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Visual Cues Make Children More Helpful

A new study finds 18-month-olds who were subtly introduced to the concept of togetherness were far more likely to help someone in need.  
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Do your children behave selfishly? If so, they may be picking up cues from their environment.

That's the implication of a startling new study by a British psychologist, which found 18-month-old children were far more likely to help someone in need after they were subtly introduced to the concept of togetherness.

The study, just published in the journal Psychological Science, was conducted by psychologist Harriet Over, who is affiliated with both Cardiff University in Wales and the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. She and her co-author, Malinda Carpenter, examined the behavior of 60 children recruited from a database of parents who had volunteered to participate in child development studies.

The children, all of whom were 18 months old, were shown one of four sets of eight color photographs. Each photo was dominated by an image of a familiar household item, but also contained a second, smaller image which served as a "prime."

The first of these "priming images" featured two small wooden dolls, which faced one another in very close proximity. They seem to be looking into each other's eyes, or perhaps conversing. The second featured a single wooden doll; the third, a pile of four wooden blocks. The fourth and final image showed the same two dolls as the first photo, except they were placed back to back.

The researcher focused her discussion of the photos on the foreground objects (a book, teapot, etc.) and ignored the small figures. After she had finished, another experimenter entered the room with a bundle of small sticks, which she "accidentally" dropped on the floor.

"To give infants the opportunity to help spontaneously, during the first 10 seconds after dropping the sticks, the experimenter said nothing; she simply alternated her gaze between the fallen sticks and the infants' faces," the study reports. "During the next 10 seconds, if infants had not already begun helping, the experimenter looked toward them, called their name, and said, 'My sticks, they've fallen on the floor,' making two unsuccessful attempts to reach the sticks herself."

Of the children who had seen the image of the two dolls facing one another, 60 percent helped her pick up the sticks spontaneously, and another 20 percent began helping when she asked specifically for assistance after 10 seconds. Of those who saw the other three images, only 20 percent helped spontaneously, while another 20 to 30 percent pitched in after her plea at the 10-second mark.

In other words, the children who saw the image of the two figures who seemed to have some sort of relationship or affiliation were three times more likely to exhibit helpful behavior than those who saw a different image. Note that the children were guided to focus on the large object in the photos, not the wooden dolls, which they noticed entirely on their own.

"Infants did not directly reproduce the situations depicted in the photographs," Over and Carpenter note. "Instead, the photographs (of the dolls facing one another) triggered a general prosocial orientation that manifested itself in increased helping."

The researchers note their findings have both theoretical and practical implications. In terms of evolutionary psychology, they reinforce the concept that affiliation with one's group increases altruistic behavior. This connection appears to be "so fundamental that, even in infancy, a mere hint of affiliation is sufficient to increase helping," they write.

On a practical, parenting-skills level, "Our data suggest that surprisingly subtle changes to our social environment may promote prosocial behavior in our children," they add.

In other words, even very young children absorb the messages they perceive from their immediate environment, and behave accordingly. So if yours are acting in a me-first manner, the obvious question becomes: Whose behavior are they mirroring?

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