Kids who have trouble controlling their impulses and are self-centered tend to have underdeveloped, immature regions of the brain that have been linked with the ability to consider the preferences of others.
The study, published in the journal Cell Press, suggested such children may be biologically predisposed to act on selfish impulses, even when they know better. As a result, they may have difficulty responding to educational strategies designed to promote successful social behavior.
Pediatric specialists believe childhood behavior shifts from a more selfish focus to an increased tendency to consider others as a child matures. But few studies have examined the biological mechanism responsible for such age-related changes.
For the new study, researchers from the Max-Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig conducted behavioral tests and brain-imaging studies comparing children – aged 6 to 13 years -- as they engaged in two carefully constructed games designed to gauge their ability to share and play well with other kids.
They found that egocentric behavior may not be a function of an inability to know "fair" from "unfair," but is due to an immature prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain associated with altruistic behavior, among other traits.
"Our findings represent a critical advance in our understanding of the development of social behavior with far-reaching implications for educational policy and highlight the importance of helping children act on what they already know," said lead study author, Dr. Nikolaus Steinbeis. "Such interventions could set the foundation for increased altruism in the future."