A new book by Michael Tomasello, Why We Cooperate, presents evidence that babies are born to be social and to help others. Tomasello argues that helping others is genetic, rather than learned. This is an important contribution to the “altruism” debate–why would a rational (i.e. self-interested) person expend energy helping someone else? The standard answer (of the rational choice/microeconomist paradigm) has been that helping is a social norm that emerges because, over time, helping someone else ultimately results in a gain for the helper. And once the social norm emerges, children learn it during socialization.
Tomasello’s book presents data showing that infants as young as 18 months old try to help others. For example, if they see an unrelated adult who needs help picking up a dropped object, they help right away. From the age of 12 months, if an adult pretends to have lost an object that the child can see, the child will point to the object. Eighteen or twelve months is too early for such behavior to have been learned from parents. As another piece of evidence, Tomasello reports that children don’t begin to help more after they’re rewarded for helping–which suggests it’s not influenced by training.
Tomasello also talks about research into how helping behavior evolves as children get older. When they’re three, they begin to get more selective; they’re nicer to another child who was just nice to them. And, they begin to expect other children to follow the same norms of helpfulness.
This argument seems to support the theory that helping behavior was selected for during evolution, which is consistent with the rational choice models of altruism. Regardless of the mechanism, I’m glad that we’re all this way!