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Selfless from the Start: Levels of Altruism in Infants

By Divya Sundar

For many people, Valentine’s Day is one of the most significant holidays of the year. Whether it’s spending time with friends and family or going out with a romantic interest, Valentine’s Day is the ultimate gesture of love and affection for others. While a majority of people may be expecting to get loads of candies and cards on this special day, others don’t expect rewards and instead show their love in ways that put others’ needs before their own. According to Psychology Today, this act of kindness is known as altruism. Those who are altruistic show compassion and generosity, often to those who are in a compromising situation or are in pain. But at what stage of life does this kind of behavior begin to show up? While most might think that this would be seen later in life when we can make more conscious decisions and think about consequences, recent studies actually show that altruistic behaviors may start emerging during infancy.

Created by psychologist, Walter Mischel, one popular psychology test involving marshmallows, known as the marshmallow test, attempted to test delayed gratification. Children were told that they could have one marshmallow at that moment or wait a while and get two. From this test, we see that the participants were in fact able to exercise self-control and delay getting a reward. Even though this study did not intend to study altruistic behavior, this gives us some insight into an infant's ability to temporarily set aside their own needs. Although this may seem to be quite impressive for five-year old participants, will 19-month-olds be willing to give up a reward entirely for the sake of helping another?

Published early February, a study by University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, or I-LABS tried to observe the altruistic behavior of 100 19-month-olds. In this study, the researchers wanted to see whether the infants, without any prompting, would hand over a tempting fruit to a complete stranger. In the control group, the researcher tossed a piece of fruit within reach of the child and made no attempt to retrieve the fruit. Only 4% of the children handed the fruit back. However, in the test group, the researcher once again tossed the fruit but this time the researcher unsuccessfully reached for it. Over half the infants picked up the fruit and handed it back to the researcher. From this part of the study, the researchers observed that unsuccessfully reaching for the fruit had triggered the children to act selflessly.

Children behaving altruistically

Following this, a second similar study was done. This time the children did the tests right before their snack or meal time, a time at which they would be hungry. Yet again, the researchers saw that 37% of the children gave away the fruit in the test group and none in the control group. Thus, the researchers were surprised to see that the children were able to ignore their own needs to help others, which showed that the children’s behavior was truly altruistic. According to Andrew Meltzoff, the co-director of I-LABS, "The infants in this second study looked longingly at the fruit, and then they gave it away! We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping."

The study also explored whether the children needed to be trained to act in this manner as well as the effects of a family environment on their level of altruism. Overall, the children did equally well on the first trial as they did on the rest, meaning that they did not need to be trained to act selflessly. The researchers also observed that infants with siblings or from a cultural background that had a large emphasis on connectivity were more likely to hand the researcher the fruit. The lead author of this study, Rodolfo Cortes Barragan explains, "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 in our kids, this could move us toward a more caring society."



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