Posted on December 20, 2006

Mind Matters: Kids Who Lack Compassion

Wray Herbert, Newsweek, Dec. 19, 2006


In one such recent study, Harvard University psychologist Kristina Olson and her colleagues told children stories depicting good luck, bad luck, good deeds or bad deeds. For example, a lucky kid might find $5, while an unlucky kid might have his soccer game rained out; a good kid might volunteer to help his teacher, while a bad kid might lie to his parents. The 5- to 7-year-olds in the study were then asked to judge the likability of the characters in the stories.

Not surprisingly, the children showed a preference for the do-gooders over the liars. That’s a start. But, as reported in the latest issue of “Psychological Science” (full disclosure: I am the director of public affairs for the Association for Psychological Science, the nonprofit organization that publishes the research journal), the study participants showed an equally strong preference for the lucky kids over the unlucky kids. What’s more, while they liked the unlucky kids more than the liars, they did not favor the good kids all that much more than the lucky kids. In other words, good fortune was perceived as nearly akin to benevolence.

This is distressing, but it gets worse. In a second study conducted by Olson, the scientists had the children view two groups of kids on a computer screen. The groups were distinguishable only by the color of their T-shirts and the fact that they stood together. Most of the kids in one group were depicted in stories as lucky, while most of the kids in the other group were portrayed as unlucky. The researchers threw a couple of “neutral” kids into each group, however, to keep the fictional world from being black and white. The neutral kids wore the same T-shirts as the others in their group, but were described with phrases such as “He likes oatmeal.” Then the researchers introduced new members to each group, and asked the study participants what they thought of the newcomers, who arrived with no stories — just the shirts on their backs.

The results were unambiguous. The subjects strongly favored the new kids who joined the lucky group. Think about this. They preferred these particular kids, knowing nothing about them except the color of their T-shirts. Furthermore, they liked them not because they were individually lucky, but simply because they were associated with lucky kids. In effect, some of the computerized kids had the good fortune of being “born into” the right stratum of society, while others were disdained for a virtual accident of birth.

Why would children have such a cynical attitude toward privilege and misfortune? One theory, Olson says, is that humans have a very powerful need to believe in a just world, where good things happen to good people, bad things to bad people. The kids appear to be generalizing their emotional response, so that they cannot distinguish between malevolence and misfortune. If you get a bad roll of the dice, you somehow must have deserved it, even if the reason is not readily apparent.

What’s new here, and most depressing, is that this cynicism can be seen in such young subjects. (Olson has similar unpublished data on 3 1⁄2-year-olds. {snip}