March 03, 2006

Altruistic human infants

A new paper in Science demonstrates the altruism exhibited by 18-month old infants. Altruism involves spending effort to do something to help another person, even if the altruist derives no benefit. In many situations the infants helped strangers, even people they had just met to achieve some simple tasks. The same experiments were also carried with chimpanzees, who helped much less. According to the authors, to perform an altruistic act requires some cognitive complexity, i.e., to realize what the person is trying to achieve, to realize that they are hindered, and to know what one can do to help them, and of course to be able to physically help them. These experiments with infants demonstrate that human individuals are altruistic very early in their life, just as they become able to offer their assistance.

The authors also tried to see if chimpanzees would act altruistically in similar situations. They did so, but at a lower rate than human infants, indicating that some degree of altruism may have been present in the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.

Science Vol. 311. no. 5765, pp. 1301 - 1303

Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees

Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello

Human beings routinely help others to achieve their goals, even when the helper receives no immediate benefit and the person helped is a stranger. Such altruistic behaviors (toward non-kin) are extremely rare evolutionarily, with some theorists even proposing that they are uniquely human. Here we show that human children as young as 18 months of age (prelinguistic or just-linguistic) quite readily help others to achieve their goals in a variety of different situations. This requires both an understanding of others' goals and an altruistic motivation to help. In addition, we demonstrate similar though less robust skills and motivations in three young chimpanzees.


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