We are Born with Fairness, Kindness and Altruism
The violence, cruelty and unfairness shown to us daily by the media could prompt us to believe in humankind’s darker nature. But research on young children has shown that we are not born that way.
If you have children, or are around any for an extended period of time, you may have noticed they may not like to share their things, like adults. Many people have concluded that the children are not that different from selfish adults.
Yet, watch children for a while be helpful, whether it’s a 2 year old picking stuff up for you, or helping you carry things, find things you have misplaced.
A team of developmental psychologists led by Julia Ulber has published a study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology that describes children as being unselfish and kind. Ulber and her team argue that most past research has focused on how much children may not share things that are already theirs. Instead, their study how much they share new things that previously no one owned. In these instances, toddlers frequently generosity and fairness.
The researchers conducted two experiments with 48 pairs of 18-month-old and 24-month-old children playing with marbles and observed whether the children would share the marbles. They did when the experiment was repeated four times. The majority of the time the children divided the marbles up calmly and fairly.
In a second experiment with 128 pairs of two-year-olds, the children were given marbles again and told to maneuver board at their table to get the marbles to roll down and play a music box. Again, the majority of the children shared. “This is the youngest age ever observed at which young children make sacrifices in order to equalize resources,” the researchers said in their report. The researchers concluded that “young children are not selfish, but instead rather generous” when they’re sharing resources among themselves.”
In research studies by Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany in the experiments he’s designed, he sees acts of altruism and cooperation.
“From when they first begin to walk and talk and become truly cultural beings, young human children are naturally cooperative and helpful in many situations,” Tomasello said in his lectures about the origins of human cooperation, “and they do not get this from adults; it comes naturally.”
Tomasello concluded that children are altruistic particularly when compared to apes. They gesture to communicate when something is not right and they empathize with other children they sense have been hurt.
“They have an automatic desire to help, inform and share without expectation or desire for reward,” Tomasello said.
The most significant conclusion Tomasello reached addresses the question of is the children’s behavior a result of nurture or nature. In other words, did parents teach them to be that way?
“There is very little evidence in any of these cases that children’s altruism is created by parents or any other form of socialization,” Tomasello said of his experiments.
“But as they grow, children’s spirit of cooperation is shaped by how they judge their surroundings and perceive what others think of them. They become more aware of what’s around them, and worry more about what it’s like and what it means to be a member of a group,” Tomasello said, “and they arrive at the process with a predisposition for helpfulness and cooperation.”
A third research study is published online in Scientific Reports, an open-access journal from the Nature Publishing Group by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, or I-LABS, also found that altruism begins in infancy. In a study of nearly 100 19-month-olds, researchers found that children, even when hungry, gave a tasty snack to a stranger in need.
“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,” said Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral researcher at I-LABS and lead author on the study, “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.”
I-LABS researchers tested whether young children were able to act beyond self-interest, when faced with the need and desire for food.
For this study, researchers chose including bananas, blueberries and grapes — and set up an interaction between child and researcher — a stranger. The goal was to determine whether the child would, without instruction, or positive reinforcement, spontaneously give the food to an unfamiliar person.
The researchers found that a majority of the children spontaneously and repeatedly helped a person from outside of their immediate family.
The researchers think certain family and social experiences make a difference, and concluded: “If we can discover how to promote altruism our kids, this could move us toward a more caring society.”
Humans are not born selfish, as conventional wisdom might suggest, nor do they have to be reprogrammed to cooperate with others.
At a young age, children show altruistic helping behaviors, a finding studied by University of Michigan psychologist Felix Warneken, whose work is featured in the Netflix docuseries “Babies.”
“Young children already have the capacity to put another person’s interest in front of their own,” says Warneken.
The series highlights the latest research from scientists worldwide and follows the adventures of 15 international families as they embark on a journey from helpless newborn to independent toddler.
“Babies” show Warneken’s studies on altruism. He constructed experiments where he struggles with a problem and observes whether toddlers will help him. In one of his studies, Warneken him knocks a cup off a table to the floor, in front of a toddler. The toddler first looks puzzled then watches Warneken’s struggle to reach for his cup and then helps Warneken retrieve it.
The toddlers were willing “… to help without being asked, or offered praise or a reward.” “One significant finding from our studies is how willing and spontaneous these toddlers are to help without being asked, or offered praise or a reward,” he says.
We need to remind ourselves that humans, even the ones we don’t agree with or approve of, were not born selfish or unkind. Research shows it’s quite the opposite. Children are born with an instinct for kindness, altruism and fairness. As they’ve grown up, some have learned they’ve learned how to be selfish or unkind because of the influence of adults.
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