Born Kind? Researchers Prove Altruism Begins In Infancy

SEATTLE — Human nature is complicated, no doubt, but most of us would at least like to think that people are fundamentally good. If you’re a big believer in humanity’s best qualities, a new study is backing up your beliefs in a major way. It appears that babies may be instinctively altruistic.

Researchers studied nearly 100 19-month old infants, and discovered that the babies were quick to share their food with researchers, even when they themselves were undoubtedly hungry.

The study’s authors, a group of researchers from the University of Washington’s Learning & Brain Sciences division (I-LABS), say their findings effectively prove that altruistic behavior begins in infancy. Furthermore, they believe their work suggests social experiences very early in one’s life can shape their 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 in infants.”

Kindness towards others at one’s own expense is a uniquely human trait. While some primates have displayed a tendency to help each other out and share resources in certain situations, it is virtually unheard of across the animal kingdom for an animal to give up food he or she needs just because another is in need.

For this study, fruits were used (blueberries, bananas, and grapes), and each infant was placed in a room with an adult researcher they had never met before sitting across from them at a table. The infants were separated into a control group and an experimental group. In the control setting, the researcher then threw a piece of fruit on to the floor out of their own reach, but easily attainable for the baby. After that the researcher didn’t react at all, or try to grab the fruit at all. In the experimental setting, the researcher pretended to accidentally drop the fruit out of their own reach and then made failed attempts at retrieving the snack. This scenario was repeated with each infant multiple times, using a different fruit each time.

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It was that obvious display of effort and desire for the fruit that seemed to invoke a caring response in the babies; more than half of the infants in the experimental group reached down and gave the fruit back to the researcher, while only 4% of the babies in the control group gave the fruit back to the adult.

Next, a second experiment was conducted with a different group of babies. This time, parents were asked to bring in their infants just before their usual snack time, so the babies would be hungry. Besides this change, the research team carried out the same experiment as before. While there were some fluctuations, the overall results were similar. In all, 37% of the experimental group infants offered their fruit to the adult, while none of the infants in the control group showed the same altruism.

“The infants in this second study looked longingly at the fruit, and then they gave it away!” comments Andrew Meltzoff, a co-director of I-LABS. “We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping.”

Additionally, it was noteworthy that infants offered up the fruit just as often during their first trial of the experiment as in later scenarios involving a different fruit. This showed, according to the researchers, that the infants didn’t need to be “taught” to be caring and considerate; it came to them naturally.

The study’s authors also reported that infants with siblings or from certain cultural backgrounds offered their fruit to the adult more often. This observation suggests that altruism in infants can be influenced, at least to some degree.

“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. If we can discover how to promote altruism our kids, this could move us toward a more caring society,” Barragan concludes.

The study is published in Scientific Reports.

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