A recent article in New Scientist named altruism as one of the ten great mysteries of human behavior, alongside kissing, blushing and laughter. For scientists, altruism has long presented a conundrum: Why do people help others, even putting their own lives at risk, for no obvious reward? Historically, attempts to explain such seemingly irrational behavior have fallen into three main theories: kin selection, group selection and reciprocity. According to these hypotheses, humans are fundamentally self-interested, and therefore we give only in order to get something, even if it’s a delayed reward, or to ensure benefits for our own genetics or those of our social group. More recent experiments, however, suggests that these ideas only partially explain the human impulse toward helping.
When it comes to toddlers, the research of Dr. Felix Warneken exposes some of the limitations of these long-held theories. As any parent knows, delayed rewards would not be sufficient motivation for an eighteen month old child to help anyone. Furthermore, the idea of altruistic behavior to benefit a social group would imply an understanding of what group norms are, something toddlers are too young to comprehend. Yet in multiple experiments, Warneken, an assistant professor at the Harvard University Department of Psychology, has found evidence of cooperation and spontaneous altruism in fourteen to eighteen month old children.
His experiments include an adult, unknown to the toddlers, who needs help in order to complete a task such as retrieving a dropped pen or grasping out of reach objects. They did not help in cases where the adult had deliberately thrown the pen on the floor or appeared to have already met his goal. Other experiments involved shared goals, such as moving a box together. Upon review, Warneken concluded, “The current results demonstrate that even very young children have a natural tendency to help other persons solve their problems, even when the other is a stranger and they receive no benefit at all.” He discussed his research with SuperConsciousness Magazine.
SC: Two of the theories used to explain altruism focus on kin selection and group selection. Yet in your research, children respond in helpful ways to total strangers. What have you been able to determine about these theories based on what you’ve discovered?
There appears to be a biological preparedness to develop these behaviors. There seems to be some initial inclination to also care about others. The metaphor I like to use is that culture cultivates these biological predispositions that we have.
FW: It’s true that the kin selection model does not easily explain why these children would help a stranger, unless they are not able to distinguish between kin and non-kin; but we know that young children can do that already, so that’s not a very plausible candidate for these behaviors. Two other candidates for how these behaviors can emerge evolutionarily are reciprocal altruism and culture group selection. According to the latter approach we have group norms, and we as individuals who are members of the group gain a long-term benefit because if we are a group of people that help each other out, we will then out-compete other groups of only selfish individuals. The question arises, how do we arrive there? The radical version of that is that the first step is to acquire norms, and then altruistic behaviors follow. But the results we have are that very young children, who have not yet acquired at least complex group norms, show some spontaneous altruistic behaviors.
Thus, norms and cultural group selection in humans might be an explanation, but I don’t believe that norms are the only source. It seems like many individuals start out having some spontaneous tendencies to help others and then over development, this turns into the kind of behaviors that are governed by group norms.
SC: You also mentioned reciprocity.
FW: With reciprocal altruism, the issue is that in order for a chain of reciprocal acts to occur, you have to start out cooperating. If people just reciprocate, then if someone starts out being uncooperative, in the next move, you have a person who will copy that and also be uncooperative. The starting state has to be one where we help each other, or share with each other. So, it could be that we have an inclination to start out being altruistic, and that’s jump-starting the chain of reciprocal acts.
SC: Can you explain the relationship between understanding that a problem exists and being motivated to help, particularly in the case of the children you studied?
FW: That’s a very important aspect, because it seems like people often ignore the question, “Why did someone not help?” They just jump to the conclusion the other person must be egoistic or act selfishly, but it might be that people simply don’t understand what is going on. They just do not see the need that the other person has, or do not know how to intervene.
The ones who previously received a reward were less likely to help in these situations. So, in this case, the reward had a negative effect on future helping.
In particular with children who do not perform these prosocial behaviors, it is difficult to know whether this is because they realize that the other person has a problem but don’t care about it, or is it that that they don’t understand the problem in the first place? We see, for example, that there’s a developmental shift between fourteen and eighteen month-old children. At fourteen months, they’re already helpful in situation where someone was reaching for an object, and supposedly it is thus easy to infer what the problem is. You see a concrete goal, an object on the ground, the person is extending her arm towards it and can’t get it, so there it is fairly straightforward how to help.
Then there are other situations that were more complex, like having to open the door for someone who is bumping into it. Eighteen month-olds are able to infer the goal and then help, but fourteen month-olds do not seem to do that. Our explanation is that this has nothing to do with a change in their underlying motivation but that there is a change in their cognitive capacity to read other people’s intentions in increasingly more complex situations.
SC: How does that understanding of the problem function with autistic children?
FW: I was surprised to learn that children with autism actually do seem to be able to infer intentions, and it now becomes even more complicated. What we distinguish in our study of cooperation on the one hand is the instrumental act of helping others with individual goals (I dropped my pen, and I’m reaching for it to get it in order to write my letter) and on the other hand efforts involving joint goals, (where two people want to, for example, lift a heavy object together). The hypothesis is that these are two different underlying cognitive representations, and the representation of individual goals is less demanding. In a study led by my colleague Kristin Liebal, we tested children with autism in these two types of cooperation. The children with autism helped in tasks supposedly requiring them to infer an individual goal, but the same children showed no evidence that they had formed a joint goal with the other person in the collaboration tasks. There seems to be a cognitive difference in their ability to represent individual and joint goals.
The results we have are that very young children, who have not yet acquired at least complex group norms, show some spontaneous altruistic behaviors.
SC: Part of your research is about what factors influence the development of altruism and cooperation in children. What have you found on that front?
FW: One has to do with the undermining effect of rewards. An obvious hypothesis why children help is because they expect a reward, and that rewarding children for helping will facilitate their helpful behavior. We took children who would already spontaneously help and rewarded them for helping. We then compared them to a group of children who spontaneously helped and were not rewarded, and also a group of children who spontaneously helped and were praised for helping. Then when all three groups of children were tested in situations without praise and without reward – the person who received the help just continued with their action without acknowledging the child – the children of the two groups, the praise and the control condition, would continue to help at a very high rate, but the ones who previously received a reward were less likely to help in these situations. So, in this case, the reward had a negative effect on future helping.
SC: So attaching it to some exterior motivation kind of kills the internal motivation.
FW: Exactly. That’s the interpretation: These external rewards have an undermining effect on their intrinsic motivation to help others.
SC: Based on what you have seen in your research, would you say that altruism and cooperation are an inherent component of human beings?
It seems like many individuals start out having some spontaneous tendencies to help others.
FW: The question is what “inherent” means. One interpretation of our findings is that these altruistic acts are not merely the consequence of socialization practices such as the acquisition of norms. There appears to be a biological preparedness to develop these behaviors. There seems to be some initial inclination to also care about others. The metaphor I like to use is that culture cultivates these biological predispositions that we have, rather than implanting them in us. So it’s already there to some extent, and then socialization practices, such as the norms about fairness, about caring for others, and maybe also individual learning about reciprocity, will moderate these initial inclinations.
For more information, visit http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~lds/index.html?warneken.html
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