March 15, 2012

Selfish Kids: Is Their Brain to Blame?

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- My toy, my snack, my juice box, kids can be selfish! A new study suggests that age-associated improvements in the ability to consider others are linked with maturation of the brain region involved in self control. The study may help to explain why children can be selfish when they are taught better and could improve educational strategies that are designed to encourage successful social behavior.

Social interactions involve two parties who want the greatest possible outcome for themselves while also trying to reach a mutual satisfactory result. Over the course of childhood, shifts in behavior go from a selfish focus to an increased inclination to consider others. The study aimed to help figure out the underlying neuronal mechanisms in this age-related changes.

Researchers conducted behavioral and brain-imaging studies comparing children of different ages as they participated in two carefully constructed games called "The Ultimatum Game" and "The Dictator Game." The Ultimatum Game requires the recipient to accept an offer from the other child or neither child would receive an award. In the Dictator Game, children were asked to share a reward with another child who could only passively accept what was offered. The games had different demand for strategic behavior for the child making the offer.

"We were interested in whether children would share more fairly if their counterparts could reject their offers, and to what extent strategic behavior was dependent on age and brain development. We observed an age-related increase in strategic decision making between ages 6 to 13 years and showed that changes in bargaining behavior were best accounted for by age-related differences in impulse-control abilities and underlying functional activity of the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a late-maturing brain region linked with self control," Dr. Nikolaus Steinbeis, lead study author for Max-Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, was quoted as saying.

"Our findings represent a critical advance in our understanding of the development of social behavior with far-reaching implications for educational policy and highlight the importance of helping children act on what they already know. Such interventions could set the foundation for increased altruism in the future," Dr. Steinbeis was quoted as saying.

The results of the study suggest that selfish behavior in kids may not be a function of an inability to know "fair" from "unfair." However, they are due to an immature prefrontal cortex that does not support altruistic behavior when faced with a social situation that has a selfish incentive.

SOURCE: Neuron, March 2012