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Are babies altruistic?

We define altruistic behavior as helping others even when it comes at a cost to ourselves. And sometimes this may mean giving up food! Researchers at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington (I-LABS, Seattle) developed an experimental protocol to find out if toddlers were willing to sacrifice part of their snack for the benefit of a stranger. It was an opportunity to see if the spirit of giving begins at a very young age…

For the moment, only humans have been shown to offer food to someone in need even when the giver himself may need it. Of course, in many circumstances, bonobos will share food, but they will not spontaneously give a valuable piece of food (fruit for example). The I-LABS researchers wanted to test if the infants could exhibit altruistic behavior when it comes to this basic biological need for food.

Ninety-six infants (ages 581 to 612 days) participated in the following experiments. In the first experiment, the young subjects and the researcher sat face to face on either side of a table. The researcher showed a piece of fruit to the infant and said the name of the fruit (banana, raisin, blueberry, etc.) to attract the baby’s attention. In the “beggar” group, the experimenter "accidentally" dropped the food from his hand, which landed on a tray, outside of his reach (but well within the baby's reach). A timer was set for 20 seconds as soon as the fruit touched the tray. During the first 10 seconds, the researcher looked at the fallen fruit and pretended to try to reach for it. During the second 10 seconds, the researcher held out his hand while looking back and forth between the fruit and the baby. For the control group, the experimenter intentionally threw the fruit on the tray and then put his hands on the table while taking on a neutral expression. Again, the timer was set to 20 seconds. As in the other group, at the end of each trial the researcher affirmed the baby’s behavior by saying “Ah, interesting,” whether or not he or she gave the fruit back. A second experiment was carried out in the same way, except that this time it took place just before snack time, meaning the children were likely to be hungry. The researchers hypothesized this would increase the cost to the giver.

So did the infants give the tasty treat to a complete stranger without any need for encouragement? In the first experiment, the results show that the adult’s apparent desire for the fruit (“beggar” group) seemed to trigger a helping response in the young subjects. Indeed, over half of the toddlers (58.3%) picked up the fruit and gave it to the adult, while only 4% of children in the other (control) group did so. The results of the second experiment confirm these results, but to a slightly lesser extent: 37.5% of the subjects in the experimental group gave the fruit to the researcher while none of the toddlers in the other group gave up the fruit.

Based on the observations and analysis, it appears that the toddlers did not need to learn to give, since they helped even more on the first trial than the second. Thus they spontaneously and on several occasions helped a person who was neither family nor a friend. The researchers also noted that babies with siblings are particularly likely to share their food with the adult.

According to the study’s authors: “certain childrearing practices and values […] convey the expectation to infants that people tend to help others38 and may engender in children a generalized feeling of interpersonal obligation towards other humans in need. In this way, early social experiences in family settings can be understood as contributing to a psychological system that fuels the expression of humans’ altruistic potential.”
Source: Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, Rechele Brooks, Andrew N. Meltzoff. “Altruistic food sharing behavior by human infants after a hunger manipulation”, in Scientific Reports, Feb.2020


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