Starting Young

People, in general, tend to be cooperative creatures and that is one of the major reasons for our success in the big scheme of things. The received wisdom is that traits such as fairness, altruism, and empathy make high levels of cooperation possible.

An interesting question is when do these traits become apparent? Do we have to be well into our childhood before we play fair? Well, some researchers have suggested this, but Schmidt and Sommerville have the results of a new study that suggests that this is not the case (1). These workers studied the responses of forty-seven 15-month old girls and boys to two basic situations.

The toddlers watched some videos where two people requested cookies or milk from a third person. In some cases the handouts were equal and in some they were clearly unequal. The young observers stared significantly longer at either the unfair division video picture or the fair division one, indicating their expected result. If an unfair division wasn’t what they expected from an adult, they stared longer – it was in violation of their expectation, VOE.

The next experimental set was designed to test their altruism. After being allowed to play with two toys and showing a preference for one, they were asked by an unfamiliar observer if they could have one. Here we have an interesting result. 32% of the toddlers ignored the request, 37% handed over their least preferred toy, while 32% handed over their preferred toy. These latter toddlers were classified as “altruistic sharers” as opposed to “selfish sharers” (the 37%) or “non-responders”.

Now the analysis becomes more interesting when the VOE preferences are tied in with the sharing behaviors. Our altruistic sharers were very heavily in the group staring in disbelief at the unfair cookie handout, while our selfish sharers were equally heavily glaring at the fair division. The non-responders had VOE preferences split between the two, but they weren’t interested in sharing with strangers anyway.

So what are we going to make of all this? Firstly Schmidt and Sommerville point out that altruism and fairness are already there at 15-months. But wouldn’t it be interesting to fast forward 50 years and see which ones had become lawyers, politicians, or aid workers?


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