Stanford Psychologists Show That Altruism is Not Simply Innate

Ever since the concept of altruism was proposed in the 19th century, psychologists have debated whether or not people are born into the world preprogrammed to be nice to others. Now, a pair of Stanford psychologists has conducted experiments that indicate altruism has environmental triggers, and is not something we are simply born with.

“Kids are always on the lookout for social cues, and this is a very prominent one,” said Barragan, the lead author on the research paper. “Does the person’s play indicate that they’ll care for me? These actions communicate a mutuality, and the child responds in kind.”  The children who engaged in reciprocal play were three times more likely to help pick up the items as the children who had engaged in only parallel play. When the scientists repeated the experiment under slightly different conditions with older children, the reciprocal-play group was two times more likely to lend a hand.

The findings also hint at the greater positive impact that might come from reciprocal interactions at a very young age.  “Following the reciprocal play, children felt a sense of trust in the other person,” Barragan said. “If children trust the people in their world, they may have an easier time learning the culture of that world – effectively making it easier for them to achieve new levels of personal and interpersonal success.”

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