Babies Show Signs of Altruism, Giving Up Food Even When They're Hungry, Study Finds

Babies appear to know how to help those in need, according to researchers who studied signs of altruism in almost 100 children.

Researchers who wanted to see whether children would give up their food to a seemingly needy stranger without encouragement, like some adults might do, found the kids did just that—even when they were hungry.

The scientists recruited 96 19-month-old children to take part in their work at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. During the experiments, a child and researcher sat across from each other. In the control group of the first set of experiments, researchers threw a piece of fruit on to a tray where they couldn't reach it, but the child could. They did nothing else.

In contrast, researchers in the test group feigned dropping the fruit on the tray, then tried and failed to grab at the fruit. The team thought this would signal to the child that the adult wanted the food.

Among the control group, only 4 percent of the children retrieved the piece of fruit and gave it to the researchers, compared with 58 percent, or over half, in the test group.

Next, the team explored if children would be altruistic by giving up their fruit when it was at a cost to themselves. The first set of experiments was repeated with a separate group of kids before their snack time, when they were likely to be hungry. Similarly, of the total, 37 percent gave the fruit to the researcher, compared with none in the control group.

The experiments were repeated four times, with different fruits each time. Each time, children helped the researcher, despite not knowing them. Infants with siblings and infants from Hispanic/Latino and from Asian families shared more of the fruit, the team found.

Andrew Meltzoff, co-author of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, told Newsweek: "We often think of babies as impulsive, as unable to curb their selfish desires. But here we find that human babies are willing to extend generosity towards others, even to someone outside of the family.

"Importantly, infants are willing to help others when it comes at some 'cost' to the self. It is not just that they hand ordinary objects to others. Rather the significant point is that even when they are hungry and they are holding a delicious, desirable piece of fruit in their hand, they spontaneously are willing to hand it over to another in need."

Meltzoff said this suggests that human are prosocial, or perform acts which aid others, and are able to respond to the behavior of others.

"This research is beginning to uncover early signs of morality in the human mind," Meltzoff argued. "It is hard to think of anything more endearing and important.

"Altruism is a key component of the moral fabric of society. We and other scientists are impelled to explore its origins and what can be done to maximize the expression of altruism in children."

Addressing why children from certain cultural backgrounds were more likely to share their fruit, Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral researcher at I-LABS and lead author of the study told Newsweek: "We believe this reflects what social psychologists like Stanford's Hazel Markus call 'interdependence,' which involves emphasizing the importance of interpersonal connection and adjusting to others.

"Having siblings and being raised by parents of a particular culture are two experiences that can affect human behavior, and our results suggest that these experiences have an effect even quite early in life. The social experiences that infants have in their families may prepare them to help strangers."

Providing context for the work, Barragan explained: "Our study of human infants was designed to be compared to studies of chimpanzees, and chimpanzees do not share fruit, much less when they are hungry."

He went on: "Working with infants can be challenging, and this is why we always performed a 'warm up" with toys, so that the infants had the opportunity to interact with toys, in the room where they would be tested. This is an important part of doing research with infants."

baby, toys, play, stock, getty
A stock image shows a baby playing with toys. Psychologists have studied altruism in babies. Getty