Investigative Science

Children from poor families tend to be more altruistic and more willing to make personal sacrifices for others

Poor child
Written by Peter Walken

University of California, Davis

Jonas G. Miller, Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, 135 Young Hall, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616 E-mail:

Author Contributions All authors contributed to the design of the study. J. G. Miller and S. Kahle collected the data. J. G. Miller processed the physiological data, conducted the analyses, and drafted the manuscript. P. D. Hastings and S. Kahle provided critical revisions.


Altruism, although costly, may promote well-being for people who give. Costly giving by adults has received considerable attention, but less is known about the possible benefits, as well as biological and environmental correlates, of altruism in early childhood. In the current study, we present evidence that children who forgo self-gain to help other people show greater vagal flexibility and higher subsequent vagal tone than children who do not, and children from less wealthy families behave more altruistically than those from wealthier families. These results suggest that (a) altruism should be viewed through a biopsychosocial lens, (b) the influence of privileged contexts on children’s willingness to make personal sacrifices for others emerges early, and (c) altruism and healthy vagal functioning may share reciprocal relations in childhood. When children help others at a cost to themselves, they could be playing an active role in promoting their own well-being as well as the well-being of others.

Received July 10, 2014.
Accepted March 2, 2015.

About the author

Peter Walken

Peter Walken is an independent editor, an award-winning writer, and an editorial consultant. He is currently a contributing editor at News Examiner, where he has worked as a senior editor.

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