By Melissa J. Anderson

Earlier this year we wrote about how bringing dogs into the office can improve trust, teamwork, and morale. Now a new study shows that the proximity of children – or their toys – can improve “prosocial behavior” as well.

According to Sreedhari Desai, Research Fellow at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, research shows that adults primed with childhood cues were more likely to behave in a trustworthy manner.

In September’s Harvard Business Review, she explains that in lab tests, adults cheated less when they were near toys, like stuffed animals or crayons, or while watching cartoons. It seems somewhat unlikely that the mere presence of kid-stuff could influence behaviors in the real world.

But, she explained, the results held true in the real world too. Here’s how.

The Research

According to research performed by Desai and her research partner Francesca Gino, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, the presence of childhood markers led adults to behave more ethically, cheating 20% less than average.

The results were published in the working paper [PDF] Memory Lane and Morality: How Childhood Memories Promote Prosocial Behavior. They wrote, “Taken together, these experiments support a model in which remembering childhood leads to a sense of moral purity, which, in turn, promotes prosocial behavior.”

They explained:

“We found that one’s feelings of moral purity as well as the activation of moral-related constructs in one’s mind can change from moment to moment—increasing when individuals remember their own childhood—and that they can encourage prosocial behavior, even in domains unrelated to the original event that made them feel morally pure. Therefore, moral purity can be thought of as a dynamic mindset, susceptible to situational cues, with effects on behavior that can cross domain boundaries.”

Looking at the neuroscience, Desai mentioned to the HBR, may reveal another reason for the results. Studies show that oxytocin is released when people are exposed to children. Oxytocin encourages folks to behave more pro-socially.

Outside the Lab and into Your Office

More importantly, Desai pointed out, the results held true outside the controlled lab environment. She explained to the HBR:

“So we took KLD’s massive database of corporate information and cross-referenced it with geographical data, and we found that if companies have five or more day-care centers, nurseries, or kindergartens within a two-mile radius of their headquarters, their charitable giving increases significantly.”

In light of the research, Desai recommended:

“One suggestion is to put day-care facilities on corporate campuses. Not only would it make parents more relaxed about their kids, but it might also have a positive influence on everyone’s behavior. It could lead to a more ethical climate. And yes, perhaps pictures of children would encourage people to act better…”

On the other hand, within the paper Desai and Gino point out that people can quickly become desensitized to these kinds of markers – people who take care of children may run out of “pro-social” tendencies outside their family. They suggest that the research may have the strongest effect on people who don’t have kids, or on those, like grandparents, who tend not to see fault or selfishness in children.

Nevertheless, the correlation between child-care center proximity and philanthropic giving is interesting. But perhaps this could mean that companies with buildings in urban areas are more likely to be charitable, or that companies with a workforce that demands benefits like on-site childcare are more likely to also expect their companies to make philanthropic contributions.

On the other hand, it couldn’t hurt to include some blocks or crayons when decorating your office!