New Discovery Shows Sharing May Start in Infancy!

It seems likely that the spirit of giving might simply be part of being human!

Feb 14, 2020

US scientists have found that the “spirit of giving” may start a lot younger than previously thought. This follows their amazing discovery that even hungry babies are willing to give up a tasty snack to help others, spontaneously sharing their food with strangers in need from the tender age of just 19 months.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences ( I-LABS), carried out a study to see if toddlers would help unknown adults interacting with them by handing them a delicious-looking piece of fruit. But they also delved deeper. Would these very young kids be willing to give up their own appealing food to others, even at a cost to themselves?

Surprisingly, their tests showed that over half the children were happy to hand over the fruit. Amazingly, 37 percent of these very young kids were still willing to hand over food, one of life’s basic necessities, when they were hungry themselves.

In this respect, humans seem ahead of primates, who are known to cooperate and share limited resources, but not to hand them over to others when hungry.

“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,” explains Rodolfo Cortes Barragan of the University of Washington team. '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,” he adds.

In their initial experiment, which involved 48 toddlers that were only around 19.5 months old, researchers began by showing each child a piece of colorful, child-friendly fruit. These included bananas and blueberries.

The researchers then either tossed the fruit gently away onto a tray on the floor within the infant’s reach without showing any emotion, and didn’t try to retrieve it, or alternatively, pretended to accidentally drop the fruit onto the tray before reaching for it unsuccessfully. 

The team found that the display of reaching for the fruit which showed the adult’s desire for it, can trigger a helping response in the toddlers, with over half picking it up to give it back to the adult. But only four percent did this when the adult had been emotionless.

In a second set of tests involving a different, same-sized group of toddlers, the experiments were timed right before their regular snack to ensure the children were hungry. The researchers were now able to repeat the first test but in conditions where the cost of giving back was higher, as the kids would be more driven to take the fruit for themselves. But surprisingly,  the results almost mirrored those of the first study, with 37 percent of the participants offering the food back to the researchers if they reached for it!

“The infants in this second study looked longingly at the fruit, and then they gave it away!” reveals paper co-author, and co-director of I-LABS, psychologist Andrew Meltzoff. “We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping,” he explains, adding that if the tests were repeated with the same children, they performed just as well.

Or as the researchers themselves put this in the introduction to their paper:

“Here we show that in a nonverbal test, 19-month-old human infants repeatedly and spontaneously transferred high-value, nutritious natural food to a stranger (Experiment 1) and more critically, did so after an experimental manipulation that imposed a feeding delay (Experiment 2), which increased their own motivation to eat the food.”

These findings led the team to conclude that kids have a tendency to spontaneously and repeatedly help relative strangers. They believe that this isn’t an ability that’s learned. However, they did point out that  early social experiences can shape altruism. This is because they noticed that certain family and cultural backgrounds, for instance the presence of siblings, can optimize altruistic tendencies.

The outcome could be a better world for all: “If we can discover how to promote altruism in our kids, this could move us toward a more caring society,” the researchers optimistically conclude.

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DAPHNE KASRIEL ALEXANDER, EDITOR IN CHIEF
Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.