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By Ray Williams
May 17, 2021


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.

Anecdotally, anyone who’s spent time around toddlers knows that they mostly don’t like sharing their toys. Together with research showing that toddlers, like adults, get pretty attached to their things and are reluctant to give them up, this has led to a popular belief that toddlers are selfish by nature.

But, drop something in front of a 2-year-old, and she’s likely to pick it up for you. Can’t get into a cabinet because your hands are full? Count on the watchful toddler to wander over and open the door. And that stapler you were using a few minutes ago — where did it go again? Oh, yes — over there, right where she’s pointing.

A team of developmental psychologists led by Julia Ulber has published evidence in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology that paints a more heart-warming picture. These psychologists point out that most past research has focused on how much toddlers share things that are already theirs. The new study looks instead at how much they share new things that previously no one owned. In such scenarios, toddlers frequently show admirable generosity and fairness.

There were two main experiments. The first involved 48 pairs of 18-month-old or 24-month-old toddlers sitting together at table, in the middle of which was a small container containing four marbles. If the toddlers took a marble and placed it in a nearby jingle box, it made a fun noise. The point of the set-up (repeated four times for each toddler pairing) was to see how the pairs of toddlers would divvy up the marbles between them.

Most of the time (44 per cent) the toddlers divided the marbles up fairly, 37 per cent of the time unequally (i.e. one child took 3 marbles), and 19 per cent of the time one child took all the marbles. This all took place pretty calmly, with marble steals happening only rarely. Overall, the experiment “rarely left one peer empty-handed,” the researchers said, “and thus [the results] do not match the picture of the selfish toddler.”

In a follow-up experiment with 128 pairs of two-year-olds, the set-up was more complex and this time, unlike the first experiment, none of the toddlers knew each other. Again, the children sat at opposite sides of a table with marbles on offer, but this time they had to pull a board sticking out of their side of the table to get the marbles to roll down into a reachable tray (marbles could again be used to make a jingle box play music). When the apparatus was designed so that there was one shared tray between the two toddlers, the toddlers shared the marbles equally about half the time. And this rose to 60 per cent if they’d had to collaborate by pulling the boards together to release the marbles.

In another variation of the set-up — possibly the most illuminating — the children had separate trays, and sometimes the researchers made it so that one child received three marbles in their tray and the other child just one. On about one third of these occasions, the results were delightful — the “lucky child” with three marbles gave up one of their marbles to their partner, willingly and unprompted. “This is the youngest age ever observed at which young children make sacrifices in order to equalize resources,” the researchers said.

These acts of fairness were greater when the marbles were color-coded so that two marbles matched the color of one child’s jingle box (located behind them) and the other two matched the other child’s. This color-coding effect on generosity might be due to the children interpreting the colors as a sign of ownership (i.e. the idea being that this or that marble belongs to the other child because it matches their jingle box), or the colors might simply have helped the children, with their limited numerical skills, to identify a fair split in the numbers of marbles.

The researchers said their results showed that “young children are not selfish, but instead rather generous” when they’re sharing resources among themselves, and that more research is needed to establish “in more detail the prosocial or other motives that influence the way in which young children divide resources.”

When Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany watches young children in the experiments he’s designed, he sees acts of altruism and cooperation — along with more examples of what sets humans apart from other species.

“From when they first begin to walk and talk and become truly cultural beings, young human children are naturally cooperative and helpful in many — though obviously not all — situations,” Tomasello said during one of two lectures about the origins of human cooperation. “And they do not get this from adults; it comes naturally.”

Armed with data and several video clips of his experiments, Tomasello repeatedly showed during his two lectures that young children can be as selfless as they are adorable.

Lest you think he’s asserting there is no such thing as the “terrible twos,” Tomasello made clear the cooperative behavior he studies is “relative to nonhuman primates.” In other words, kids are quite altruistic when compared to apes. They gesture to communicate that something is out of place. They empathize with those they sense have been wronged.

They have an almost reflexive desire to help, inform and share. And they do so without expectation or desire for reward, Tomasello said.

“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.

“They arrive at the process with a predisposition for helpfulness and cooperation,” he said. “But then they learn to be selective about whom to help, inform and share with, and they also learn to manage the impression they are making on others — their public reputation and self — as a way of influencing the actions of those others toward themselves.”

Humans create a sense of shared intentionality — a sense of “we,” Tomasello said. That bond helps explain even the simplest social norms, like why it’s rude and socially unacceptable for someone to simply walk away from an activity involving another person with no warning.

“This sense that we are doing something together — which creates mutual expectations, and even rights and obligations — is arguably uniquely human even in this simple case,” Tomasello said.

Research by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, or I-LABS, finds that altruism may begin 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. The findings not only show that infants engage in altruistic behavior, but also suggest that early social experiences can shape altruism.

The study is published online in Scientific Reports, an open-access journal from the Nature Publishing Group.

“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.”

Nonhuman primates have been found to cooperate, and to share resources under restricted conditions. But nonhuman primates, such as chimpanzees, don’t actively hand over delicious food that they need themselves.

I-LABS researchers wanted to test whether human infants were able to act beyond self-interest, when faced with one of the most fundamental biological needs: food.

For this study, researchers chose kid-friendly fruits — including bananas, blueberries and grapes — and set up an interaction between child and researcher. The goal: to determine whether the child would, without encouragement, verbal instruction or reinforcement, spontaneously give an appealing food to an unfamiliar person.

In the experiment, the child and the adult researcher faced each other across a table at I-LABS, and the researcher showed the child a piece of fruit. What happened next was determined by whether the child was in the control group, or the test group. In the control group, the researcher gently tossed the piece of fruit onto a tray on the floor beyond reach but within the child’s reach. The researcher showed no expression and made no attempt to retrieve the fruit.

In the test group, the researcher pretended to accidentally drop the fruit onto the tray, then reach for it unsuccessfully. hat reaching effort — the adult’s apparent desire for the food — seemed to trigger a helping response in the children, researchers said: More than half the children in the test group picked up the fruit and gave it to the adult, compared to 4% of children in the control group.

In a second experiment with a different sample of children, parents were asked to bring their child just before their scheduled snack or mealtime — when the child was likely to be hungry. Researchers reasoned that this would raise the “cost to self” that defines altruism. The control and test group scenarios were repeated, but with children who were now more motivated to take the fruit for themselves. The results mirrored those from the previous study. Fully 37% of the test group offered the fruit to the researcher while none of the children in the control group did so.

“The infants in this second study looked longingly at the fruit, and then they gave it away!” said Andrew Meltzoff, who is co-director of I-LABS and Gertrud Tamaki, Endowed Chair in psychology. “We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping.”

The research team also analyzed the data in different ways — whether children offered fruit on the first trial of the experiment or got better during the process, for example, and whether children from particular types of family environments helped more.

Significantly more infants in the test group retrieved fruit for the researcher than in the control group. The researchers found that infants helped just as well on the very first trial of the experiment as on later trials, which Barragan said is informative because it shows that the children did not have to learn to help during the study and needed no training. Indeed, children spontaneously and repeatedly helped a person from outside of their immediate family.

The researchers also found that children with siblings and from certain cultural backgrounds were especially likely to help the adult, indicating that the expression of infant altruism is malleable. These results fit well with previous studies with adults that show positive influences of having a cultural background that emphasizes “interdependence,” that is, a background that places particular value on how much an individual feels connected to others. Said Barragan, “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 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 researcher 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, associate professor of psychology.

“Babies” explores what’s going on in the mind of these infants, how they make sense of the world, and what makes us human — ranging from our desire to be social, how we acquire morality, and why humor is so important, to how toddlers observing their parents makes them more determined to succeed.

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 and his studies on the origins of altruism. He set up situations where he struggles with a problem and observes whether toddlers will lend a helping hand. In one of his studies, you can see him clumsily knock a cup off a table to the floor, in full view of a toddler. First puzzled at what just happened, the toddler sees Warneken’s struggle to reach for his cup and then walks to retrieve it for him.

The toddlers were willing “… to help without being asked, or offered praise or a reward.” Imagine that. “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.

The challenge is to devise tasks that can be conducted on young children and also with chimpanzees. By comparing these groups, researchers can learn about evolutionary ancestry and the helping behaviors that highlights the last common trait of shared psychological abilities for altruistic behaviors, Warneken says.

So we need to remind ourselves that humans, even the ones we don’t agree or approve of, were not born selfish or unkind. Research shows it’s quite the opposite. Rather, along the way they’ve learned how to be that way because of the influence of adults.

Read my new book, available on Amazon:Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Moral and Ethical Leaders, where I examine in detail the impact that toxic bosses have on employee well-being.