The La Crosse Compassion Project, a yearlong effort initiated by the La Crosse Public Education Foundation, is in its final weeks. More than 6,000 pictures of compassion, painted by students on 6-inch square panels, are on display until the end of June at The Pump House Regional Art Center.

The big question: Will it make a lasting difference? Do character traits learned at a young age persist later in life?

In a classic study from the 1960s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel attempted to answer that question by testing children’s ability to control their impulses. He gave preschool children a marshmallow and then left them alone in a room with the promise that they would get a second marshmallow only if they could wait 15 minutes before eating the first one.

A small percentage of the children ate the first marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room. The rest of the children tried to hold out — employing strategies like sitting on their hands or closing their eyes. About a third resisted long enough to earn a second marshmallow.

The full significance of the study was not realized until follow-up surveys were conducted 40 years later. Researchers discovered that the children who had successfully passed the marshmallow test at an early age turned out to have much greater success in school, earned considerably higher average SAT scores and had a much lower incidence of drug abuse.

The marshmallow study seemed to suggest that character traits such as self-control are stable: They tend to develop at an early age and persist throughout one’s lifetime.

But a study published last year in the journal Cognition cast doubt on that interpretation.

Researchers at the University of Rochester invited two groups of preschool children to do a simple art project. They were given old boxes of broken crayons and promised that new, better crayons would be given to them in a few minutes. The first group was not given new crayons: an adult entered the room and explained that a mistake had been made — they would have to finish the project with the old crayons. The second group was given new crayons as promised.

When the two groups of children were later given the marshmallow test, it turned out nearly all the children in Group 1 ate the marshmallow immediately; most of the children in Group 2 successfully waited the full 15 minutes and earned a second marshmallow.

This study — and many others like it — suggest that character traits are not as easy to identify and evaluate as we have long assumed. Much of what we take for reliable indications of a person’s character may actually be responses to reasonable expectations. A child that grows up in an unpredictable environment is unlikely to see any benefit from self-control.

It turns out that the same things happen with adult. Studies of workplace behavior reveal that employees in organizations will become more or less honest, engaged and trustworthy, depending on the examples set by leadership.

Character, in short, is not simply a matter of traits possessed by individuals — it also may be an expression of what a community (family, school, business or city) values.

When Mahatma Gandhi said, famously, “Be the change that you want to see in the world,” he was describing a profound truth about the way the world works. Character is contagious. If you want people around you to be more compassionate, respectful or trustworthy, you can influence their behavior by treating them in that way.

If The Compassion Project is to have a lasting influence on the children of La Crosse, it won’t be simply because of an art project, it will be because all of us — parents, teachers, community leaders — have committed ourselves to being more compassionate with one another. It will be because we have decided to set higher expectations for our own behavior, to which our children will naturally respond.

At an elementary school last fall, just a few weeks into The Compassion Project, a girl fell off a playground swing. A little boy ran over to help her up. “I’m being compassionate,” he explained.

Let’s all help each other up.

In 40 years our children, and our children’s children, will be much better for it.

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The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.

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