Children engage in competitive altruism

Esther Herrmann, Jan M. Engelmann, Michael Tomasello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Humans cultivate their reputations as good cooperators, sometimes even competing with group mates, to appear most cooperative to individuals during the process of selecting partners. To investigate the ontogenetic origins of such “competitive altruism,” we presented 5- and 8-year-old children with a dyadic sharing game in which both children simultaneously decided how many rewards to share with each other. The children were either observed by a third-person peer or not. In addition, the children either knew that one of them would be picked for a subsequent collaborative game or had no such knowledge. We found that by 8 years of age, children were more generous in the sharing game not only when their behavior was observed by a third party but also when it could affect their chances of being chosen for a subsequent game. This is the first demonstration of competitive altruism in young children, and as such it underscores the important role of partner choice (and individual awareness of the process) in encouraging human cooperation from an early age.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)176-189
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date8 Dec 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019


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