mildest forms of socialism don't work and actually cause a lot of needless suffering).

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 10:40:00 UTC | #260186

cristinabories's Avatar Comment 30 by cristinabories

Warning: double heresy
What if the children thought that God was watching' Or Santa. I wonder if they accounted for that when they say that there was no gain (or punishment) for altruistic behavior in the test.
Studies have shown that people do tend to behave more pro socially when they believe they are observed. Even a poster with eyes over the coffee donations jar at the office seems to work!
This is an article that has been mentioned in this forum before, and that is relevant
From this article...
"The cognitive awareness of gods is likely to heighten prosocial reputational concerns among believers, just as the cognitive awareness of human watchers does among believers and non-believers alike," hypothesize the authors

Wed, 29 Oct 2008 10:52:00 UTC | #260194