Children will show compassion unless it costs them, research finds

16 February 2023

Dr James Kirby from UQ’s School of Psychology spoke to The Guardian about research which found children are willing to help others in distress, unless it comes at a personal cost.

Young children are willing to help others in distress unless it comes at a personal cost, new research into the ability of children to show compassion suggests.

A study analysing the behaviour of 285 four- and five-year-olds has found that children responded less compassionately to others when a personal reward was at stake.

“Compassion is about noticing suffering and then trying to do something to reduce the suffering as best you can,” said the study’s lead author, Dr James Kirby, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Queensland.

Previous research has shown that children are pro-social and “have a general tendency to want to help wherever they can”, Kirby said.

The researchers asked the youngsters to complete a puzzle game, for which they would receive a sticker as a reward. The children played alongside puppets or adults, who were deliberately given inadequate puzzle pieces to complete the task within a time frame.

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