Preschoolers Know If You Owe Them Something, According To Psychologists


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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Where's my money? AndreyBrusov/Shutterstock

Toddlers stumbling around with outstanding debts on their mind might sound like Stewie Griffin from Family Guy or maybe the Godfather Baby meme, but according to a psychology study, money never naps in the brains of preschoolers.

A recent paper – called “It’s Payback Time” – published in Developmental Psychology suggests that children as young as three years old can understand when someone is in debt to them.


Psychologists from Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich gathered over 40 three to five-year-olds to play a game using two toy animals and some stickers. The game involved the children allocating an unequal number of stickers to the two animals, with one receiving more stickers than the other. Later, those two animals were surrounded by toys and the kids had to “ask” one of the animals for a share of its toys, which included balloons, marbles, and coloring pictures.

The researchers noticed there was a distinct trend of the preschoolers asking for resources from the animal that they thought was the most indebted to them, which was the one they had given the most stickers to. According to the research, this wasn’t just the toddlers choosing their favorite toy, but that it revealed they “employ strategic thinking in their interactions.”

“Even preschoolers seem to be aware of the relative amounts of social capital they build up in their relations with others, and they make strategic use of this knowledge,” lead researcher Markus Paulus said in a statement. “Reciprocity is a very important element of social life and is essential for the stability of a society. The study shows, for the first time, that young children already demonstrate the expectation that acts of generosity will be reciprocated by the recipient in their social behavior.”


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  • children,

  • psychology,

  • child,

  • money,

  • toddlers,

  • preschoolers,

  • debt