Is It Instinct or Learned? Kindness in Development: A Research Project with Dr. Tracy Spinrad

Kindness in Development

As I walk through the campus of Arizona State University, I see a collection of world cultures and languages, vibrant with diversity. Despite our backgrounds and differences we all walk to class in the heat, here for the same reason: knowledge. We’re all here, interacting on some level, but how do we choose to treat each other? As young adults, we are entering the real world, and we have the power to help shape the world we live in.

Dr. Tracy Spinrad, a professor and researcher at Arizona State University for nearly 20 years, has very similar thoughts. She is concerned with how people treat one another, especially those who are different from ourselves. To whom are we kind? Will individuals only look after our own so to speak? Or will individuals lead with kindness to all humankind? Kindness is a global issue with global implications.

Dr. Spinrad and her colleagues, Drs. Nancy Eisenberg (Arizona State University), Debbie Laible (Lehigh University), and Gustavo Carlo (University of Missouri), have designed the Kindness in Development (KID) Project to examine these ideas in young children. These incredible researchers are inviting children from Kindergarten through second grade to participate in their study to play games, answer questionnaires, watch videos with scenes of injustice, and to distribute their prizes to others (if they so choose). They work with dozens of trained research assistants – myself being one of them!

Kindness in Development Dr SpinradI got the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Spinrad to talk research, life, and most importantly kindness.So tell us about Kindness in Development. What is it about?

Dr. Spinrad: We are currently very interested in children’s positive social behaviors. So when we are talking about positive social behaviors, we are referring to children who are helpful, have social competence, work well with their peers, and also emotional responses such as feeling empathy or concern or caring toward other people. So that’s really what we’re studying. We are wondering what it is that makes kids want to be kind and feel concern for other people.

How long have you been in the research world?

Dr. Spinrad: I have been here at ASU for nearly 20 years. Prior to my time at ASU, I was doing research as a graduate student at at Pennsylvania State University, and before that, I was an undergraduate research assistant (like you!; at UC Irvine). So I’ve been doing research for 25 plus years at this point. I fell in love with research as an undergraduate. I found it was so exciting to have a question and then come up with an answer. When I was an undergrad, I studied infant day care and whether or not infant day care was something that would impact children’s later development. Now we have some pretty good answers about that because there were so many really big, great, well-designed studies. After that, I started moving into studying emotions in infants, toddlers, and young children.

What kind of information would you like to see come from the Kindness in Development study?

Dr. Spinrad: Oh my gosh, well we’re actually adding a piece – we’re adding EEG which is going to be some brain activity data which will be amazing. But, what I hope to find is to see differences in age for children in terms of their kindness to others. We don’t know anything about what happens over time with children in terms of will they have more caring towards people who are like them versus not like them. We have no idea. It could be that children get more kind to all different groups as they get older because of changes in moral reasoning. It could be the absolute opposite, that is, as children get older they’re more likely to say ‘No, I’m going be kind to the people who are close to me, like my friends or the people who I know better’, right? So it could go either way, I’m just hoping that we can show which direction it goes for this study.

So whether the familiarity piece helps or closes in whom children are kind to?

Dr. Spinrad: Right – are they getting more what we’ll call “extensive”, like our network of people that we’re kind to gets wider or if it gets smaller. I truly have no idea. So to me if we can show that in Kindergarten, first, and second grade there is a change, I’ll be thrilled. That to me is huge.

There’s another side of the coin for this study. It is also possible that some children feel overly aroused and anxious seeing somebody else in distress. This kind of reaction, predicts less helpfulness towards others. Think of it this way. If you feel distressed when seeing another person in distress, you might think, ‘I’m not going to help that person, I have to take care of myself.” You just might shut-down. We’ve been really interested in differentiating between those kinds of reactions that children might have towards others. Perhaps there is a fine line between feeling concern for another and becoming anxious yourself. So differentiating those responses is pretty important in the work we’re doing. And again do you feel more distress when you see someone whose more similar to yourself versus someone who is very different from you?

Kindness in Development
Why do you want to look at this age group of 5-8 years old?

Dr. Spinrad: It’s a great question because I’ve studied lots of different ages in my work. My training as a graduate student was studying infants and toddlers. For my early work, I studied toddlers’ helping behaviors towards their mothers versus a stranger versus a crying baby doll. So I’ve kind of been interested in this question about the different recipients of helping for a long time. Again, one of the things that were doing for this study is really focusing on those recipients: who are children helping? The reason why we focused on this age group is because we believe that children are beginning to differentiate between people who are like them and not like them by around age 5. So that is, children are well aware of individuals who are the same sex, same race/ethnicity, as well as many other traits.

Who inspires you – not only in research, but also in your daily life?

Dr. Spinrad: My colleagues inspire me. In particular, Nancy Eisenberg who’s my closest colleague here. If you ever get a chance to have time with her, she’s an inspiration. She’s in the Psychology department. I’ve been working with her now; it will be 20 years this summer. She’s incredible, brilliant, kind, and generous and just an absolute lovely person. She’s somebody that’s known internationally and more importantly a kind and generous person as well. So she’s a huge inspiration.
 My other inspiration is my students, particularly my grad students. I find them exciting and they bring energy to our lab and ideas that maybe I hadn’t thought of, so those are things I appreciate.

Why is this topic of kindness important to you?

Dr. Spinrad: I think that people focus so much on negative behaviors, you know, when we’re studying children, there’s so much focus on aggression. You look in the media it’s focusing on children’s problem behaviors: adolescent delinquency, aggression, and risk taking behaviors and all these, sort of the negative pieces of development. Those are obviously very important, but I want to focus on the other end of it. Like what children are doing that’s kind and positive and how can we promote that positive behavior and empathy towards others because truly if you have empathy towards others you’ll probably going to be less likely to do some of those negative behaviors. It’s clearly related to the negative, but we want to focus on the positive social behaviors so I think that’s the important piece of what were doing.

I find it fascinating when kids give, maybe even sometimes at the expense of themselves – altruistic.

To piggyback off that; why do you feel it’s important in your life and work?

Dr. Spinrad: I’m a parent. I have two kids who I’m hopeful will be kind individuals that know to help people, that volunteer, that are the kind of kids that their friends can count on. It’s something that I value quite a lot, just in my own family and my own kids. So for example, if we’re driving down the street and there’s a homeless person, I want them to notice when I roll down the window and ‘oh I have food here’ and I hand it to them. They’re in the backseat probably listening to music or whatever, but I hope they notice. I hope that they see these are things that I value, so for me personally, as a parent, this is an important quality to me. That’s what you want your kids to be: is kind, good, moral people and that they’ve learned that. But also I find it fascinating when kids give, maybe even sometimes at the expense of themselves – altruistic. What’s compassion? You know, what is that? Is it really giving at your own expense kind of thing? I find that fascinating when children will do that. So at both an academic level and a personal level I think it’s really important.

Do you see any possible global effects?

Dr. Spinrad: I hope so… now for this project the global goal is obviously understanding kindness, but what’s more important at this point… I mean look at what’s going on in our society in terms of even in-group and out-group. That’s really come to a forefront right now politically of in-group/out-group, right? Of taking care of your own vs. taking care of others and understanding how do we take care of others even if they’re not like us. That really speaks to some of the things that were going through now as a country.

Do you have any advice you’d give yourself at 16? Did you know what you wanted to do at that point?

Dr. Spinrad: Oh my gosh (laughs) ok lets see, at 16… I was in California in the Bay Area. Like most teens, I was mostly concerned with boys and meeting the lead singers of several 80’s bands. I had no idea this is what I would be doing. I was very fortunate because my dad was an academic, so I had that model. But my dad was a super nerd and I was like ‘oh no, that’s what a professor is?’ Nope I’m not going to do that…they talked about numbers and stuff, that’s not fun.

But when I went to the university and I had some incredible role models (female professors who did fascinating research), I thought, ‘that’s amazing’. Then I realized, you know, they’re studying things that are really interesting to me. Then I started to figure ‘oh maybe I could do that’!

What about at 25?

Dr. Spinrad: 25 I can talk more about. I was in graduate school, and I think I was intimidated a lot by whether or not I could do this for a career. You might think it’s a career in which you just choose it and you teach, but there’s a lot of research that has to get done. There is a lot of pressure to publish your research and to make a real contribution to science. To do it, you have to work really, really, really hard. You don’t get paid all that well for it. I do it because I love it But at 25, I wasn’t confident that I could do it. So I wish I could have said to myself – you can do this. You will do it!

For more inspiration, check out our Make Kindness Cool Series here!



Also published on Medium.