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Budding Altruists? Tots Give Up Food to Help Others, Study Finds

THURSDAY, Feb. 6, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Schools may strive to teach kids that sharing is caring, but a new study suggests that altruism begins in infancy and can be influenced by others.

It's been unclear when people start to display altruism, which can include sharing resources such as food with others in need.

"We think altruism is important to study because it is one of the most distinctive aspects of being human. It is an important part of the moral fabric of society," said lead study author Rodolfo Cortes Barragan. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, in Seattle.

"We adults help each other when we see another in need and we do this even if there is a cost to the self," he said in a university news release. "So we tested the roots of this in infants."

Barragan's team tested nearly 100 19-month-olds and found that even when they were hungry, many retrieved a piece of fruit dropped by someone they didn't know and offered it to them.

The children did this without encouragement, instructions or reinforcement, according to the study published online Feb. 4 in the journal Scientific Reports.

The toddlers "looked longingly at the fruit, and then they gave it away," said Andrew Meltzoff, the institute's co-director. "We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping."

The researchers also found that toddlers with siblings and those from certain cultures were especially likely to help the adult stranger, suggesting that altruism at this age can be shaped by others.

The findings mesh with studies of adults showing that a cultural background (such as Asian or Hispanic) that emphasizes "interdependence" between people can promote altruism, according to the researchers.

"We think certain family and social experiences make a difference, and continued research would be desirable to more fully understand what maximizes the expression of altruism in young children. If we can discover how to promote altruism in our kids, this could move us toward a more caring society," Barragan said.

More information

The Mental Health Foundation in the United Kingdom has more on altruism.

SOURCE: University of Washington, news release, Feb. 4, 2020

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