Adults are more compassionate and are up to twice as likely to donate to charity when children are present, according to a new study from 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), examined how the presence of children influences the compassionate motivations and behaviours of adults.
Over eight experiments and more than 2,000 participants, the researchers asked adults to describe what typical children are like. After focusing on children in this way, participants subsequently indicated higher motivations towards 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 when more children were around relative to adults.
When no children were present and all passers-by were adults, a student research team from the University of Bath observed roughly one donation every ten minutes. But when children and adults were equally present on the shopping street, adult passers-by made two donations every ten minutes.
These effects could not be accounted for by higher footfall during busy times or whether donors were accompanied by a child or not, according to the researchers but suggest that the presence of children can nudge adults to behave more generously and donate more often. The on-street donations were made to ‘Bath Marrow’, a charity supporting people with blood cancer.
The researchers observed that the ‘child salience effect’ was evident among both parents and non-parents, men and women, younger and older participants, and also among those who had relatively negative attitudes towards children.
Lead researcher Dr Lukas Wolf from the Department of Psychology at Bath commented:
“While previous evidence has shown that we are typically more helpful and empathetic towards children, no research has been done to date to examine whether the presence of children alone encourages us to be more pro-social towards others in general. Our research addresses this gap by showing that the presence of children elicits broad pro-social motivation and donation behaviour towards causes not directly related to children.”
“Our findings showing the importance of children for compassionate behaviour in society provide a glimpse of a much bigger impact. 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 from political bodies where important decisions affect their futures.”
“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 on climate change.”