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The Altruistic Toddler December 7, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
Tags: , , ,

Are humans selfish by nature? Yes. Are humans unselfish by nature? Yes. And that seems to be the answer(s) to one of the most ferocious debates in moral philosophy—at least among those who like quick and absolutist answers. A certain episode of Friends comes to mind—“The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS”—where even a decent human being like Phoebe ends up buying into the idea that “there are no good, selfless deeds.” But there are. And we don’t even have to disprove the silly notion that if an act of helping others makes you feel good, then you did it for selfish reasons. Because now new research shows  that toddlers  like to help, and they certainly don’t calculate beforehand whether helping will make them feel good, or whether it carries some reward:

The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.

When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help, Michael Tomasello writes in “Why We Cooperate,” a book published in October. Dr. Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior.

Furthermore, this behavior is cross-cultural—and only lasts until the child is around 3. Then he or she begins to understand that there may be an advantage to helping some rather than helping others:

As children grow older, they become more selective in their helpfulness. Starting around age 3, they will share more generously with a child who was previously nice to them. Another behavior that emerges at the same age is a sense of social norms. “Most social norms are about being nice to other people,” Dr. Tomasello said in an interview, “so children learn social norms because they want to be part of the group.”

Children not only feel they should obey these rules themselves, but also that they should make others in the group do the same. Even 3-year-olds are willing to enforce social norms. If they are shown how to play a game, and a puppet then joins in with its own idea of the rules, the children will object, some of them vociferously.

Dr. Tomasello explains this as a result of “shared intentionality” which is specific for humans; while apes may have a basic “theory of mind,” an understanding that other apes and humans have consciousness, it is in the human mind that curiosity about what goes on in the other minds becomes a vital part of the culture.

The shared intentionality lies at the basis of human society, Dr. Tomasello argues. From it flow ideas of norms, of punishing those who violate the norms and of shame and guilt for punishing oneself. Shared intentionality evolved very early in the human lineage, he believes, and its probable purpose was for cooperation in gathering food.

This study is only one of many these days, from neuroscience to evolutionary psychology, to animal behaviorism, to experimental philosophy, as a new generation of thinkers and scientists is finding its voice and shaping a new picture of human nature: the growing consensus is that of course we humans are partly selfish—otherwise we wouldn’t survive. But our very well-developed sense of fairness reaches both ways—to ensure fair treatment for ourselves, but also in clear recognition of the common humanity of the Other who is in the same boat. It makes us feel good to be social and sociable. We are at the same time altruistic and selfish, and one behavioral aspect can’t be reduced to the other. Reality is far more interesting than the classical reductivist attempts to boil human nature down to one basic behavioral aspect. Let’s see if the false dichotomy of selfish/unselfish can finally be phased out of the ethical debate in the 21st century.



1. Olivia McCann Philosophy 102b - December 7, 2009

I think we are all born with a clean slate, not necessarily bad nor good. I think that everyone is born with a conscious and we know morally what is good and bad. Whether we choose to act on the good is another story. No I don’t think that we are all born “selfish”, but I think being selfish is a learned behavior. The term “terrible twos” comes to mind when we talk about toddlers. This is the age when we normally learn the word “no” or “mine”. Does that make us selfish? No I don’t think so. Throwing temper tantrums and fighting with our parents does not make us selfish, we don’t know any better at that point in our lives. Once we learn from a mistake at a young age we remember that, ouch that really hurt me so I know i am not supposed to do that. Or mommy got mad at me so I shouldn’t do that, it depends on the household a lot of the time. Religion also plays a role in how someone is to be brought up. Christianity, how I was raised, love one another and abide by the 10 commandments. Love thy neighbor, no stealing, killing, etc. These actions are what people do mostly for selfish reasons, money being a big cause for most of these “selfish” doings.

2. Olivia De Ramos Phil 102B - December 8, 2009

I agree with the post regarding The Altruistic Toddler, and believe that we as humans are born indeed selfless. I definitely think that being selfish is a learned behavior that we get from our friends and family members. Especially if you grow up with siblings, and they don’t know how to share their belongings. Growing up as a kid, it may feel like you got to take what you can get, which is how we learn how to be selfish. I grew up with two older brothers and two older sisters, and being the youngest, I had to sometimes be selfish with toys, food and money because it was a behavior that they sometimes showed me as a kid, but I’m sure it wasn’t a behavior that I had as a young infant. I have an 11 month old son, and he is absolutely the most generous baby, sharing his toys and trying to feed anyone within arm’s reach with the food he holds in his hands. I know he doesn’t do it because it makes him feel better, but I think he does it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do.

3. Michelle Rose - December 8, 2009

I agree with “The Altruistic Toddler.” I think that as children, all we want to do is to please Mom and Dad, no matter what. Helping is a way of making them happy and expecting nothing in return. As we get older, we loose that sense of wanting to help because kids learn, if youre good you can get something in return. Now, most kids are being helpful just to get a reward for themselves. Favors and being helpful diminishes.

4. Leyden Daniels - December 8, 2009

I will say I really enjoyed this article… however I look at this issue with a different interpretation, that humans are innately selfish. While I understand this is a very messy assumption I feel that the article does not take into consideration the fact that children have no understanding of the world and are completely dependent on the parent. Could this dependency not be viewed as selfish? Perhaps the child feels a need to help to parent because of a subconscious and selfish knowledge that the parent is theirs, the protector. And it would be logical thought process for a child to, while not understanding or knowing why, help this protector in an attempt to keep said protector around, resulting in the longevity of the child’s survival. I believe the desire to prolong one’s life is something imprinted in the human genes. I do not seen toddlers as altruistic but instead functioning at a unconscious level geared for survival.

5. C. Silva T/R 102B - December 8, 2009

(My last post seemed to have disappeared, so here I go again…)
I too believe that we are born with a selfless nature. Tests have shown that certain children identified by Gifted and Talented tests are not only intellectually intelligent, but some are also emotionally intelligent. Meaning these children have the ability to identify not only their own feelings, but more importantly the feelings of others and the emotional atmosphere of their surroundings. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, these children are able to “accurately perceive emotions in oneself and others, use emotions to facilitate thinking, understand emotional meaning, manage emotions” (http://www.teachingexpertise.com). With these abilities a child (not only a toddler) is capable and willing by nature to put the feelings of other before their own.

My daughter who is currently 8 has shown time and time again selfless actions such as choosing to volunteer at the SPCA, making toys for sheltered animals, choosing to adopt and “old” dog instead of accepting the puppy offered to her by her father, and giving her brand new toy to a Marine for his toy drive, etc. I believe that because our children are born altruistic it is important for us as parents, teachers, and coaches to nurture this important characteristic and not let is slip away into oblivion.

6. Jessica Ellis Phil 102b - December 8, 2009

I agree also. Toddlers haven’t learned how to be discerning in terms of whom to be nice to. Unlike adults they haven’t learned how to give value to certain deeds and certain people. They may not feel comfortable with adults they don’t know holding them, but they still help them. It’s actually more interesting than the study suggests because as adults, we don’t help strangers or people we don’t know that well. And toddlers are very aware of who they don’t know or are uncomfortable being held by but they still lend a helping hand.

7. Robert - December 9, 2009

I really enjoyed your closing statements in this post. The philosophical focus on extremes in human behavior has always been, to me, one of philosophies least attractive qualities. If it were up to me, I would strip all connotation from the ideas of selfishness and selflessness. One day society is going to have to come to terms with the fact that nether of those two qualities hold any inherent value or stage in human development. To say that a toddler is selfish and capable of selflessness, or to say that a toddler is inherently selfless, holding any sort of innate social generosity, is silly at this point in the development of perspective. The facts remain on both sides, which points to a truth somewhere in the middle.

8. Paulina Fraser - December 9, 2009

Interestingly enough, I now want to experiment with any baby I come across and see if they will pick up something I drop. I never paid attention to it before but that’s usually because if I do drop something or need something handed to me, I will ask them or at least point to the object so they have an idea that I need help. But with the information from this blog, I now wonder if they know that I need help before I even ask. I did originally think, even before taking this class, that people are selfish. Or at least, to an extent, more than we know. It’s apparent in the sayings “me, myself, and I”, “trust no one”, and much more. But to say that we are born like that, I don’t think so. I think that we learn how to be selfish as we grow up from those in our surroundings. As kids we are impressionable so it’s as simple as- we see, we do. If parents are selfish, then their child will learn early on how to be. I understand that we do have a natural instinct to defend ourselves and that may be where we think we are born selfish. However, I think that when toddlers are still young, they are unaware of being selfish and unselfish. Their minds haven’t developed yet and they just act on impulse. If they want to do something, then they will because that’s all they know. So if I were to drop something, I think that if a baby were to pick it up for me then he/she wouldn’t have realized they helped me. They would have just looked at it as giving me what I dropped. To conclude, this blog has been very eye-opening and something that I will continue to ponder on. I will most likely pass this idea along to others for their opinions and to watch for these very signs.

9. John-Michael DeWall - December 9, 2009

Hm… Although, toddlers seem very helpful, at that point in time… They can still realize what makes them happy. (Bottle, cookie, Dancing in front of the TV to Dora the Explorer) They laugh and get excited. During everyday life, certain gestures, or actions kids who are that young perform, cause us to react as elders. “Awwww, how sweet honey, thank you for helping…. (Big kiss)”….”Good boy!…or Good girl!”.. I feel like toddler’s may recognize our reactions to their gestures, and know that if they help, they will continue to get these reactions because its “so darn cute :)” to us especially. This reaction will prompt them to continue service. We may even tend to OVERreact to their kindness because frankly, we aren’t used to it on a regular basis; so when a two-year-old does it, it’s almost amazing! At some point, though, the child grows… (3 year theory), and all though you may feel the gratitude for the assistance, the reaction fades. This could be due to an acceptance of the child’s help, and therefore we begin taking it for granted. You no longer offer the child this reaction and now he/she is more reluctant to offer the help, because it is no longer a “feel-good” gesture to the child. Either way, I feel our selflessness/selfishness is derived from our emotions anyway :S. I know that is a sensitive topic of discussion, but emotions are powerful and tend to influence everything we do… So maybe someone who is outright selfish, and has never dealt with the consequences of acting that way… will tend to be more selfish than others. Others who are more selfless, may have experience emotional consequences from being selfish, or excessive gratitude for being selfless. Ok, now I’m just starting to ramble… Great Topic for discussion, I Love IT!

10. Monica Soto Phil 102B - December 9, 2009

I believe “toddlers” altruistic behavior comes naturally, our society is based on norms and children learned this behavior with time. I believe genes play an important role; in fact studies have showed that humans emotions towards helping strangers comes naturally since early age. Yes, it might be truth that toddlers learn to differentiate by adult gestures when they help their parents and they continue to help because it makes them feel good. Can this action be consider shellfish? Not necessarily, because toddlers have the option of not helping since they are the little ones, and parents do everything for them and they still choose to help. I certainly believe that children learned with time to choose more carefully if they want to help or not. But are not born selfish, this is something that society teach human at a later age. Dr. Tomasello also mentioned “as they grow, children’s spirit of cooperation is shaped by how they judge their surroundings and perceive what others think of them. They become more aware of what’s around them, and worry more about what it’s like and what it means to be a member of a group”. I agree with Dr. Tomasello 100%.

11. Michael Breault - December 10, 2009

I would agree with this 100%. And I also agree that humans are both selfish and non-selfish in nature. I dont agree with all the theories that are at far sides of the spectrum. This theory sits right in the middle, and to me makes the most sense. If you think about it, when you are playing with a baby, say with blocks, and you are helping he/she set up the blocks, the baby of course loves to smash them down, but as soon as all of the blocks come tumbling down that baby usually hands you a block or two. A toddler is the best way of showing this theory as well because they most likely havnt been told or mastered the thought of helping others. Again, I agree with this 100%.

12. The Gaze of Empathy « Philosophy On The Mesa - June 1, 2010

[…] Nature, Teaching. Tags: college students, empathy, Levinas, Vermeer trackback In the midst of scientific reports that humans in general are far more empathetic than selfish (at least by nature) we all of a sudden […]

13. krentz - July 1, 2010

Humans are innately selfish, as are all lifeforms. The problem I believe lies in the definition of what ‘selfish’ means. I believe that all creatures are ‘selfish’ in the way that they all have a self – an inner sense of being – whether they are cognizant of that fact or not. Let us differentiate the notion of the ‘ego’ from the actual phenomenon of self.

I only do things that I want to do. That, by its very definition, is selfishness, is it not?

I believe the same could be said of everyone. If you do things you do not enjoy, you still want to do them – whether out of a belief that it will benefit you in some way (misguided or not), out of social obligation or more.

Self-awareness is greatly useful in deciding which decisions are a compromise between conflicting desires and which among those desires are truly your own, which beliefs are truly felt and which are born of fears etc, but it is impossible to act in a way that does not pertain to yourself.

What is it that I _truly_ want to do? The answers to that question are provided not by impersonal or rational analysis but by an innate sense of ‘knowing’ that comes from the self. The fact is, empathy and altriusm are a part of my self, and arguably more so than some. I help others not because I have analysed the situation logically and concluded it would be good for me in the long run. Nor do I help because I feel under social obligation to do so (at least not all the time anyway). Far more often I assist people because I inwardly feel the impulse, the desire to do so – and in fulfilling that desire, born purely of the ‘self’, I feel positive and fulfilled.

So, you could say that my altriustic actions are selfish in nature, but no more selfish than are all actions performed by a living creature. I do not really believe in the notion of ‘selflessness’, as I do not believe consciousness can exist without the self, but in the sense it is commonly understood I do believe that ‘selflessness’ is an innate component of the human experience.

(On consciousness and experiencing oneself… I wonder what awareness plants have?)

It is only in the case of sociopaths and other ‘mentally ill’ individuals who are lacking this component of their being who do not feel the need to help. They may be helpful, yes, but only in the sense we commonly interpret the word ‘selfish’, and not out of any genuine desire.

14. krentz - July 1, 2010

Just a follow-up comment on something that I noticed…

“It’s actually more interesting than the study suggests because as adults, we don’t help strangers or people we don’t know that well. And toddlers are very aware of who they don’t know or are uncomfortable being held by but they still lend a helping hand.”

You don’t? That’s odd, but understandable. I choose not to help people who I am distrustful or fearful of – people who I think will take advantage of me or bring me harm. That’s a self-defense mechanism. It stands to reason that as a child is not born with these fears and instead learns them as a response to stressful or traumatic events, they would not ‘censor’ who they offer a helping hand to.

Of course they’d be uncomfortable around people they don’t know well. I’m something of an introvert, so I’m especially familiar with that sensation. However, ask yourself this: do you really feel no desire whatsoever to help that person? Or is it that you do want to help them, but you’re afraid that doing so will make you vulnerable to attack or that your efforts will be wasted? Try and remember what you were like as a child. I often find the unconditional honesty of children both endearing and refreshing, and this extends also to my inner child and his honesty about who he is!

My initial impulses usually tend err on the side of kindness rather than cruelty. However I cannot stand people who harm or take advantage of others, and I see a lot of ignorance and prejudice in this world nowadays, which can make me miserable and closed off from others. While it’s important to protect yourself, just remember that “the wall” is a two-way thing: while you can insulate yourself from all the bad things in life, you’re no longer able to experience the good. Thus either a compromise or the strength to persevere through extreme adversity is the recommended choice for living a full and honest life.

15. Moral Narturalism is Back! And so am I! « Philosophy On The Mesa - August 22, 2010

[…] paint a general picture): human emotions have developed certain built-in features that enable us, even as babies, to recognize right from wrong, from the perspective of being social animals; as adults, these […]

16. barbara - July 18, 2012

is the Altruistic behavior of a toddler acted out with the anticipation of a reward?

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