Imagine giving a bunch of stickers, treats, or toys to a child. The child is free to:
What will the child do?
This so-called dictator game has been played in multiple variations with hundreds of children in many different countries. Children around the age of three to four years typically maximize their self-interest in such situations – they keep most for themselves or do not share anything at all. Teenagers and adults, by contrast, are much more willing to give others their fair share. While some researchers consider this finding suggestive of a motivation to act more fairly as an individual grows up, others question this view. Some researchers think that adolescents and adults are simply better at hiding their selfish desires, and want to appear fair while trying to avoid the costs of actually being fair whenever possible.
My Morality, Identity and Environmental Sustainability (MIE) research group studies questions such as:
Are individuals genuinely motivated to do what they consider ‘right’ from a moral point of view, or do they merely pretend to do so?
What are the emotional consequences of different motifs for moral action? These questions fundamentally affect our understanding of human morality and our actions in society.
In the paper "Prosociality, fairness, hypocrisy and happiness", published in the British Journal of Development Psychology, two former graduate students, Katie Bauer (née Taming), Sonia Sengsavang and I investigated what motivates unselfish behaviours of children and adolescents in a situation similar to the dictator game.
We differentiated between:
Much to our surprise (and contrary to prominent theories in psychology and economics) we found that hypocrisy motivation was quite rare, while generosity and fairness were about equally important as motives for unselfish behaviour. Fairness motivation was the only motivation that increased with age. Thus, fairness increasingly becomes a normative concern that effectively counters self-interest as children grow older. Surprisingly, children and adolescents who decided to treat others fairly were not particularly happy about their decision. They did the right thing not just because it made them feel good. In contrast, children and adolescents who wanted to make others happy (prosociality) ended up with the highest happiness ratings, even higher than the ratings for those who chose to be selfish. Thus, being prosocial turned out to be the best road to happiness in this experiment.
As with any big question, one single study will never fully answer it. This study does not answer if decisions to make others happy will make kids happier in real life and if these results apply across different cultures. It is essential to keep asking these questions and to propose and then test answers to the best of our knowledge. Studying the motivation of humans to act morally is one of the most complicated topic areas of psychology that expands into many other disciplines. This makes it difficult but also fascinating. My hope is that this study along with the research I have conducted over almost 25 years inspires curiosity into this area and motivates people (and not only academics!) to think deeply about questions related to happiness, fairness, and prosocial behaviour.
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