Adults are more compassionate and up to twice as likely to donate to charity when children are present, according to a new study by psychologists.
The research, conducted by social psychologists at the University of Bath and Cardiff University and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), explored how the presence of children affects adults’ compassionate motivations and behavior.
In eight experiments and more than 2,000 participants, the researchers asked adults to describe how typical children are. After targeting children in this way, participants then reported higher motivation for compassionate values, such as helpfulness and social justice, and reported greater empathy with the plight of other adults.
In a field study building on these findings, the researchers found that adult passers-by on a shopping street in Bath were more likely to donate to charity if there were more children around than adults.
When no children were present and all passers-by were adults, a student research team from the University of Bath observed about one donation every ten minutes. But if children and adults were equally present in the shopping street, adult passers-by made two donations every ten minutes.
These effects could not be explained by increased visitor numbers during busy times and whether or not donors were accompanied by a child. Instead, they suggest that the presence of children may prompt adults to act more generously and donate more often. The street donations were made to ‘Bath Marrow’, a charity that supports people with blood cancer.
Interestingly, these findings point to a broadly applicable effect. The researchers noted that the ‘child salience effect’ was evident in both parents and non-parents, men and women, younger and older participants, and even those who had relatively negative attitudes toward children. The involved researchers suggest that these effects may also have widespread implications.
Principal investigator Dr. Lukas Wolf of Bath’s psychology department explains: “ While previous evidence has shown that we tend to be more helpful and empathetic to children, no research has so far been conducted to investigate whether the presence of children is only us encourages you to be more pro-social towards others in general. Our research fills this gap by showing that the presence of children elicits broad pro-social motivation and donation behavior for causes not directly related to children. “
Dr. Wolf says this potential for widespread effects is important because it indicates that society should consider new ways to more directly involve children in different aspects of life.
“Our findings showing the importance of children for compassionate behavior in society provide a glimpse of a much greater impact,” he says.
“Children are indirectly dependent on how adults behave towards each other and towards the planet. Yet children are also separated from many adult environments, such as workplaces and political institutions where important decisions affect their future.”
He adds, “The finding that the presence of children motivates adults to be more compassionate towards others calls for more integration of children in contexts where adults make important long-term decisions, such as about climate change.”
Various initiatives have been taken in recent years to raise awareness of young voices, such as the children’s parliaments. Future work by the researchers involved in this study will look in more detail at the nature of the conspicuity effect of children and its consequences for society and the planet.
Material provided by University of Bath. Note: Content can be edited based on style and length.