Babies and toddlers are notoriously selfish creatures: we nurture, they take. And we’re always told that our little ones believe they are the center of the universe and can’t put themselves in another’s shoes – they have no sense of empathy, and it takes them years to become fair-minded, generous little people.
But that may not be true. A recent study from the Max Planck Institute has challenged this idea, suggesting that toddlers as young as 15 months do indeed show a sense of both fairness (an interest in treating people equally), and also altruism (a desire to help or please people).
Or rather, some toddlers do.
It turns out that young children differ in how giving, and how sensitive to the equal treatment of others they are. To look at this question, researchers had 15-month-olds sit on their parents laps and watch videos of an experimenter distributing food to two other people – in one case, equally, and in the other case giving more to one person. The toddlers watched as both crackers, and then milk, were dolled out either fairly or unfairly.
Overall, the toddlers gazed at the videos for a longer time when the divvying-up was unfair. Standard psychology measures tell us this means that they were surprised by the unfairness (also called “violation of expectancy”). So it seems that most babies expect things to be equitable and are thrown off when they are not.
But a second test showed that certain babies are more dialed in to fairness than others, and these babies are also more likely to be altruistic and giving in their behaviors. The researchers let the babies choose between two toys, labeled their chosen toy as “preferred,” and then had an experimenter come in and ask if she could play with that toy. One third of the babies handed over this prized possession, one third gave the experimenter the reject, or “non-preferred” toy, and one third didn’t part with a toy at all.
Of the ones who handed their favorite toy over, 92 percent had looked longer at the unfair food division – meaning that almost all of them were surprised to see the inequality. In contrast, of the babies who shared the reject toy, 86 looked longer at the equal distribution of food – they actually seemed to expect inequality.
The study shows one of the earliest signs of a baby’s sense of fairness and altruism – usually considered abilities that show up in the preschool years. For example, four-year-old children are thought to have the first “theory of mind,” or the ability to grasp that others have their own thoughts and feelings. It may be true that kids don’t fully wrap their heads around the existence of another person’s perspective until much later, but the study suggests the roots of empathy and selflessness start way back in babyhood.
And the most intriguing part is that some toddlers seem much more empathetic than others. It could be that they’re born this way – wired more sensitively to the emotions of others and also more generous to go along with it. Or, at the budding age of just 15 months, their environment: how they see their parents, siblings, and the people in the rest of their little worlds interacting, has already shaped their expectations and their inclination to give freely.
My suspicion is that it’s both. Empathy may take years to emerge, but we all know adults who still don’t seem to be very good at it. Just like any other personality trait, it’s most likely the result of biology mixed with upbringing. And there’s no reason to think that we wouldn’t see that special mix coming out in the actions and manners of even our youngest little companions.