Preschoolers Consider Opportunity Cost and Familiarity When Helping the Victim of a Moral Transgression

– By Kristy J. J. Lee and Peipei Setoh

Kindness and compassion are often espoused as virtues to be cultivated from an early age. Yet, from the benefactor’s perspective, helpful behavior incurs a cost to the self, namely the opportunity to put one’s resources to alternative uses that improve personal wellbeing. For example, donating money to a charity entails forgoing the opportunity to buy a much-coveted personal item; volunteering at a food bank during the holidays entails forgoing the opportunity to rest and recharge or spend time with loved ones. While adults regularly think about opportunity cost, less is known about whether children similarly assess opportunity cost when deciding to help others. Do children help less when the opportunity cost of helping is high? Does the opportunity cost of helping matter less when the beneficiary is a familiar person?

To answer these questions, researchers at Nanyang Technological University conducted a study with 120 five- and six-year-olds in Singapore. The study examined children’s helping behavior toward the victim of a moral transgression. Children were randomly assigned to one of four conditions that varied on Cost of Helping (High-Cost/Low-Cost) and Victim Familiarity (Familiar Victim/Unfamiliar Victim).

In the High-Cost condition, children were promised an attractive reward of stickers if they completed a coloring task within time constraints. Therefore, the time and energy spent on helping the victim could instead be used to earn a reward from a productive task. In the Low-Cost condition, children were not required to complete any task. Helping the victim was not particularly costly because children had plenty of time and energy to spare. In the Familiar Victim condition, children interacted with the victim actress prior to the moral scenario. In the Unfamiliar Victim condition, children had no prior contact with the victim actress.

Next, children witnessed an actress destroy another actress’s tower of blocks and responded to the victim’s pleas for help in rebuilding her tower. Prompts ranged from generic expressions of dismay (“Oh no, my tower is destroyed…”) to increasingly explicit appeals for help (“Will you help me to rebuild the tower?”). Children’s helping behavior was then assessed. If a child helped to pick up the blocks and rebuild the tower, this counted as helping behavior. If a child refused outright to help or showed inaction despite the prompts, this counted as not helping.

Children helped most in the Low Cost + Familiar Victim condition (86.67%), where there were no competing demands on their time, and where the victim was a familiar person thereby increasing their motivation to help. Helping rates in other conditions, where barriers to helping included high opportunity cost and/or a lack of familiarity with the victim, were substantially lower (High-Cost + Familiar Victim: 36.67%; High-Cost + Unfamiliar Victim: 46.67%; Low-Cost + Unfamiliar Victim: 63.33%). Non-helpers occasionally cited reasons such as, “I’m busy!” “I’m coloring!” Some children also expressed that they were only willing to help after completing their task at hand: “Later! I’ll help you after I finish coloring.” This points to children’s awareness that helping the victim could cost them the opportunity of completing their task within time constraints and earning a reward.

As it turns out, children think about the same questions that adults often ask themselves when deciding to help others: What do I stand to lose? Can I expect something in return? Indeed, as observed in the present study, children’s decisions to help appear to be guided by two factors: “I’ll help… if I know you and have time to spare!”

Read the original paper: Lee, K. J. J., & Setoh, P. (2022). Early prosociality is conditional on opportunity cost and familiarity with the target. Evolution and Human Behavior, 44(1), 39–49.