If you're sick or injured, small children may not be sympathetic, on average considering you less important than a chicken.
Although there is evidence of children as young as three months old making sacrifices for the good of others, their priorities as to who deserves this care take time to develop. Slowly, through some combination of personal experience and social lessons, we stabilize our views on who is most important to us. A new study has helped chart the way this changes through childhood.
The philosopher Peter Singer popularized the metaphor of moral circles, with the inner circle representing those we care about most, such as friends and family, and the outer circle comprising those whose suffering means nothing to us. University of Queensland researchers decided to make this literal, sitting children on a mat in the center of three concentric circles. The children were given images representing people, animals, and objects and asked to place them in the appropriate circle depending on their level of care.
Participants ranged in age from four to 10, recruited from visitors to a science museum. Age barely changed the number of images children placed in their inner circle, and mothers and best friends were almost universally accorded that status. However, a paper in PLOS One reports that with time, there was a shift towards caring for sick people and trees. Meanwhile, cats, beetles, plates, and rosebushes scored steadily lower statuses among older children. There was also a sharp increase in the prioritization of a wheelchair with age, presumably from rising awareness of its importance to its user.
Animal rights activists might argue the 4-year-olds have it right when they value chickens over strangers, sick or not. However, Dr Dan Crimston told IFLScience this doesn't seem to inspire vegetarian impulses. “The younger children tend to care for all animal species,” he said. “It is only later they tend to group and separate food animals from pets, maybe because societal norms encourage us not to consider the reality of eating animals, or maybe it is about their developing processes to lessen their own guilt.”
Crimston told IFLScience the authors hope understanding what children include in their inner circle will lead to ways to get them to expand it. We know that caring about the sentience of animals or humans from excluded groups helps in this regard. Seeing others as being in competition with us shrinks the circle.
Participants were given six stickers as a reward and offered the choice of keeping all of them, or donating some to other children. Donation rates increased steeply with age. Including more humans in their inner moral circle, but not more animals and objects, was predictive of greater generosity.