How GRANDparents Can Help Alter Society For The Better


By Ernst Fehr, Professor of Microeconomics and Experimental Economic Research and Chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

In adolescence children’s brains change making them generous to insiders but more hostile to outsiders. How to enhance generosity and the size of in-groups?

It is well-known that young children find it difficult to share but become more generous as they grow older. Our studies confirm that, during adolescence, people do indeed become more altruistic towards those in their social network. However, they simultaneously become more parochial – less generous and more spiteful – towards outsiders. Teenagers gradually develop into adults who are, paradoxically, both generous and altruistic to friends and family while being comparatively hostile to those beyond that ‘in-group’.

We have plotted these developing characteristics through experiments with children and young people, for example, using different options to allocate sweets. In the ‘pro-social’ game, a child can take one sweet and give one to a partner (1-1) or have just one and give none away (1-0). In the ‘sharing’ game, a child can have one sweet and give one to the partner (1-1) or can keep both sweets, leaving none for the partner (2-0). In the ‘envy’ game, a child can have one sweet, with the option to give one or two to the partner (1-1) or (1-2). These choices define an individual’s profile in terms of pro-sociability (willingness to give to others), egalitarianism (willingness to share equally), spitefulness (unwillingness to share even at no personal loss) and altruism (willingness to give without personal gain). These games are played with two types of partner – a member of either the ‘in-group’ (the same school, for example) or an ‘out-group’ (different school) – to measure levels of parochialism (differences in treatments of ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ members).

We have learned that very young children are often unwilling to share at all, but egalitarianism increases sharply in children from age 3 to age 8, peaking at 8-11. Egalitarianism then loses its dominance among adolescents, for whom altruism becomes prevalent towards people close to them. In our experiment, envy motivated 80 per cent of children at 8 or 9, but only 40 per cent at 16 or 17. Meanwhile, however, we observed a growing difference in the treatment of in-group and out-group members during adolescence. For example, envy towards out-group members grew significantly stronger from the age of 12 or 13 onwards, even though envy towards in-group members decreased rapidly.

How can we improve people’s pro-sociability in the short and the long run? It could, for example, be through influencing parenting styles, how teachers work with children, how peers interact or how business cultures behave.

These findings raise lots of issues. For example, we need to understand the changing motivations of children, given the increasing role that children play in determining consumer preferences. The findings also lead to important questions. To what extent can pro-sociability be altered by external influences, given how much it changes through childhood and adolescence? Are these changes genetically determined, and how much do they reflect socialisation? Looking at the neuroscience of pro-sociability, we have shown that grey matter volume in the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ) of the brain correlates with a person’s general propensity to behave altruistically. We also know that educational interventions, involving better care and attention, lead children to become more pro-social. For example, a project in Canada aimed at 6-year-olds who acted antisocially produced improvements in their behaviour. It would be interesting to know whether such children also experience neurological change in the brain’s TPJ as their attitudes shift.

These findings matter for a number of reasons. A person’s underlying motivations are crucial for an individual and for society. Pro-social attitudes lead to smoother interactions among humans and more efficient allocation of economic and other resources. Employers are interested not just in an employee’s technical and cognitive skills. They also want to know whether people will work diligently and obey the rules even if they are not monitored. For example, will people remain honest even if they could cheat and get away with it without being discovered?

Researchers are looking for ways to influence pro-sociability in both the short and the long run. For example, we might be able to alter parenting styles, how teachers work with children, how peers interact or how business cultures behave. The emerging picture shows that pro-sociability towards the ‘in-group’ is flexible and changeable. We may be hard-wired by evolution to grow more generous to the in-group, but, at the same time, to more easily become hostile towards the ‘out-group’. But that behaviour may be malleable. Hostility to an ‘out-group’ may be inevitable, but the numbers in the ‘in-group’ and the ‘out-group’ can change over time. Human beings may inevitably have a parochial tendency, but civilisation has led to the gradual enlargement of ‘in-groups’, a process that could be fostered. So, for example, when we see someone suffering in a far-off country, many of us recognise that person as one of us and as a focus for our altruism, rather than as a member of an ‘out-group’, who would draw little sympathy and perhaps even attract hostility.

About the Author:

Ernst Fehr: Professor of Microeconomics and Experimental Economic Research and Chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

I am interested in the social and biological foundations of human personality, which includes the study of interventions in early childhood to improve children’s executive function and in the design and engineering of incentives, institutions and social norms that improve human welfare.

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