Wired to cooperate?

An interesting article in the Science Times section of the NY Times discusses research by developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello (appearing in Why We Cooperate).

At 18 months of age, Tomasello finds that toddlers almost universally immediately help out an adult who needs assistance because his/her arms are full.  What Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, doesn’t know if altruism is innate; 18 months is typically an age before toddlers are taught how to behave.

Not so fast.  As the Times points out: “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 Tomasello observes these same helping behaviors across cultures, despite the fact that they teach social behavior on different schedules and may have different beliefs about appropriate social rules.  Moreover, the helping that infants observe is not enhanced by rewards, causing Tomasello to doubt that it has been strongly reinforced.

In some cases Tomasello observes helping behavior with regard to information in infants 12 months old, and even chimpanzees under certain conditions exhibit helping behavior at a young age.

More specifically related to “social capital”, Tomasello finds that age 3, children become less indiscriminately helpful and are more likely to reciprocate earlier helpful behavior from another person.  In addition, they start to develop social norms, like the reciprocity at the heart of social capital.  Parents can help foster these norms through “inductive parenting”, helping children to learn the consequences of their actions.

As the Times points out:  “The basic sociability of human nature does not mean, of course, that people are nice to each other all the time. Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. Experiments have shown that people will reject unfair distributions of money even it means they receive nothing.” [See discussion of dictator games and ultimatum games in this blog post.]

Read the very interesting article “We May Be Born With An Urge To Help” (NYT, Nicholas Wade, 12/1/09) about how humans try to sort out whether to behave selfishly or altruistically.

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