Previous research suggests that moral feelings may motivate children to help others.
"Previous research suggests that moral feelings may motivate children to help others," says study author Antonio Zuffianò. "However, as much of this work has focused on the role of sympathy alone, we explored the combined role of children's respect for moral others and sympathy in relation to sharing."
Zuffianò and colleagues, from the University of Toronto in Canada, recruited 84 7-year-olds and 62 15-year-olds to participate in an experiment with the ominous title of "the dictator game."
In the dictator game, each child was provided with six chocolate coins and given the option of sharing or not sharing with an anonymous, hypothetical other child.
The children in the study were given information on their hypothetical counterparts in stories. The hypothetical children were always of the same gender and age as the studied child.
The participants were asked to indicate how much they rated the hypothetical child - based on the information in the stories - as being fair, prosocial, socially inclusive and nonaggressive towards others.
In addition, the caregivers of the children filled in questionnaires on the ability of their child to feel sympathy for others and share.
Analyzing the results, the researchers found that children who demonstrated low levels of sympathy were more likely to share with their hypothetical counterpart when they indicated respect for their morals.
Moral respect 'may compensate for lack of sympathy'
"This appears to set the stage for a compensatory relationship in children's sharing of valuable resources," Zuffianò says. Put simply, this means that respect of others' morals may compensate for a lack of sympathy when it comes to sharing resources.
"Children and adolescents are routinely faced with an array of multifaceted social situations involving conflicting moral and amoral concerns. Providing them with an equally diverse toolbox of moral emotions, such as sympathy and feelings of respect, may help them navigate toward prosocial solutions, even in the event that sympathy for others is lacking."
A 2013 study by researchers from Kyoto University and Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan found that infants as young as 10 months are able to express sympathy for others in distress in non-verbal ways.
In this study, the researchers showed the babies animations of a blue ball attacking and crushing a yellow cube, and found that the infants instinctively reached for the victim (the cube) rather than the aggressor (blue ball).
When the roles of the shapes were reversed, the findings remained consistent. The researchers said this proved that the babies had natural sympathy for the victim in both scenarios and were not acting out of preference for one particular color or shape.