The Links Between Cognitive Skills and Altruism

Last year, I worked on a research study evaluating the outcomes of a video-based social-emotional learning program for early elementary school students. Part of this study involved conducting one-on-one assessments with kindergarten to 3rd grade students to measure specific social, emotional, and cognitive skills. These assessments included multiple-choice style questionnaires, computer-based tasks, and stories that involved identifying different characters’ emotions. But one of the more interesting assessments we used was called “The Stickers Game”.

In this game, each child was presented with ten very cool stickers and told that they were to decide how many of the stickers they wanted to keep for themselves and how many they wanted to give to another child; however, they did not know this other child and they would never get to meet them. The children made this decision on their own by placing the stickers they wanted to keep in an envelope with their name on it and the stickers they wanted to donate in a blank envelope. The children made their decision while us, the researchers, were not looking. The goal of this game was to understand children’s altruistic behavior.

What we found was quite interesting: children who had high scores on the computer-based cognitive task (specifically, the one that measured inhibitory control), were more likely to donate more of their stickers to the unknown child. What’s more interesting is that we were not the first researchers to find this. A study done in Columbia also found a significant association between scores on a similar cognitive task and an altruistic sharing game (they used candies instead of stickers), among preschool and kindergarten children.

So, what do these results mean? Inhibitory control—the ability to focus on important stimuli while inhibiting unimportant stimuli—and other self-regulation abilities likely play a role in children’s altruistic sharing. In order to shift from thinking about themselves to thinking about another individual, children must be able to regulate their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Cognitive skills contribute to children’s ability to think about the needs of others and even take on another person’s perspective.

Because our results are correlational and cross-sectional (i.e., all of these assessments were done at the same time), we cannot make any assumptions about whether improved cognitive skills leads to altruistic sharing or vice versa. It may be that these skills and behaviors mutually enhance each other across development. It is also possible that some other factor is influencing the development of both of these competencies. Despite the fact that more research is needed in this area, what we found still points to the connections between skills like attention, self-regulation, and inhibition, and prosocial and altruistic behaviors. And the good news is cognitive skills are malleable!

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