A new study suggests even toddlers are motivated by compassion rather than the desire to get credit for good deeds.
Even before they’re out of diapers, kids consistently help others, research shows. But what motivates them? A new study suggests it might be a deeply rooted concern for others, and not the desire to “get credit,” that sparks kids’ willingness to lend a hand.
Researchers at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology observed 56 two year olds who were broken into three groups. All groups saw an adult who dropped an object—either a crayon or a can—and struggled to pick it up.
One group of toddlers was allowed to intervene and help the adult. Toddlers in another group were held back from helping by their parents. The third group watched the adult receive help from another adult.
To gauge whether the toddlers felt sorry for the person in need, the researchers observed the kids’ pupils before and after the adult dropped the object. Prior research suggests that increases in pupil size indicate increased feelings of concern. The researchers thought they’d see the toddlers’ pupil sizes increase when the kids saw someone in need and decrease when they were able to help that person. But the researchers weren’t sure whether pupil size would decrease if the kids saw someone else help.
The results of the study, which is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science, show that the children’s pupils did dilate after seeing the adult in need, suggesting heightened feelings of sympathy. What’s more, ten out of the 12 children who were allowed to help did so.
In fact, children’s feelings of sympathy were twice as high when they were unable to help the adult and no help was provided, compared to when they were able to intervene and resolve the problem. Their concern also decreased when they saw someone else help the adult.
This suggests that the toddlers were motivated to help simply because the individual needed help, not to benefit their own reputations. If the kids only cared about their reputations, write the authors, “they would have preferred to perform the helping act themselves (to get ‘credit’),” and their pupils would have remained dilated even if they saw someone else help.
Instead, they seemed to show a genuine concern for someone in need and were relieved to see that person helped, regardless of who did the helping.
Past research has indicated that kids are motivated to help others as early as age one, but until now no research has explored the nature of this motivation, says Robert Hepach, the lead author of the study. Researchers didn’t know whether kids were motivated by their own internal concern or by anticipation of external pressures and rewards.
“Certainly, children’s concerns for self-reputation will gradually develop as they encounter new people and learn the social norms of their cultural group,” write Hepach and his colleagues. However, add the authors, their findings suggest that concerns about self-reputation do not explain how altruism emerges early in life.
“Young children’s early helping,” they write, “is motivated by a genuine concern for the welfare of the person in need.”
Stacey Kennelly is a Greater Good editorial assistant.