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Study Shows Children Want to be Seen as Generous, Even if They’re Not

July 8, 2014

By Cathy Cruise

Jingnan Chen

Jingnan Chen

Cool kids give the most, but only if others are looking.

That’s the conclusion reached by a team of researchers led by George Mason University economics student Jingnan Chen, who completed a PhD in economics this spring. Chen’s study, “Beware of Popular Kids Bearing Gifts: A Framed Field Experiment,” examines connections between popularity and generosity in children, an idea that occurred to Chen while she was reading about issues of giving and status in the animal world.

Male chimpanzees, Chen discovered, are no more generous than other chimps before they become alpha males. “But upon becoming the alpha male, they all of a sudden become more generous in terms of food sharing and helping with grooming,” she says. “So I began wondering, would these same things exhibit themselves in humans?”

To explore this question, Chen teamed up with her advisor, Mason economics professor Daniel Houser. The two collaborated with colleagues at the University of Copenhagen and Sweden’s Lund University to conduct a field study of 231 children ages six to 12 in the district of Treviso, Italy.

To determine popularity among the children, the team used a decision kids make every day—who to sit with at lunch. Each child was given a drawing of a dining table and five chairs and asked, if they were seated at the head of the table, who would they want closest to them? This choice, Chen explains, favors status over friendship.

Once the children were essentially ranked through this “popularity index,” they were divided into “public” or “private” treatment groups. Each child was then given four Silly Bandz—collectible silicone wristbands that were popular during the 2012 study—and asked to decide how many bands they would be willing to donate to an anonymous child in another school. “We didn’t want them to think about retribution of giving the bands to kids in their own class,” Chen explains.

For the public groups, the researchers wrote the number of bands the children donated beside their names on a blackboard, for everyone to see. In the private groups, they simply drew a symbol next to the names and kept the donations secret.

The study found little difference in the private treatments between the more popular and less popular individuals. “But popularity played a huge role in the public treatments,” says Chen. “The popular kids were 20 percent more generous than the less popular kids, but only in public.”

Now two key questions were considered: Do children become popular because they’re generous, and are therefore more likeable? Or do even young children understand on some level the difference between public image and private actions?

“Our findings were more likely to confirm the latter,” says Chen, “that popular kids are not innately more generous, but they do understand to some degree the difference between making decisions in front of other people versus making decisions in private.”

The study also found that the older children get, the more generous they become, both in public and in private. And a positive interaction exists between popularity and age, but only in public.

Chen’s work has far-reaching implications for charitable organizations, especially those that rely on mass-market campaigns. Popular people, she says, can easily be identified by numbers of followers on Twitter accounts, or friends and likes on Facebook. An organization could target these individuals by, for example, inviting them to donate and to attend charitable giving events at which their donations will be broadcast. This would not only save time and money, but would likely bring about a bigger payoff since, says Chen. “Those people are most likely to be very, very generous in public decision making.”

Chen, who grew up in the southwestern part of China, received an MA in economics from Mason in 2011 and a BS in finance from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. She will be heading to the United Kingdom in August to work as an assistant professor of economics at the University of Exeter Business School. Her research will continue there, focusing next on older children to examine networks among teenagers.

“We want to identify whether there are separate networks with high schoolers and whether popularity has a differentiating impact on those networks,” Chen says.