Altruism May Begin in Infancy: Study
Sat, April 10, 2021

Altruism May Begin in Infancy: Study

Altruism, the desire to benefit someone other than oneself and the opposite act of selflessness, may begin in infancy. This is according to a team of researchers from the University of Washington, who found that babies are willing to give up their food to a stranger.

Altruistic Behavior Among Infants

In their study, authors Rodolfo Cortes Barragan from the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences in the University of Washington and colleagues shared that one of the distinguishing forms of altruistic behavior involves giving nutritious food to a needy stranger even if the giver desires to eat that food. Such an altruistic act of food transfer is costly to the giver because it lessens their caloric intake, the team added. This behavior is seen in human adults during times of famine and war as their altruistic act also threatens their survival. But when do people start to exhibit signs of altruism? The new research says as early as 19 months old.

Almost 100 19-month-old babies were included in the team’s study. They chose kid-friendly fruits, such as grapes, blueberries, and bananas, and then created an interaction between the researcher and the child. The purpose of such an interaction was to determine whether the child participant would spontaneously give nutritious food to a stranger even without reinforcement or verbal instruction.

Experiment 1: What Triggered the Helping Response in Kids?

The children were divided into two groups: the test group and the control group. In the first experiment, the adult researcher and the child faced each other in a table and the researcher would show a piece of fruit to the toddler. If the child belongs to the test group, the researcher would pretend to accidentally drop the fruit onto the tray and attempt to outstretch his arm. This is to make the child interpret that he was begging for the food but just could reach it because he was blocked by the tray and the table between them.

On the other hand, if the child belongs to the control group, the experimenter would also intentionally throw the fruit onto the tray and look at it without attempting to reach it. These procedures were based on classic studies involving chimpanzees who handed objects to a human experimenter when the latter pretended to accidentally drop the items. These previous studies on chimpanzees confirmed that primates also have the skills to transfer things (not a desirable food) to their non-kin.

Barragan and the team said that the reaching effort, which represents the adult’s desire for the food, triggered a helping response in kids. More than 50% of the toddlers picked the food and handed it to the experimenter, a stranger to them. Only 4% of the children in the control group gave the food to the experimenter.

Experiment 2: Feeding Delay or Hunger Manipulation

For the second experiment, the researcher used a different set of kids. This time, they asked the parents to bring the kid before their scheduled mealtime or snack. This means that the child would likely be hungry during the test. The authors' belief was that hunger manipulation would increase the personal “cost” it takes to give away food that they also need. The division of participants in the test and control groups was also repeated. The difference, though, is that the kids were more motivated to take the food for themselves.

The result showed that even with feeding delay, 37% in the test group gave their fruit to the experimenter and none in the control group.

Baby-Sized Altruistic Behavior

I-LABS’s co-director and current Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Chair in psychology Andrew Meltzoff said that the infants in the second experiment looked “longingly” at their food before giving it away to the experimenter. “This captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping,” he said.

The researchers also said that children helped the stranger on their first test as well as they did on the latest tests. This only shows that they need no prior training to display altruistic behavior. They simply repeatedly and spontaneously helped the person even if they are not their immediate family. Meltzoff and the team likewise analyzed the data in several ways, such as considering the family environments of the children. They found that kids from a certain culture and those with siblings are likely to help more. For example, kids who come from a culture that places value on connectedness to people or in a group are likely to display altruistic behavior during the food transfer experiment. Social psychologists have referred to it as interdependence or the state of being dependent upon one another.

Barragan added that certain social and family experiences can make a difference and further study will be helpful to better understand what maximizes the altruism behavior in kids. In so doing, it will help us move toward a “more caring society.”

Country-Level Estimates of Altruism

Our World in Data, a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems, also shared the country-level estimates of altruism, where zero is the average. The countries that reflect more altruism include the Philippines (0.38), China (0.5), Sri Lanka (0.51), Iran (0.59), Georgia (0.63), Egypt (0.63), Italy (0.35), Morocco (0.56), Brazil (0.46), United States (0.41), Australia (0.16), Indonesia (0.1), Kazakhstan (0.17), Cameroon (0.15), and Canada (0.23). On the other hand, the countries that reflect less altruism include Mexico (-0.81), Haiti (-0.52), South Africa (-0.32), Tanzania (-0.46), Kenya (-0.32), Saudi Arabia (-0.37), Czech Republic (-0.94), Poland (-0.37), Lithuania (-0.73), Estonia (-0.57),  and Serbia (-0.32).

In September 2018, a study titled “The neurodevelopmental precursors of altruistic behavior in infancy” also explained that an infant is more likely to display prosocial behavior when they reach 14 months old. They also suggest that babies are more likely to engage altruistically if they see someone in distress, but not if they see angry or happy faces.

While altruism is selfless, previous studies also show how it can benefit the giver when done for the right reasons. For instance, the giver enjoys better health, has lower stress levels, lives longer, makes connections, and has a higher level of happiness. If we want to teach this behavior in children, adults can be role models to help show them the way.