Tap Your Inner Child: The Science Behind Altruism


Do humans have an innate desire to help others without expecting anything in return? It’s a simple question that has tested the wits of scientists and philosophers across millennia, including the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes and Darwin. Now it’s AltruHelp’s turn to weigh in on this perennial question.

Today’s post marks the start of a three-part series examining the emerging research on how humans are naturally altruistic—i.e. how we are innately composed via our brains, genes and neurons to help others selflessly. By looking at recent experiments conducted at leading institutions such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the German-based Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, as well as articles from prominent science and psychology journals, our goal is to shed light on the cognitive, genetic and neurochemical processes that likely combine to make altruism an innate human behavior.

One of the most fascinating areas of research focuses on whether young children have a natural (versus a learned or socialized) willingness to be altruistic. At the Max Planck Institute, researchers Michael Tomasello and Felix Warneken have discovered that infants as young as 18 months will instinctively assist someone if they see a person in need. Here is an excellent explanation of their breakthrough experiment, provided by Linda Orlando of Buzzle.com, along with links to live footage from the experiment:

(The items in bold are my emphasis)

“Psychology researcher Felix Warneken conducted simple experiments with toddlers to evaluate the degree of altruism present in children as young as 18 months or even younger…. [He] performed a series of ordinary everyday tasks in front of toddlers, such as stacking books and hanging up towels with clothespins on a line. When doing the tasks, sometimes he intentionally ‘struggled’ with performing them, and other times he deliberately messed up. The purpose of the study was to see how the babies would react to his actions. He conducted his experiments one at a time with a group of 24 toddlers, recording the results on video.

Warneken was amazed when, repeatedly, each of the 24 toddlers offered him help within seconds of him dropping a clothespin or knocking over a book—but only if he appeared to need help. One video shows a baby clad in overalls glancing up at Warneken’s face, down to the dropped clothespin, and back up to Warneken’s face before quickly crawling over, grabbing the clothespin, pushing up to his feet, and eagerly handing the clothespin back to him. The simple experiment proved that the capacity for altruistic behavior emerges as early as 18 months of age in human beings….

Because true altruism means helping others without expecting anything in return, Warneken never asked for help, and purposely didn’t say ‘thank you’ when a baby helped him, so as not to taint the research by subliminally training the babies to expect praise or thanks if they helped him. To be truly altruistic, babies must possess a quality that Warneken calls ‘pro-social motivation’—the desire to be a contributing part of their community—as well as the cognitive ability to understand the goals of other people. ‘When those two things come together—they obviously do so at 18 months of age and maybe earlier—they are able to help,’ Warneken explained.”

[See live footage of the experiment here and at this site]

Let’s step back and consider this. At 18 months or younger, most infants are still learning how to walk and can only say a limited number of words. Yet the experiment shows infants already have the cognitive power to tell when another person needs help, and the intrinsic desire to help this person without expecting anything in return. Moreover, the infants’ parents or caretakers were absent from the experiment, meaning the infants weren’t motivated to help based on parental encouragement. Their concern and altruism occurred instinctively.

So what does this study mean for all of us non-infants? That we all have a natural desire to help others that has been embedded in our brains since the earliest stages of our development. Being altruistic is a fundamental part of who we are, and as basic to human nature as walking or talking (or maybe even more basic, since infants engage in altruism before fully developing these other functions). But as Tomasello notes in his book Why We Cooperate, the problem is that as children mature and become aware of their parents’ and group expectations, their instinctive desire to help others becomes restrained—and, more often than not, discouraged.

Here is the good news: we can all tap our inner child!

The next time you see someone in need, let your instincts take over and help that person. Not too long ago in our lifetimes we were all altruistic by pure impulse, and it’s never too late to be that way again.

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