A study published in the November issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that children are not born nice, but instead learn kindness and empathy through environmental factors.
A study conducted in 2006 looked at how toddlers interacted with experimenters, finding they were willing to be helpful without any prompting to act in this way. These findings suggested to many scientists that altruism was an innate ability.
However, Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a psychology graduate student at Stanford, and Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology, believed there was more to that study than meets the eye.
Researchers from the 2006 study had spent time playing with the children beforehand in an effort to make them feel comfortable around them and the setting, which in turn, may have inadvertently prompted the children to act in an altruistic way toward the researchers.
"Kids are always on the lookout for social cues, and this is a very prominent one," said Barragan, the lead author on the research paper. "Does the person's play indicate that they'll care for me? These actions communicate a mutuality, and the child responds in kind."
A new experiment was designed to find out if that warm-up period did indeed have any effect on the results.
The researchers put 34 one and two-year-olds into one of two groups. The first group contained researchers who would roll a ball back and forth with one of the children and talk to them. After a few minutes, the researcher would "accidentally" knock an object off the table to see whether or not the child would offer to pick it up, just as the 2006 study had done, reports Jennifer O'Neill for Yahoo! Parenting.
Meanwhile, the second group consisted of researchers and toddlers each playing with their own ball in "parallel play," while still talking with the child. In this group too, the researcher knocked an object off the table and recorded the results.
The report discovered that children in the first group were three times more likely to offer to pick up the object than those who participated in the parallel play. After repeating the study with older children, scientists discovered those in the first group to be twice as likely to help out, leading scientists to believe that any altruistic behavior is more of a result of relationships than it is an instinct, writes Mark Prigg for Mail Online.
"I think the findings will stir up some controversy, but in a good way," lead study author Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University said in a press release. "People often call something âinnate' because they don't understand the kinds of subtle experiences that can make something, like altruism, flourish."
The study's authors said more research is still needed in order to verify the results, especially among children younger than 18 months.
"Following the reciprocal play, children felt a sense of trust in the other person," Barragan said. "If children trust the people in their world, they may have an easier time learning the culture of that world – effectively making it easier for them to achieve new levels of personal and interpersonal success."