Adults give gifts for different reasons, some of which are altruistic, and some of which are less so. One of the less altruistic reasons adults give gifts is when they want something in return.
So when do children learn that they can influence other people with gifts? A team of psychologists explored this question in a recently published paper titled Pay to Play: Children’s Emerging Ability to Use Acts of Generosity for Selfish Ends.
In their experiment, the researchers asked 3-, 5- and 7-year-olds to choose a gift for another person. The children chose between a colorful fish sticker and a plain sticker. Between the two stickers, the children got to give one as a gift and keep the other one.
Each child was partnered with someone who made the opposite gift choice. If a child decided to give the colorful sticker, their partner would give the plain sticker, and vice-versa.
The recipient of the gifts was someone who owned an interesting game. In one version of the experiment, the game owner would then choose one of the gift givers to play the game with. In another version, the game owner would play the game alone.
All the children tended to agree that the colorful fish sticker was cooler than the plain sticker. But in different situations, the children tended to make different gift selections.
In the version of the experiment where the game owner chose someone to play the game with them, the 5- and 7-year-old children were more likely to give the colorful fish sticker as a gift. In the version where the game owner played the game alone, children of all ages tended to keep the fish sticker.
Moreover, when the experiment was repeated, the 5- and 7-year-olds learned over time, becoming more likely to give away the colorful fish sticker when they stood to benefit. In the experiment, the game owner would always choose whichever gift giver gave them the more colorful sticker. Apparently, the children realized this and adjusted their behavior accordingly.
When they were interviewed later, the 5- and 7-year-old children tended to be aware that the game owner was choosing based on who gave them the nicer gift. In other words, it seems that children as young as five can deliberately give more lavish presents in order to influence someone’s behavior.
The way this experimented played out highlights how early the ability to use generous behaviors in a self-serving way shows up. When three-year-olds give gifts, their intentions may still be pure, but by the time they reach five, it seems they are capable of giving gifts with ulterior motives!