Babies have been found to display signs of altruism from as young as 15 months, raising questions as to whether they are hardwired with a sense of fairness or adopt it from watching adults.
An experiment that saw the toddlers exhibiting surprise when people were not treated fairly proved that humans develop these qualities earlier than thought, researchers said, as well as showing a link between their social expectations and their own behaviour.
The test worked by analysing the reactions of babies to films of two people each being given bowls of crackers and pitchers of milk. Centring around the “violation of expectancy” phenomenon – whereby young children devote more attention to situations that surprise them – it showed that the children focused more heavily on footage of people being given unequal amounts of food.
Jessica Sommerville, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington who led the study, said: “The infants expected an equal and fair distribution of food, and they were surprised to see one person given more crackers or milk than the other.”
She added: "These results also show a connection between fairness and altruism in infants, such that babies who were more sensitive to the fair distribution of food were also more likely to share their preferred toy.”
This secondary finding came in another experiment where the babies were given two toys and were tested to see if they would share their favourite one, their less favourite one or neither of them.
"The altruistic sharers were really sensitive to the violation of fairness in the food task,” Sommerville said, while the opposite was true of the more selfish babies, showing that even early in life there are individual differences in altruism.
“It's likely that infants pick up on these norms in a nonverbal way, by observing how people treat each other.” However, her team are now looking into how much is also down to nature rather than nurture.Reuse content