University of Bath

The effects of mental representations of children on prosocial motivation

Does children's salience encourage us to help and support others? This project focuses on the role of children in our values, attitudes and behaviour.

A young girl running in a field
Stimulus material used in one of our studies to make children salient to participants.

Organisations have long suspected that they can enhance interest and support by putting children front and centre in their campaigns. For instance, children have been featured in campaigns for charity donations, road and rail safety, and to tackle smoking.

Such initiatives raise a key theoretical and applied question that has yet to be addressed: do children activate prosocial motivation in adults?

From an evolutionary perspective, we may have a biologically ingrained desire to provide children with resources and a safe and cooperative environment, to enhance offspring survival. In fact, previous research has shown that children - and even adults who have retained neonatal facial features and are baby-faced - elicit protective and care-taking motivations, empathy, patience and compassion.

However, while this evidence suggests that children and childlike adults elicit more pro-social motivation, research has not yet examined whether the salience of children can increase adults’ pro-social motivation to all other adults, and not just to children or child-like adults.

Research questions

We aim to conduct at least six experiments over the course of three years to answer the following questions:

  • does child salience make people more motivated to help and support others (children and adults), and more motivated to contribute to their community?
  • under which conditions is this effect stronger (for example, thinking about babies), and what are the boundaries of such an effect (for example, thinking about terrorists' children)?
  • what are the underlying psychological mechanisms in this effect?

Project team

This is a joint research effort by the University of Bath and Cardiff University, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The project operates in connection with the uVAB lab at Bath, which conducts research to better understand values attitudes and behaviour.

Participants are:

This project is part of the Understanding Values Attitudes Behaviour (uVAB) Lab.

Expected outputs

The findings will be submitted to high-impact psychology journals and presented in symposia and presentations at several international conferences.

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Isolating the child salience effect

1 SEP 2017  to  1 APR 2019

We will examine under which conditions the effects of child salience are stronger. Our initial data suggests that people become more prosocial when they think about children. We will examine, for instance, whether the child's age makes a difference: the effect may be stronger when people think about babies rather than children.

Testing the psychological mechanisms

1 SEP 2018  to  1 DEC 2019

We will examine psychological mechanisms that explain the effects of child salience. We aim to test whether the effect requires deliberative thought or whether it is a more spontaneous and automatic effect.

Testing the child salience effect in the field

1 MAY 2019  to  1 APR 2020

We will examine whether child salience can increase people's prosocial behaviour in the real world. We will test whether child salience motivates people to donate or to protect the environment.