Babies Give Food to Others Even When They're Hungry, Showing Early Altruism: Study

Nearly 100 babies were tested by researchers with the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences

Babies playing together.

Most people who are hungry and finally have food placed in front of them rarely ever think about sharing — but apparently this isn’t the case when it comes to babies.

In a new study conducted by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), researchers determined that 19-month-old babies will offer up their food to a hungry stranger, even when they’re longing for a snack.

The findings, which were published on Feb. 4 in Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports, showed that infants of that particular age are likely to engage in altruistic behavior, which often begins with their early social experiences.

“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,” Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral researcher at I-LABS and lead author on the study, said in a press release. “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.”

To reach their findings, researchers took nearly 100 babies of the same age and watched how they behaved when an assortment of fruits — including bananas, grapes, blueberries, and strawberries — were presented in front of them.

For one of the tests, researchers randomly divided the infants into two groups: the “Begging” group and the “Non-Begging” group. The experimenter then pretended to drop the fruit and unsuccessfully reach for it, indicating that he or she was begging for the food.

When this occurred, 58 percent of the infants picked up the fruit and handed it to the begging researcher. In the other group, where the researcher didn’t make a physical effort to reach for the fruit, only 4 percent of the babies attempted to help.

While the majority of babies clearly showed gestures of altruism, researchers wondered if this would still be the case when the children were hungry. So they raised the stakes and conducted a second experiment, bringing in a different group of children, all of the same age, right before their scheduled mealtime.

Babies. Getty

Again, researchers showed the same behavior, dropping the fruit with a begging group and a non-begging group, and watched as 37% of the infants offered the fruit to the researcher in need.

Meanwhile, in the other group where no effort was made to reach the food, none of the babies attempted to help.

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

As researchers analyzed the data, they considered other factors such as whether children offered fruit on their first try, if they progressively got better, and whether family environments influenced the babies’ decisions.

When it came to family environments, it was determined that babies with siblings and from specific cultural backgrounds were more likely to help and that “certain childrearing practices and values (e.g., a family environment that emphasizes the connectedness and commitment between self and others) convey the expectation” to help those in need.

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Researchers also learned that there was no difference in the number of times the infant performed the experiment. According to their results, the babies’ altruism appeared to be a natural behavior that they didn’t have to learn and was as evident in their very first try as it was in later trials.

With these surprising findings, the I-LABS team said they hope they can learn more information, particularly on “developmental, evolutionary, and social-cognitive factors contributing to this altruistic activity” so that it can positively impact the future.

“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,” Barragan said in the press release. “If we can discover how to promote altruism our kids, this could move us toward a more caring society.”

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