Considerable research in the field of moral development has established that children as young as one year of age engage in kind, helpful-or "pro-social"-behavior. But only recently have psychologists started to look at the conditions that help foster this kind of behavior in children.
In a soon-to-be-published article in Cognition, noted Harvard University developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spelke and her graduate student Kristina Olson show that three-and-a-quarter-year-old kids deliberately act pro-socially, but they discriminate about to whom they lend a hand.
Olson and Spelke ran three related studies in which the children were introduced to a "protagonist" doll which, at certain times, benefited from pro-social behavior from other dolls. The children were then given the opportunity to direct the protagonist doll either to share or not share a resource (for example, stickers, pennies) with other dolls.
Results of the first study showed that participating children were much more likely to encourage sharing between dolls described as siblings or friends than between dolls described as strangers. A second study found that children were significantly more likely to direct the protagonist doll to share with a doll that helped it first. The third and final study showed that children were much more inclined to direct the protagonist doll to engage in pro-social behavior with dolls that had engaged in some form of pro-social behavior–even if that pro-social behavior was not directed towards the protagonist.
Olson and Spelke conclude by noting that the participants did not receive formal moral instruction from the researchers but made pro-social choices entirely on their own. Such results highlight that the capacity for goodness "runs deep into human.development," said Olson.