Story at a glance

  • Researchers conducted tests to see if children would help unknown adults by handing over fruit, even if they were hungry.
  • They found more than half of the children would give up food if the adult appeared to be in need.
  • The experiment involved nearly 100 19-month-old children.

Children as young as 19 months old are willing to give up food when they are hungry to help others, suggesting altruism begins in infancy, according to a recently released study

Researchers at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington wanted to find out if children would give up food to a needy stranger without being encouraged, just like how some adults might do. 

In an experiment that involved nearly 100 19-month-old children, a researcher and child sat across from each other and the researcher dropped a piece of fruit, these included bananas, blueberries and grapes — all of which were chosen for being “child-friendly” — onto a tray where the adult was unable to reach it, but the child could.

In the control group, researchers dropped the fruit onto a tray and did nothing else. But in the test group, researchers dropped the fruit on the tray, but then tried and failed to grab it. Researchers expected this would signal to the child the adult wanted the food. 

In the control group, only 4 percent of the babies picked up the fruit and gave it to the adult, compared to 58 percent of the children in the test group who seemed to be triggered by the adult’s desire to retrieve the fruit, picked up the food and gave it back to the adult.  

The study found children were even willing to help before snack time. A set of experiments was repeated with a separate group of kids when they were likely to be hungry. At least 37 percent gave the fruit to the researcher in the test group, compared with none in the control group. 

“We think altruism is important to study because it is one of the most distinctive aspects of being human. It is an important part of the moral fabric of society,” lead author of the study and psychologist at the University of Washington Rodolfo Cortes Barragan said in a statement

“We adults help each other when we see another in need and we do this even if there is a cost to the self. So we tested the roots of this in infants.”

Studies have shown food sharing among adult nonhuman primates is rare. Nonhuman primates, such as chimpanzees, do not actively give away food that they need for themselves. 

Researchers found that children with siblings and from certain cultural backgrounds were especially likely to help, indicating that infant altruism is malleable. 

Published on Feb 04, 2020