Since having my son, I have seen a lot of fascinating—and often bewildering—behavior from babies and toddlers. It’s like they have their own inner logic that makes complete sense to them and to other little ones—and we have to decode it. Patting each other on the head? Enjoying being closed in a box? Moving stuffed animals methodically from one corner of the room to the other and back again and back again and back again?
Well, according to a new study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), altruism may begin in infancy. In a study of nearly 100 19-month-olds, researches found that children, even when hungry, gave a yummy snack to a stranger in need.
I mean, have you ever seen a hungry toddler? They act like you’ve been starving them for days! And then people stare at you while you give your cranky kid food in the grocery store before you pay for it.
Anyway, so what do these findings mean? They potentially show that infants engage in altruistic behavior as well as suggesting that early social experiences can shape their altruism.
“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,” said Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral researcher at I-LABS and lead author on the study. “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 in infants.”
For the study, researchers chose kid-friendly fruits such as bananas, blueberries, and grapes. Then, they set up an interaction between a child and researcher. In the first experiment, the child and adult faced each other across a table, and the researcher showed the child a piece of fruit. The next part 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 their 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 without success. More than half the children in the test group gave the fruit to the adult in comparison to 4% in the control group. The reaching effort apparently triggered a helping response, researchers concluded.
In a second experiment with different children, parents were asked to bring their child just before their scheduled snack or mealtime. So these children would be hungry—and perhaps less likely to engage in altruistic acts. But not so! The results were similar to those from the first experiment.
“The infants in this second study looked longingly at the fruit, and then they gave it away!” said Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of I-LABS. “We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping.”
Even more interesting, children spontaneously and repeatedly helped a person from outside of their immediate family. The researchers also found that children from certain cultural backgrounds and those with siblings were especially likely to help the adult—which suggests that acts of infant altruism is malleable. These results fit well with previous studies that show positive influences of having a cultural background that encourages interdependence.
“We think certain family and social experiences make a difference, and continued research would be desirable to more fully understand what maximizes the expression of altruism in young children,” says Barragan. “If we can discover how to promote altruism our kids, this could move us toward a more caring society.”