Infants Prove that Altruism is an Inherent Human Trait

Human behavior is complicated.  As a matter of fact, the debate as to Humanity’s inherent goodness (or evil-ness) is among the oldest philosophical debates, argued by thinkers like Plato and Aristotle.  

But while this debate seems to rage on, even today, a new study seems to advise that people are inherently fundamentally good.  The study found that babies are quickly willing to share their food if they sense someone else is hungry.  The research looked at about 8 dozen 19-month-old infants to learn that these very young children—who are hardly autonomous—will sacrifice their food even if they, themselves, are hungry. 

In the study, researchers either abandoned or accidentally dropped a piece of fruit among these babies and then either ignored the abandoned fruit or attempted (and failed) to retrieve the accidentally dropped fruit.  Only 4 percent of babies in the abandoned [control] fruit cohort gave the fruit back but more than 50 percent in the accidentally-dropped [experimental] fruit cohort gave the fruit back. 

Lead study author Rodolfo Cortes Barragan explains, “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. 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.”

This study was conducted by a group of researchers at the University of Washington’s Learning & Brain Sciences division (I-LABS). The researchers believe the findings provide effective and definitive prove that human altruistic behavior begins in our infancy.  On top of that, they believe this work hints at the idea that our social experiences—our environment—can shape behavior towards others later in adolescence all the way through adulthood.  

The I-LABS postdoctoral researcher goes on to say, “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.”

Now it is important to note that altruism—that is, kindness towards others even at your own expense—is unique to humans.  Yes, some primates exhibit a tendency to help others but it is typically still focused on self or family or community in a way that is less sacrificial.