When she was 8 years old, Lara Aknin convinced her little brother to trade his dimes for her nickels. It was an easy sell… after all, nickels are bigger and must therefore be worth more.
Now a psychologist at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, Dr. Aknin has discovered a mistake more profound than youthful embezzlement: in truth, her motivation itself was built on a misunderstanding of human nature.
In an interview with NPR’s Shankar Vendatam, Dr. Aknin describes the experiment in which her team asked toddlers to feed candies to hand-puppets which, they were told, would really enjoy the treats. Considering that these children were still too young to have absorbed any cultural awareness of giving as a value, the results produced two surprises. Explains Dr. Aknin:
“Children smiled significantly more when they were giving treats away than when they received the treats themselves. But what we thought was particularly exciting was that children actually smiled significantly more when they gave away one of their own treats than an identical treat provided by the experimenter.”
In other words, the greatest feelings of joy may come from giving up that which we treasure the most.
But does the impulse remain as we grow into adulthood?