Two-year-olds seem to find helping others as rewarding as helping themselves

smiling child holding hand of woman at beachBy Christian Jarrett

If you’re in need of some renewed faith in human nature, the research literature on altruism by toddlers is a great place to look. Charming studies have shown that little children will readily go out of their way to help you, such as picking up things you’ve dropped, or passing you stuff you can’t reach. They can even do “paternalistic helping” which is when they ignore your specific request to help you in a way that you’ll find even more beneficial.

There are some evolutionarily tinged theoretical explanations for why children have these instincts: we’re a highly social species so it makes sense that we’re naturally inclined to help each other as a way to gain status and receive reciprocal favours later. A new paper in Developmental Psychology has taken a slightly different approach, asking: what is it, in the moment, that motivates toddlers to help others? Robert Hepach and his colleagues, including Michael Tomasello who’s conducted a lot of the landmark work on the development of altruism, report that toddlers are helpful, at least in part, because, well, they enjoy it. In fact, based on a new body-language measure of their emotion, they seem to find helping someone else about as pleasurable as they find helping themselves.

The researchers conducted two similar studies that involved testing nearly 100 two-year-olds (their median age was 30 months), one at a time. The basic setting was that there was some fun apparatus for rolling wooden marbles down a tube. When the toddlers ran out of marbles, a researcher who had been hanging washing, got a box down from the windowsill and struggled with another adult to get the lid off. The toddler was asked to help, and when he or she lifted the lid off the box, she found either a piece of plastic that was good for nothing (a control condition), another wooden marble (helpful for them), or a clothes peg (helpful for the clothes-hanging researcher). This was repeated a few times with the contents of the box varying on each trial.

Whenever the toddlers went over to the researcher to show them what they’d found, their posture was filmed via Microsoft’s Kinetic body-motion capture system (the same one used for playing video games), and later other researchers also coded footage of the toddlers based on how smiley they were and their general emotional display.

The main heart-warming finding is that, in terms of body language, the toddlers showed a similar elevation of their posture (chest raised, a bit like an adult display of pride) whether they’d obtained an item that was helpful for themselves or helpful for the researcher, and much more so than when they found the useless piece of plastic. Their all round emotional display, as rated by independent observers, was also similarly more positive whether they’d found an item helpful to themselves or to the researcher (as compared with the control condition), except in one of the studies they did smile more when they found a marble than when they found a clothes peg.

The kind of positive emotions experienced by the children might have been different when helping themselves compared with helping others. But ultimately, the researchers said the “results suggest that for young children, working for themselves and helping others are similarly rewarding,” adding “positive emotions likely provide intrinsic rewards that reinforce prosocial behaviour toward those who are dependent on our help.”

The results are all the more impressive if you consider that when the toddlers discovered a clothes peg, they had to deal with the disappointment of knowing that they hadn’t found a marble to drop down the tube. But based on their raised posture and all-round emotional display, the pleasure of finding something useful for someone else seemed to easily outweigh this disappointment.

One caveat to bear in mind is that the children hadn’t decided to help another person, rather they came upon an item that was helpful to another, so their pleasure was at this discovery. We need more research to see if they exhibit similar pleasure in choosing to help others, as compared with choosing to help themselves. For now though, let’s just turn off the daily news for a minute and bask in this study’s warm message – it seems humans are born kind.

The fulfillment of others’ needs elevates children’s body posture

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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