Children understand co-operative concepts earlier than thought

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New research suggests that children as young as 3 appreciate shared commitment to a joint endeavour.
Gary Burchell / Getty

How innate is the co-operative spirit? Does it develop naturally alongside a child’s sense of self and interactions with others, or is it cultivated through socialisation and education?

Complex though this question is, part of the puzzle might be solved by determining how old children are when they develop an appreciation of the abstract ideas that underpin co-operation.

Research indicates that children as young as two collaborate in joint activities and have a firm grasp of a simple concept of fairness. Less clear is the age at which children understand and value the notions of joint commitment and obligation involved in co-operative endeavours.

Now researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (in Germany) and Duke University suggest that children as young as three have a sense of joint commitment and express resentment when others opt out of shared, agreed-upon tasks. 

“The results of our study, and some new upcoming work, show that children at three years of age understand and value obligations to a partner and a joint goal if they have previously formed an explicit joint commitment,” says Ulrike Kachel, the lead author of the study, published in the journal Child Development{%recommended 973%}

The results point to young children having a stronger understanding of joint commitments than has previously been understood, which has important implications for parents and preschool teachers, Kachel argues. “Those working with children in the home and in classrooms can build on this foundation by incorporating joint activities, such as cooperative independent tasks, into children’s interactions.”

To test what young children understand about the interactions involved in completing a joint task, the researchers paired 72 three-year-olds with partners (for a total of 144 children) to complete a task in which both pulled on a rope to move a toy block toward a set of marbles. Prior to the exercise both children agreed to the task, with the promise of successful completion leading to a reward.

The partner children, however, had been briefed beforehand to thwart successful completion: some stopped in return for an individual reward, some worked inefficiently, and others quit because the toy broke.

While the subjects of the experiments were frustrated by the task being aborted for any reason, the researchers report, they reacted more strongly and with more resentment when they thought their partner had acted selfishly. 

Study co-author Margarita Svetlova says this illustrates children’s growing understanding of norms of co-operative co-existence and the obligations they entail. 

“Humans are highly social creatures, which can mean cooperative in some contexts and competitive in others,” she explains. “Joint commitments are interesting because they are fundamentally co-operative – we agree to do something together co-operatively – but they are only necessary because of the risk that either or both of us might defect.”

However, Mike Nagel, associate professor of human development and learning at the University of the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland, says many other studies suggest the age at which children fully understand altruism, selfishness and concepts of fair and unfair is older than three, so “much more evidence” will be needed before the results of this new study can be accepted as fact. Acknowledging his assessment is based on the summary of the results released prior to publication of the full study, he notes the results may not necessarily illustrate the children’s understanding of norms of co-operative co-existence and the obligations they entail.

“It could be that those children who showed greater arousal were not cognisant of any form of selfishness, and/or notions of co-operative co-existence or obligations as described,” says Nagel, who has written several books related to neurological development in children. Instead, they might may have simply felt aggrieved because others were receiving a reward and they were not. 

Nonetheless, there is still much to recommend more co-operative education and play, according to Trina Hinkley, research fellow with the Faculty of Health at Deakin University, in Melbourne.

“Co-operation teaches children how to negotiate, solve problems, develop comradeship, acceptance and responsibility for others, and also helps with development of their communication skills,” she says. “It’s an imperative skill for playing throughout childhood and for getting along with others. Co-operating in a team helps kids learn social rules and fair play skills.”

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