Some Babies Understand Altruism, Others Are Just Jerks

Illustration for article titled Some Babies Understand Altruism, Others Are Just Jerks

The idea that babies are the embodiment of sweetness and innocence always struck me as a bit odd, since they spend most of their day screaming until their demands are met and have been known to randomly bite loved ones. Yet, according to a new study infants do have some redeeming qualities aside from looking ridiculously adorable in footie pyjamas. Babies as young as 15 months understand fairness, and some may be willing to let you check out their most prized LEGO toy, if you ask nicely.

For a study published in the journal PLoS ONE, 15-month old babies sat on a parent's lap and watched two short videos of researchers sharing. Using either crackers or milk, one video showed two people receiving equal portions of food, and the other showed and unequal distribution. Most of the 47 babies in the study stared longer at the videos in which one person got more food than the other. According to a phenomenon called the "violation of expectancy," babies spend more time looking at things when they're surprised (presumably there was some kind of control that took into account their passion for looking at shiny objects). "The infants expected an equal and fair distribution of food, and they were surprised to see one person given more crackers or milk than the other," says University of Washington psychology professor Jessica Sommerville, who led the study.

In a follow-up experiment, the babies were given a basic LEGO block and a LEGO doll, and researchers recorded which was their favorite. Later, an experimenter asked for a toy. One third of the infants shared their favorite toy, one third handed over their non-preferred toy, and the others looked freaked out and drooled on themselves. 92% of the babies who shared their preferred toy spent more time looking at the unequally distributed food, and 86% of those who shared their least favorite toy were surprised to see the crackers and milk split evenly. Sommerville concludes:

"Our findings show that these norms of fairness and altruism are more rapidly acquired than we thought ... These results also show a connection between fairness and altruism in infants."


Sommerville believes that babies learn about the value of generosity by observing those around them, but her team is currently conducting more research to determine if these are learned traits, or if jerkiness is an inherent quality.

Babies Show Sense Of Fairness, Altruism As Early As 15 Months [EurekAlert]

Image via Aliaksei Lasevich/Shutterstock.

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Hm. Does the 92% who were more surprised by inequality sharing their favorite toy mean they are more altruistic? Or, does it mean, they learned from the video that inequality is normal and that's why they gave away their favorite? Because some people get more/better?