Saturday, January 27, 2007

Children helping Strangers

Altruism is helping unrelated individuals (non-kin) without expectation of reward. Effective helping in simple tasks requires an understanding of the intentions and needs of the other person (empathy). When does the capacity for altruism develop? These investigators tested 24, 18 month old children. In one test, an adult male experimenter who was unknown to the child dropped a marker (or a paper ball, or a clothespin, or a cup) on the floor. The experimenter focused first on the object for 10 s then alternated their gaze between the object and the child while saying something like "my marker". In the control situation, the experimenter threw the object down to the floor and then looked at it with a "neutral facial expression" for 20 s. "No reward or praise" was given. Most children (22 of 24) helped in at least one task. For 6 of the 10 tasks, the children helped in the experimental situation significantly more often than in the control situation. Three young chimpanzees were also tested. All three were raised by humans and tested by their caretakers. All 3 chimps helped in some tasks and helped "reliably" in the tasks involving reaching. This was also the type of task helped most often by children. The authors concluded that young children and, to a lesser degree, chimpanzees can be altruistic.
Warneken F, Tomasello M. "Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees." Science. 2006 Mar 3;311(5765):1301-3.

1 comment:

Reuel said...

Or conditioning?

These "altruistic" responses might just be conditioned responses, i.e., the consequences of previously rewarded responses. Although the authors stress that the children were "pre-linguistic or just linguistic", these children and the chimps have probably been rewarded often for "good" (helpful) behavior.