Out of the Mouths of Babes: Altruistic Sharing By Children Can Teach Us How to Treat Each Other During the Pandemic

During a global health crisis, can babies teach us about our most humane qualities?

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We are developmental psychologists who study the childhood origins of altruistic sharing toward others. Our work involves recruiting parents of 19-month-olds to come participate in our university laboratory. It’s a slow-going process due to the age of the children that we are looking for, but the results of this research shine light on humans’ remarkable ability to engage generously with each other.

In February of 2020, we published a study showing that even hungry babies will share delicious food with a stranger. When this stranger “begged” for a slice of banana that he’d dropped on a tray, the little humans would toddle over, pick up the fruit, and hand it to the beggar. They also did this for multiple types of fruits, like grapes and blueberries, and they did it when they got nothing in return. They even gave the beggar the food when they themselves were hungry because the study had been scheduled during their snack time—and before they ate!

You might think that due to the shutdown, our ability to learn about children’s generosity had slipped away. Fortunately, we were lucky to have finished a fresh wave of data collection in December 2020, just as the virus was making headway around the world and before all our lives took a turn for the unexpected. What we discovered from this new data, which was published earlier this month truly surprised us—we gave babies a difficult choice, and the analysis of the videos showed generosity of a type that had never been observed in children so young.

What we did, with the cooperation of parents, was to present infants with three categories of items: their own treasured toy or bottle, delicious fruit, and common object like a block. From the videos, we examined “possessiveness”—whether infants reached leaned on tiptoes toward the items, lunged toward them, or raising both arms as if communicating “it’s mine, give it to me.”

What our analyses revealed is that infants showed significantly more possessive behavior toward their own items than toward the food or the common objects. That is, when you’re a pre-verbal human and you want to express your desire to possess an item held by someone else, it turns out that gesturing toward that item is a great bet.

But here’s the rub. Just as the babies were reaching for their items, the experimenter dropped the items, and himself reached for them. What would infants do in this situation—take possession of their object that they clearly wanted or give it to the stranger that was begging for it? We arranged the situation so that it was easy for the infants to grab the object and retreat to their parent who was sitting behind them.

The data taught us that already by this age, babies have a remarkable ability to override their own desire to possess by giving the stranger the item that he seemed to desire. Sacrificing one’s own wants for the wants of another person.

A 19-month-old reaching for her own teddy bear, and then choosing to give it to the experimenter. Photo credit: University of Washington I-LABS. Article available Scientific Reports: https://rdcu.be/cj0JD

From an evolutionary perspective, we believe that this separates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom. This behavior of showing an intense desire for a valued item and then giving it away has never been reported in humans’ closest living relatives, chimpanzees. While those species do have some abilities to share items in certain context (like when there is a material or social reward), there is little evidence that they can override their own desires in order to actively share food and cherished items, as did the 19-month-olds human infants in our study.

As with all research, much remains to be learned. How did babies’ brains process the act of giving away a toy that they themselves desire? Is children’s tendency to share and to be generous influenced by the generosity shown toward them by family members? Will those infants who shared the most become highly generous, even compassionate children and adults? Developmental psychology would need society to return to a type of normalcy in order to ask these questions in the laboratory, and we plan to continue our study of these topics as soon as it is safely allowed.

We have all experienced the upheavals of the current day—there are concerns related to scarcity and distribution of valued resources—vaccines, masks, and much else. Amid this strife, there is also widescale compassion for the less fortunate. The situation is in flux and much remains unknown about the “post-pandemic normal.”

While infants cannot directly help us to solve these challenges, they can teach us something that is relevant during a global pandemic when much of public health comes down the personal behavior of individuals: It is never too early to realize the importance of putting the needs of strangers ahead of your own. The unselfish behavior of infants suggests that being socially aware of others is fundamental to what it means to be human. Wisdom comes from the mouths of babes.

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