Cover Story

Graduate psychology student Felix Warneken not only tests toddlers' altruism, he also tests their patience. To determine their willingness to help him out, he has devised experiments in which he drops an object on the floor as many as 15 times and then watches as the toddlers hand it to him again and again.

The old idea was that we're born purely selfish and become helpful, prosocial beings through moral education and other socialization processes, says Warneken, a doctoral student in the department of developmental and comparative psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. "It rather seems to be the case," he explains, "that selfish and altruistic motives are there from the beginning in competition with each other, but we can build upon those altruistic, prosocial tendencies."

Warneken is part of a cadre of researchers studying altruism in children. They're examining inborn altruism and exploring external forces, such as parental role modeling, that have an impact on children's altruistic behavior. They're also studying explicit efforts to foster altruism in children, such as classrooms that emphasize cooperation rather than competition and school programs that require students to give back to their communities.

At home...

To understand how to promote altruism, it helps to start at the beginning. Even 18-month-olds still in diapers and barely able to talk exhibit altruistic behavior, Warneken and his adviser Michael Tomasello, PhD, discovered. So do chimpanzees.

In a study published in Science (Vol. 311, No. 5,765, pages 1,301-1,303), Warneken developed scenarios in which he needed help. In one scenario, for example, he dropped a clothes peg while hanging up clothes; in another, he dropped a spoon into a flapped box and pretended he couldn't get it out again.

Although Warneken never directly asked for help or rewarded the toddlers for help given, virtually all 24 of the study's participants helped him achieve his goal, usually within 10 seconds. Three young chimps in the study helped with the simpler tasks.

"The study shows that even very young children without much socialization are willing and able to help spontaneously," says Warneken.

Neither children nor chimps were just helping automatically, like dogs retrieving tossed balls, says Warneken. To test that, the study also featured a control arm with scenarios in which Warneken threw pegs on the floor rather than dropped them and made other mistakes on purpose.

"Both the infants and the chimpanzees could distinguish between situations where help was needed and where help wasn't necessary," said Warneken, who has since replicated the results with 14-month-old children.

Outside forces can enhance what seems to be a natural inclination toward altruism. Consider parents, for example.

E. Gil Glary, PhD, a psychology professor at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., wondered why some volunteers at a telephone crisis counseling center quit well before the six months they had committed to were up. To find out, he and a colleague asked volunteers about their relationships with their parents and other socialization influences.

In a 1986 study in Child Development (Vol. 57, pages 1,358-1,369), the researchers reported that volunteers who fulfilled their commitments had parents who modeled helpfulness; they also had good relationships with their parents. The quitters had parents who hadn't modeled helpfulness, and they had poor relationships with them.

"Kids tend to look at what parents do, not what they say," explains Clary. "And kids are more likely to pay attention to a model if they have a good relationship with their parents."

In the classroom...

Parents aren't the only ones who have an impact on whether kids turn out to be altruists. Teachers can also help counter the altruism-dulling competitiveness of our culture, argues Elliot Aronson, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

Aronson developed a concept called the "jigsaw classroom" to put that belief into practice. Designed to promote cooperation rather than competition, jigsaw classrooms require students to work together in racially and ethnically diverse groups where each student tackles one piece of the assignment. Without the contribution of each student's "puzzle piece," the group can't succeed.

"What has been emphasized in the past is that we are hardwired to be suspicious of people who are different from us," Aronson explains. "We're also hardwired to cooperate, but in a highly competitive culture, that gets submerged by aggressiveness and competition."

Aronson's data show that the jigsaw classroom can revive that hardwired cooperation and help children put themselves into other children's shoes. When Aronson retested kids who had jigsaw classrooms in fifth grade three years later, for example, he found that they were more cooperative, more empathic and less prejudiced than children who had never experienced a jigsaw classroom. And that empathy, Aronson believes, spills over into altruistic behavior.

"You can declare National Brotherhood Week or just tell kids to be empathic, but it's much better if they convince themselves to do it," Aronson explains. "Letting children work together and realize that they have to listen to other kids and communicate with them effectively to do well on an exam builds empathy from the inside out rather than the outside in."

...And beyond

Many jurisdictions require students to practice altruism even beyond the classroom. Some schools mandate community service; others have so-called "service-learning" programs that link volunteer and classroom work.

Such programs can help instill altruism in students, but only if they're done right, warns Lonnie R. Sherrod, PhD, chair-elect of APA's Committee on Children, Youth and Families and a psychology professor at Fordham University in the Bronx.

"This country has bought into the idea that doing community service is good for kids," says Sherrod, citing the National Youth Service Act, AmeriCorps and school service requirements as examples. "Unfortunately, we've kind of proceeded to promote service without really fully understanding how to do it."

Sherrod's research has found that while some students do community service because they genuinely want to help others, others perform such service for more self-serving reasons. Students may perform community services like tutoring peers simply because it looks good on their records, for example.

"Doing community service doesn't automatically mean they're doing it for altruistic reasons or that it's going to impact their prosocial behavior," Sherrod emphasizes.

Certain factors can improve a program's chances of having an impact, however, says Sherrod. For instance, giving students an opportunity to reflect on their service is key: At Fordham, he says, a service-learning program allows students to merge volunteer and school work. If students are tutoring children, for example, they spend time in the classroom discussing inequities in education and putting their service into a larger social and political context.

Such programs may have long-lasting benefits, adds Sherrod. In his research, he has found that Fordham students who engage in service learning take what he calls an "activist orientation" to citizenship and anticipate that they'll get politically involved once they grow up.

A lasting impact

Altruistic children do grow up to be altruistic adults, confirms Nancy Eisenberg, PhD, Regent's Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. Eisenberg has tracked a group of 32 children from preschool into early adulthood and found evidence that some just seem to have altruistic personalities.

In a 1999 study published in Child Development (Vol. 70, pages 1,360-1,372), for instance, she found that altruistic behavior in early childhood predicted altruistic behavior in adulthood. Children who offered prosocial acts spontaneously rather than in response to a request for help were more likely to exhibit what Eisenberg calls "other-oriented moral reasoning" as adults; so were those who committed more costly acts spontaneously, that involved, for example, giving up an object or space rather than simply helping someone with a task like tying an apron.

"Kids who were higher in these behaviors were prosocial all the way into their 20s," reports Eisenberg.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Further Reading

  • Aronson, E., & Patnoe, S. (1997). The jigsaw classroom: Building cooperation in the classroom (2nd ed.). New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

  • Bringle, R.G., & Duffy, D.K. (Eds.). (1998). With service in mind: Concepts and models for service learning in psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Zahn-Waxler, C., Cummings, E.M., & Iannotti, R.J. (Eds.). (1991). Altruism and aggression: Social and biological origins. Cambridge University Press.