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SciTech We May Be Born With an Urge to Help

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    We May Be Born With an Urge to Help

    By NICHOLAS WADE Published: November 30, 2009
    What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think many parents.

    But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human.

    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.
    “It’s probably safe to assume that they haven’t been explicitly and directly taught to do this,” said Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist at Harvard. “On the other hand, they’ve had lots of opportunities to experience acts of helping by others. I think the jury is out on the innateness question.”

    But Dr. Tomasello finds the helping is not enhanced by rewards, suggesting that it is not influenced by training. It seems to occur across cultures that have different timetables for teaching social rules. And helping behavior can even be seen in infant chimpanzees under the right experimental conditions. For all these reasons, Dr. Tomasello concludes that helping is a natural inclination, not something imposed by parents or culture.

    Infants will help with information, as well as in practical ways. From the age of 12 months they will point at objects that an adult pretends to have lost. Chimpanzees, by contrast, never point at things for each other, and when they point for people, it seems to be as a command to go fetch something rather than to share information.

    For parents who may think their children somehow skipped the cooperative phase, Dr. Tomasello offers the reassuring advice that children are often more cooperative outside the home, which is why parents may be surprised to hear from a teacher or coach how nice their child is. “In families, the competitive element is in ascendancy,” he said.


    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.

    Where do they get this idea of group rules, the sense of “we who do it this way”? Dr. Tomasello believes children develop what he calls “shared intentionality,” a notion of what others expect to happen and hence a sense of a group “we.” It is from this shared intentionality that children derive their sense of norms and of expecting others to obey them.

    Shared intentionality, in Dr. Tomasello’s view, is close to the essence of what distinguishes people from chimpanzees. A group of human children will use all kinds of words and gestures to form goals and coordinate activities, but young chimps seem to have little interest in what may be their companions’ minds.

    If children are naturally helpful and sociable, what system of child-rearing best takes advantage of this surprising propensity? Dr. Tomasello says that the approach known as inductive parenting works best because it reinforces the child’s natural propensity to cooperate with others. Inductive parenting is simply communicating with children about the effect of their actions on others and emphasizing the logic of social cooperation.

    “Children are altruistic by nature,” he writes, and though they are also naturally selfish, all parents need do is try to tip the balance toward social behavior.

    Continued at the page 2 link. :)


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