Does Sharing Come Naturally to Kids?

By Jason Marsh | February 24, 2011 | 7 comments

Believe it or not, a new study suggests young kids have a strong tendency to cooperate.

More and more of my time these days is spent unsuccessfully negotiating conflicts between my two-year-old daughter and her friends—over baby dolls, snacks, a turn on the swing, you name it.

So I was surprised (and a bit skeptical) to see a new study suggesting that kids just a few months older than my daughter possess a strong and consistent willingness to share coveted objects with their peers, even when they have the chance to keep all the goodies for themselves.

David Clark

The study, published in Psychological Science, was broken into two experiments involving a total of 112 three-year-old children, an equal number of boys and girls, split into teams of two. In both experiments, two children were left alone in an observation room. Each child had to work with his or her partner to get a reward—four identical gummy bears, four identical stickers, or four of another prize—that was trapped at the back of a long, transparent box. When the kids simultaneously pulled on each end of a rope, they could bring the prizes to the front of the box and grab their reward through a hole. If only one kid pulled the rope, the prizes remained out of reach.

Sometimes the box had two holes, one on either side, enabling each child to pull out two prizes—easy and fair. But even when the box had only a single hole, the child who got to the reward first shared it equally with his partner in the vast majority of cases, more than 70 percent of the time.

In roughly 80 percent of these cases of cooperation, the sharing was “passive,” meaning that one child took what was fair—two prizes—and left the other two for his or her teammate. Other times, one child would take two prizes and actively give two to the other child, or would tell that child to collect his or her fair share if he or she neglected to do so at first.

Rarely was there any arguing, and physical conflicts were almost nonexistent.

This was all generally true regardless of what the prize was (though in the first experiment, the researchers found that children were more likely to share gummy bears than stickers).

So why did these kids seem so willing to share, whereas I’ve seen my tiny two-year-old ready to strangle her best friend over a frog puppet?

According to the study’s authors, the answer might lie in the fact that the kids had to work together in order to earn their reward. Only by collaborating were they able to get their prizes, and their collaboration evoked their burgeoning sense of fairness.

“The situation of peers jointly collaborating toward a mutual outcome might exemplify the fundamental context in which a sense of equality emerges,” write the authors, who were led by Felix Warneken, a psychologist at Harvard.

In other words, this type of cooperation encourages kids to recognize that other people have a right to enjoy the same rewards and privileges that the kids want for themselves.

The researchers note that previous research has found that chimpanzees won’t share their spoils in the same way, which makes them less likely to want to work together in the first place.

Humans, by contrast, seem to possess a strong propensity for fairness that encourages them to cooperate rather than compete over limited resources, trusting that they’ll benefit in the end. And now there’s evidence that this propensity can be demonstrated—and perhaps nurtured further—through collaborations that take place when we’re hardly more than toddlers.

“The present study,” write the authors, “suggests that competition over resources is mitigated in human children by an emerging sense of equal sharing of the spoils, which enables successful collaboration.”

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Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.


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I’m just curious on your thoughts about montessori schooling and sharing.  While reading this, I couldn’t help but think about montesorri teachers constantly telling children (even 2 yo and younger) not to take eachothers ‘work’ by saying, “kiera, that’s not your work, it’s mia’s work.”  Is this type of teaching wiring children not to share or be greedy?

mc | 11:15 am, March 2, 2011 | Link

Jason Marsh's avatar

Good question. The researchers note that the type of sharing they observed in this study was promoted by the fact that the kids had to work together to obtain their prize. That encouraged them to see the prize as a shared good, not something that inherently belong to one or the other of them. Kids will be much less likely to share if they believe another child is trying to take something from them that’s rightfully theirs, like their “work.” So there are some fundamental differences between the scenario you describe and the one the researchers created, regardless of what the teacher says.

That said, the lead researcher, Felix Warneken, also told me in an interview that he believes teachers and other adults can encourage this kind of sharing by framing more activities as cooperative projects, emphasizing “we-ness” in the classroom. That way, students are less likely to see certain (potentially shared) objects as “theirs” and are more likely to see them as “ours.”

So while I don’t think the teacher in your example is encouraging greed and selfishness—indeed, it’s also important to encourage kids’ to be respectful of others’ space and possessions—there is a chance that teachers can use some subtle but powerful tools to instill a more cooperative spirit in kids.

Jason Marsh | 11:48 am, March 2, 2011 | Link


I am convinced that sharing is in our genes wink

If you are into sharring/borrowing then you should definitely try to start sharing with your Facebook friends!

Happy sharing wink

Elena Milan | 1:18 pm, March 15, 2011 | Link


This is very interesting and I’ve heard about cooperating as a tool to help people get along better but only in the context of adults. This reminded me of an article I read about a child cooperation gender-differences study. It showed that (roughly interpreted, sorry) girls would go out of their way to cooperate, to the extent that they will make things up in order to be more like their friends. e.g. one girl will say “we don’t have a fence in our yard” and the other girl will say “we don’t either” even if the second girl’s family does in fact have a fence (at which point the mother will turn around and say….what? We do too have a fence!)  smile

The play-cooperation aspect of this was that girls might exclude someone from playing with them, but they will do so in an inclusive way - on the playground one girl will say “you can be the baby and you’re not born yet”. (This was amusing because I read the article at an airport and when we got home, I heard our neighobor’s daughters playing and one of them said, “you can play but you’re zero years old”).

Emmy | 3:33 pm, March 19, 2011 | Link


The children shared naturally because they were left
alone, and they did not have to depend on coaching
by anyone.  I have seen this happening in a classroom
situation where children have chosen the activity by
themselves and there are two of the same object.

Vannamaria Kalofonos | 5:27 pm, March 24, 2011 | Link


Vannamaria .. you’re right

Crazy Vision | 3:00 am, September 23, 2011 | Link


yes I think sharing comes naturally, but the early educations is more important

Anne | 3:11 pm, October 6, 2011 | Link

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