February 11, 2020
Most of us would prefer to believe that people are fundamentally good. Now, researchers from the University of Washington’s Learning & Brain Sciences division (I-LABS) have found evidence that babies and toddlers actually are altruistic—that they will give away something desirable, such as food, even at a cost to themselves.
The researchers studied nearly 100 19-month old infants, and discovered that the babies were quick to share their food with the study’s authors, even when they themselves were undoubtedly hungry.
And not only did they find that this generous and kind behavior starts in infancy, but they believe their work suggests that social experiences very early in one’s life can shape our behavior towards others later on in adolescence and adulthood.
“We think altruism is important to study because it is one of the most distinctive aspects of being human. It is an important part of the moral fabric of society,” says lead author Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral researcher at I-LABS, in a release. “We adults help each other when we see another in need and we do this even if there is a cost to the self. So we tested the roots of this
Kindness towards others at one’s own expense is a uniquely human trait. Indeed, the researchers say, nonhuman primates have been found to cooperate, and to share resources under restricted conditions. But nonhuman primates, such as chimpanzees, don’t actively hand over delicious food that they need themselves.
For this study, researchers chose kid-friendly fruits—including bananas, blueberries, and grapes—and set up an interaction between child and researcher. The goal: to determine whether the child would, without encouragement, verbal instruction or reinforcement, spontaneously give an appealing food to an unfamiliar person.
In the experiment, the child and the adult researcher faced each other across a table at I-LABS, and the researcher showed the child a piece of fruit. What happened next was determined by whether the child was in the control group, or the test group. In the control group, the researcher gently tossed the piece of fruit onto a tray on the floor beyond reach but within the child’s reach. The researcher showed no expression and made no attempt to retrieve the fruit.
In the test group, the researcher pretended to accidentally drop the fruit onto the tray, then reach for it unsuccessfully. A video clip from the experiment shows a 19-month-old child offering a strawberry to study lead author Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, after Barragan pretends to drop the fruit.
That reaching effort—the adult’s apparent desire for the food—seemed to trigger a helping response in the children, researchers said: More than half the children in the test group picked up the fruit and gave it to the adult, compared to 4% of children in the control group.
In a second experiment with a different sample of children, parents were asked to bring their child just before their scheduled snack or mealtime—when the child was likely to be hungry. Researchers reasoned that this would raise the “cost to self” that defines altruism. The control and test group scenarios were repeated, but with children who were now more motivated to take the fruit for themselves. The results mirrored those from the previous study. Fully 37% of the test group offered the fruit to the researcher while none of the children in the control group did so.
“The infants in this second study looked longingly at the fruit, and then they gave it away!” said Andrew Meltzoff, who is co-director of I-LABS and holds the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Chair in psychology. “We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping.”
The research team also analyzed the data in different ways—whether children offered fruit on the first trial of the experiment or got better during the process, for example, and whether children from particular types of family environments helped more.
The researchers found that infants helped just as much on the very first trial of the experiment as on later trials, which Barragan said shows that the children did not have to learn to help during the study and needed no training. Indeed, children spontaneously and repeatedly helped a person from outside of their immediate family.
Research contact: @uwashington