Preschoolers from collectivist cultures more generous, study finds
The Sector > Research > Preschoolers have cultural differences in competitiveness and generosity, researchers find

Preschoolers have cultural differences in competitiveness and generosity, researchers find

by Freya Lucas

September 14, 2023

Children from collectivist cultures, who prioritise the good of the group over the success of the individual, show strong values of generosity from an early age, researchers from Washington State University have proven.


Using a set of sharing experiments researchers worked with Spanish-speaking Latino preschoolers, finding they were more likely than their English speaking peers to choose options that would be more generous to others, even over a more equal sharing choice.


The English-speaking peers in the study more often chose the most competitive option, one that advantaged themselves over others. The most competitive among that group were English-speaking Latino children, a finding that the researchers believe may reflect their desire to transition to the more individualistic American culture.


This study not only adds evidence that children from collectivist cultures, which prioritise the good of the group over the individual, show those values early, but also helps distinguish their motivations.


“We knew that Spanish-speaking kids tended to be more cooperative, but we didn’t know whether that had to do with generosity or wanting things to be equal,” said senior author Paul Strand. 


“Our work shows that they’re not more driven by equality. They’re just flat out more generous.” 


The research team ran a set of game-based experiments with 265 children ranging in age from three to five years who were all enrolled in a Head Start preschool program. They used three “economic dictator games,” originally developed by Swiss and German researchers, which give children choices on keeping and giving items they liked.


In one game, the child had a choice between an equal scenario: keeping one sticker and giving one to an unnamed classmate and a more generous option: keeping one sticker and giving the classmate two. 


A second game gave the kids the equal scenario and a more selfish or “competitive” option in which the child could keep both stickers and give the classmate none.


In the third game, the child could choose the equal option of keeping one and giving one, or simply keep one sticker without giving the classmate any perhaps the most competitive option in all three games.


Across the games, the Spanish-speaking Latino children chose the options that resulted in their classmates having as many stickers as possible, more often than their English-speaking peers did. The English-speaking children as a whole tended to pick the options that were either equal or benefitted themselves. However, in the last game, 49 per cent of English-speaking Latino children chose the most competitive option in which they kept a sticker and gave none. About 34 per cent of their white and Black peers and 30 per cent of Spanish-speaking children chose that option.


“These are children coming from a family that was collectivistic in their backgrounds, but they’re  even more immersed in interacting with individualistic children because they’re speaking English, so they may be overcompensating,” Mr Strand said.


The researchers also asked teachers to fill out surveys on how the children acted in class and found that the children’s competitive choices did not appear to be tied to behavioural problems. This is contrary to a previous study that found a link between bad behaviour and competitive choices of white children.


That competitiveness may be part of a developmental stage for some children that doesn’t require special attention from teachers, Mr Strand said. 


Psychologists are particularly interested in the preschool years because it is a time when children start to emerge from a self-centered focus to interact with others more socially, which as this study shows, can also reveal their cultural values.


“Even as early as four years old, we see these cultural differences,” Mr Strand continued. “They may be getting these from the home environment. We don’t know all the ways cultural values are transmitted, but we know that they get them early.”


Access the study in full here. 

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