Education of children and altruism

Education of children and altruism

Talk: World Religion Day 31 January 2016

1       Introduction

With numerous research programmes, the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has shown that, on average, our interpretation, judgment and decision-making are often based on biased intuitive thinking. More often than not, our understanding of the world is influenced by a skewed perspective and the fact that we ignore relevant statistical facts.

“The reliance on heuristics and the prevalence of biases are not restricted to laymen. Experienced researchers are also prone to the same biases – when they think intuitively” (Kahneman 2011:430).

Sadly, we often take it for granted that the religious education we give our children will make them sensitive to the needs and suffering of others. Growing up and serving in the church community has left me with the firm belief that the influence of the Christian church instils certain important values in children through parenting, Sunday school, catechism, outreach programmes and worship services. Loving others and being caring towards those in need are important values of the Christian Gospel – values shared, I believe, by most if not all major religions in the world.

However, research published by Jean Decety and six co-workers in Current Biology 25 (16 November 2015) regarding the negative association between religiousness and how altruistic children are, raises questions about my basic assumption in this regard (The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World).

Altruism (defined as a cost to the donor and benefit for the recipient) is part of prosocial behaviour across all societies. The question is, how altruistic are children from religious households? This should be seen against the background that about 84% (5,8 billion humans) of the world’s population identify themselves as religious.

The participants in the research by Decety and others were 1179 children between the ages of 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA and South Africa). Final conclusions were drawn with regard to only the Muslim, Christian and non-religious children, although the research also included children of the Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu faiths. This was because the sample size of the other faiths was too small to make scientifically significant deductions.

The findings were a surprise, since they showed that children from Christian and Muslim households were less altruistic than children from non-religious households.

The older the children (closer to the age of 12), the less altruistic they were. Christians scored a little higher than Muslims, but both were out-scored by children from non-religious households. What makes the results even more remarkable is that the child participants in the research were from the same school and ethnic group.

A second major finding was that religiosity affects children’s punitive tendencies with regard to interpersonal harm. Religiousness was directly related to greater intolerance and punitive attitudes with regard to interpersonal offences, including the probability of supporting harsher penalties.

“Children who are raised in religious households frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions, while being less altruistic toward another child from the same social environment, at least when generosity is spontaneously directed to an ambiguous beneficiary” (Decety and others 2015)

The results clearly reflect on us as parents. This is especially so since the view of parents from religious households tends to be overoptimistic (compared to the facts) when it comes to how emphatic and sensitive to the plight of others their children really are.

The explanation that the research team gives for the surprising results is the well-established phenomenon of moral self-licensing. This is an occurrence where past moral behaviour allows people to feel secure in their own moral self-regard, giving them (according to their own understanding) the right to behave in morally dubious ways without feeling that they are doing wrong. Any past behaviour of generosity or compassion may result in dubious future acts without the fear of feeling heartless or selfish.

Daniel Coleman (2006:50) refers to an experiment in which 40 theological students were asked to give a practise sermon. Half of them had to base their sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan, a seminal text in the Christian tradition of helping a stranger by the roadside. The students, not knowing they were part of an experiment, were sent to give their sermon in intervals of 15 minutes. On their way, each of them passed directly by a man groaning in evident pain. Of the 40 students, 24 passed right by, ignoring the man in pain. And those who were given the parable of the Good Samaritan were not more likely to stop and help than any of the others. Coleman (2006:52) refers to the importance of making space and time to live with attention, awareness and thoughtfulness of the world around us.

It would seem that the challenge of “children’s education” is bigger than we often realise. I refer specifically to the teaching of values to the next generation. The following seem to be of importance:

  • Our own understanding, as parents, of the social implications of our teachings. Is the social conscience of adult members raised to such an extent that their children can see and experience it?
  • Our religious identity: how people of religion think of themselves and others in relation to their identity (superior; justified).
  • Being religious does not automatically imply that we have social intelligence. It would seem that we might be unrealistic about our level of social intelligence as parents. A busy life requires a certain level of consciousness to enable us to connect to the needs of others and not to be absorbed only by our own noise. The effort we as parents make in this regard can have an influence on what we teach our children.
  • We should make sure that what we teach our children is based on inclusivity, not exclusivity.

We can ignore Kahneman’s warning by not taking the research seriously. But that would be to the detriment of ourselves and the future world we envisage for our children.


Decety Jean. The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World, in Current Biology 25 (16 November 2015)

Goleman, Daniel 2006. Social Intelligence. The New Science of Human Relationships. London: Hutchinson

Kahneman, Daniel 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin Books

Dr Frederik B O Nel (Pastoral Therapist; Life Coach; Independent Social Commentator)

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