Study Suggests Altruism Begins in Infancy

Infants Willing to Give Up Food to Others in Need, Researchers Find

Many people are ready to share or give whatever they have to help people in need. Researchers have found that this altruistic behavior probably started when such individuals were still babies.Kids Altruism

The giving of a helping hand, even at a possible cost to oneself, is what altruism is about.

A major need that altruistic persons often help others to fill is that for food. Apart from making donations, some people might assist hungry persons by giving up their own food.

Researchers at the University of Washington found in experiments they carried out that babies – at just 19 months of age – were willing to give up food to others who appeared to need it. The infants displayed their readiness to help even when they were hungry themselves.

“We adults help each other when we see another in need and we do this even if there is a cost to the self,” said Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington. “So we tested the roots of this in infants.”

The research also hints that the early social experiences of a person also exert an effect on the formation of altruism.

Findings from the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Testing altruism

I-LABS scientists in the current study wanted to find out when humans typically begin to exhibit altruistic behavior. They decided to test whether this starts in infancy using food, which is perhaps the most important need of humans.

For the study, the researchers selected almost 100 infants. They made use of fruits that infants are known to love, such as blueberries and bananas, to carry out some experiments.

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The trials involved an interaction between a baby and a researcher in which the latter encourages the former, albeit indirectly, to give up a fruit. Facing each other, the researcher showed the fruit to the baby; what followed next was a factor of whether the child was in the test or control group.

The researcher feigned dropping the fruit onto a tray unintentionally and then tried to get it without success while infants in the test group looked on.

As for the control, an I-LABS team member threw a fruit onto a tray placed on the floor close to a child but beyond the reach of the researcher, who neither showed any expression nor attempted to get the fruit.

More than 50 percent of the infants in the test group picked the fruit and gave it to the unfamiliar researcher, seemingly driven by the latter’s failed attempt to retrieve it. On the other hand, just four percent of the children in the control group did a similar thing.

The I-LABS team performed another experiment using a different cohort of children, who were tested during periods when there was a higher tendency that they would be hungry. This time, 37 percent of children in the test group gave up the fruit, but none in the control group did the same.

“The infants in this second study looked longingly at the fruit, and then they gave it away!” said Andrew Meltzoff, the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Chair (psychology) at the university. “We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping.”

Revealing findings

The researchers further explored whether there was a change in altruistic behavior between trials. However, they found that children who showed a willingness to help the stranger in the initial trial also helped during later trials.

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Barragan described the findings as informative. They showed that the children did not need to be taught during the study how to help before they could do so. The infants exhibited a willingness to help a stranger in need over and again.

The study also showed that early family and social experiences of a child can affect altruism. Infants with siblings and from particular cultural backgrounds displayed a greater willingness to help.

The effect of early social experiences on altruism in this research confirms findings from some earlier studies.

Barragan expressed the need for more research to find ways or better understand how to promote altruism in children. Such discoveries could help to make possible a society that shows more care for people in need.



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