In the kingdom of children, the established currency is gummy bears. Or at least, that’s what researchers at the Friedrich Schiller University in Germany used in experiments to understand envy and altruism in children.
For adults, studies often focus on how much money people are willing to give up in order to make others worse or better off. But for young children, money might not work so well as an incentive – it’s something they have less experience with (although, in these days of shockingly generous pocket money, perhaps they do). If you’re not using money, it is important to try to choose something that most children like and would prefer more of to less. And apparently gummy bears are “one of the most popular candies among German children”.
So some children in a German primary school were faced with some difficult choices. In the envy study, each child could either take five gummy bears and send three gummy bears to the other child or take six gummy bears and send eight gummy bears to the receiver.
In the altruism study, each child could choose to give up one gummy bear to allow the other child to get five extra gummy bears.
Some interesting results:
Beware of 8-year-olds
Gummy bear envy peaked at age eight.
Brothers and sisters make you jealous
Children with more siblings were more likely to take the envious choice.
Team players want more gummy bears for all
Children who took part in team sports were more likely to be altruistic. Thinking back to my unsuccessful days on the school sports pitch, this surprises and annoys me.
Gummy bears bring out boys’ competitive streak
Boys cared more about their relative gummy bear position. They preferred less gummy bears if this meant that they got more than the other child. Perhaps unsurprising – boys do tend to be more competitive, although an interesting question is whether this is related to the way boys are brought up, or whether it is innate.
The full paper is here: http://pubdb.wiwi.uni-jena.de/pdf/wp_2010_063.pdf