For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together - Pacific Standard

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.
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Preschool classroom. (Photo: Marko Poplasen/Shutterstock)

Preschool classroom. (Photo: Marko Poplasen/Shutterstock)

Concerned that your kindergartner is acting like a spiteful brat? Well, here’s a silver lining: Such behavior may be a sign of high intelligence.

That’s the surprising conclusion of a new study from Germany, which finds smart kids are apparently quicker to grasp the concept of competitiveness, and sense the advantages of impeding the success of others.

“We find that higher cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children,” conclude C. Katharina Spiess of the Free University of Berlin and Elisabeth Bügelmayer of the German Institute for Economic Research. “This relationship is even more pronounced among boys.”

In the Journal of Economic Psychology, the researchers describe their study of 216 five- and six-year-olds enrolled in institutional daycare in Berlin. After their mothers filled out a detailed questionnaire describing their personality traits, the kids took tests determining their cognitive skills.

This suggests that—in line with evolutionary theory—a deeply rooted survival-of-the-strongest mentality kicks in quite early for highly intelligent kids—especially boys.

The children then played a simple game in which they allocated a form of currency—images of suns—to another youngster they did not know. One round was structured in such a way as to make it “possible to reduce the partner’s payoff at no cost,” the researchers note. In another, “reducing the player’s payoff also results in a lower payoff for the decision maker.”

“Children with higher levels of fluid cognitive ability are significantly more likely to display spiteful behavior," the researchers report. "This shows that children with higher cognitive skills do not act in a strictly profit-maximizing manner. They are often willing to forego their own payoff to reduce the other player’s payoff.

“Children with higher cognitive skills prove to care very much, however, about their position relative to others,” they write. “They show an increased propensity to reduce the other subject’s payoff in all four allocation tasks whenever possible.”

This suggests that—in line with evolutionary theory—a deeply rooted survival-of-the-strongest mentality kicks in quite early for highly intelligent kids—especially boys. The results suggest that, instinctually, bright people understand that keeping a competitor down is ultimately good for themselves, even if it results in temporary losses.

Thankfully, for most youngsters, this impulse gets modified with maturity. A study published last year that looked at eight- to 17-year-olds found spitefulness declines dramatically with age.

Then again—as we all know—some people never quite shake it off. Bügelmayer and Spiess note that, if this dynamic also applies to adult behavior, it would help explain the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots. “Inequalities that are attributed to differences in cognitive abilities might be reinforced by (spiteful) behavior,” they write.

It’s worth emphasizing that this is a German study; it’s possible that the behavior it finds is, to some degree, culturally conditioned.

That said, these researchers may have hit upon something universal. If so, it seems that, at least for the smarter people among us, the concepts of altruism and success through cooperation only emerge later in one's emotional development. Early on, it's all about me—and promoting me involves keeping you down.

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