In a new study, researchers had 15-month old babies watch movies of a person distributing crackers or milk to two others, either evenly or unevenly. Babies look at things longer when they're surprised, so measuring looking time can be used to gain insight into what babies expect to happen. In the study, the infants looked longer when the person in the video distributed the foods unevenly, suggesting surprise, and perhaps even an early perception of fairness.
But the team also say they established a link between fairness and altruism. In a second part of the experiment, the babies chose between two toys, and were then asked to share one of the toys with an experimenter. About a third of the babies were "selfish sharers": they shared the toy they hadn't chosen. Another third were "altruistic sharers": they shared their chosen toy. (The rest chose not to share. They may have been inhibited by the unfamiliarity of the experimenter, or maybe they just weren't that into sharing.)
What's interesting about the second half of the study was that by and large it was the babies who had previously been surprised by the unfair cracker and milk distribution who tended to share the preferred toy with the experimenter (the altruistic sharers). The babies who shared the rejected toy hadn't expressed much surprise over unequal distribution. This led the researchers to suggest that there's a fundamental link between altruism and a sense of equity.
An alternative interpretation for babies' perception of fairness could be that babies merely show surprise when physical things are divided unevenly, the authors suggest. For example, that they could just be taken aback by "violations of non-moral conventions," naturally assuming "that goods are usually divided into equal amounts." But, the authors argue, the fact that the second part of the study connected the "altruistic" behaviors to the perception of unevenness speaks to the fact that babies "evaluate events along morally relevant dimensions." This led the researchers to conclude that social and moral development occur in tandem.
While it's interesting that altruism and fairness appear to be interconnected traits, particularly at such an early age, the research doesn't completely get to the bottom of the nature of altruism. One could argue that perceiving fairness is simply a prerequisite for helpful acts, even ulteriorly motivated ones: after all, there's something "fair" about the notion of a later payback.
Still, the research suggests that, whatever the motive, infants have an early sense of both traits, which are preverbal. They appear to develop their social behaviors just by watching others, which the authors suggest could help adults understand more about how to foster that development in kids from a young age.
In fact, argue the authors, it's even possible that babies are more likely to be altruistic than older people, because they think less about it. Study author Jessica Sommerville says that "some researchers have suggested that young children and infants may be more blindly altruistic than older children and adults, because they don't yet possess the ability to be discerning."
So maybe we should take a lesson from the youngsters who share their toys with random people without a second thought. Maybe thinking about it less is the key to kindness.
Image: Petro Fateka/Shutterstock.