There’s a school of thought that considers young children essentially pure. “All things are good as their creator made them,” wrote philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, “but everything degenerates in the hands of men.”
Newly published research provides some support for his supposition.
“From an early age, humans seem to have genuine concern for the welfare of others,” concludes a research team led by Robert Hepach of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
Writing in the journal Psychological Science, he and his colleagues argue that before they are socialized into selfishness, children are intrinsically motivated to help others—and not because they wish to “take credit” for their beneficence.
But how exactly do you discover a toddler’s motivation? The researchers took a novel approach: by looking straight into his or her eyes.
They note that our pupils enlarge in response to emotionally stimulating sights, and deduced this could provide an indication of what specifically prompts kids to perk up and take notice. Are they aroused by the sight of someone in need—or, perhaps, by the realization that they could play the hero by helping?
Their experiment featured 36 2-year-olds, who viewed a scene in which an adult needed help reaching for a can or crayon. One-third of the children were allowed by their parents to help the person in need (almost all did so); another third were held back from providing assistance.
The final third were also prevented from their parents from providing help, but they watched as another adult entered the scene and helped his colleague out by picking up the object in question. All had the size of their pupils measured just before and after they witnessed the scene.
The kids in the second group—those who saw someone in need, but were prevented from lending a hand—had the largest swelling of pupil size, reflecting their heightened state of emotional arousal. To Hepach and his colleagues, this suggests that “the motivation for young children’s helping behavior is simply that the person in need should be helped.”
The researchers reasoned that, if the kids were animated by the thought of playing the hero, those who actually performed the act of assistance would have given this away by having particularly dilated pupils. Instead, there was no significant difference in dilation between those who helped the person themselves, and those who watched as someone else provide the needed assistance.
“Although concerns regarding self-reputation may mediate human cooperative behavior later in development,” they conclude, “our findings suggest that they do not account for its emergence. Young children’s early helping is motivated by a genuine concern for the welfare of the person in need.”
Rescuing that impulse in later life should be the subject of future eye-opening research.