Babies show sense of fairness, altruism as early as 15 months

October 7, 2011

A new study presents the first evidence that a basic sense of fairness and altruism appears in infancy. Babies as young as 15 months perceived the difference between equal and unequal distribution of food, and their awareness of equal rations was linked to their willingness to share a toy.

"Our findings show that these norms of and are more rapidly acquired than we thought," said Jessica Sommerville, a University of Washington associate professor of psychology who led the study.

"These results also show a connection between fairness and altruism in infants, such that babies who were more sensitive to the fair distribution of food were also more likely to share their preferred toy," she said.

The study has implications for nurturing human egalitarianism and cooperation. The journal published the findings online Oct. 7, 2011. Co-author is Marco Schmidt, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Previous studies reveal that 2-year-old children can help others – considered a measure of altruism – and that around age 6 or 7 they display a sense of fairness. Sommerville, an expert in early childhood development, suspected that these qualities could be apparent at even younger ages.

Babies around 15 months old begin to show cooperative behaviors, such as spontaneously helping others. "We suspected that fairness and altruism might also be apparent then, which could indicate the earliest emergence of fairness," Sommerville said.

During the experiment, a 15-month old baby sat on his or her parent's lap and watched two short videos of experimenters acting out a sharing task. In one video an experimenter holding a bowl of crackers distributed the food between two other experimenters. They did the food allocation twice, once with an equal allotment of crackers and the other with one recipient getting more crackers.

The second movie had the same plot, but the experimenters used a pitcher of milk instead of crackers.

Then the experimenters measured as the babies – 47 in all who were tested individually – looked at the food distributions. According to a phenomenon called "violation of expectancy," babies pay more attention when they are surprised. Similarly, the researchers found that babies spent more time looking if one recipient got more food than the other.

"The infants expected an equal and fair distribution of food, and they were surprised to see one person given more crackers or milk than the other," Sommerville said.

To see if the babies' sense of fairness related to their own to share, the researchers did a second task in which a baby could choose between two toys: a simple LEGO block or a more elaborate LEGO doll. Whichever toy the babies chose, the researchers labeled as the infant's preferred toy.

Then an experimenter who the babies had not seen before gestured toward the toys and asked, "Can I have one?" In response, one third of the infants shared their preferred toy and another third shared their non-preferred toy. The other third of infants did not share either toy, which might be because they were nervous around a stranger or were unmotivated to share.

"The results of the sharing experiment show that early in life there are individual differences in altruism," Sommerville said.

Comparing the toy-sharing task and the food-distribution task results, the researchers found that 92 percent of the babies who shared their preferred toy – called "altruistic sharers" – spent more time looking at the unequal distributions of food. In contrast, 86 percent of the who shared their less-preferred toy, the "selfish sharers," were more surprised, and paid more attention, when there was a fair division of food.

"The altruistic sharers were really sensitive to the violation of fairness in the food task," Sommerville said. Meanwhile, the selfish sharers showed an almost opposite effect, she said.

Does this mean that fairness and altruism are due to nature, or can these qualities be nurtured? Sommerville's research team is investigating this question now, looking at how parents' values and beliefs alter an infant's development.

"It's likely that infants pick up on these norms in a nonverbal way, by observing how people treat each other," Sommerville said.

Explore further: Human infants capable of advanced reasoning

Related Stories

Human infants capable of advanced reasoning

June 24, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Recent research reported in PhysOrg showed that babies seem to be able to distinguish right from wrong even at the age of six months, and consistently choose helpful characters over unhelpful ones. Now ...

Collaboration encourages equal sharing in children but not in chimpanzees

July 20, 2011
Children as young as three years of age share toy rewards equally with a peer, but only when both collaborated in order to gain them.

Recommended for you

Self-harm, suicide attempts climb among US girls, study says

November 21, 2017
Attempted suicides, drug overdoses, cutting and other types of self-injury have increased substantially in U.S. girls, a 15-year study of emergency room visits found.

Car, stroller, juice: Babies understand when words are related

November 20, 2017
The meaning behind infants' screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

Simple EKG can determine whether patient has depression or bipolar disorder

November 20, 2017
A groundbreaking Loyola Medicine study suggests that a simple 15-minute electrocardiogram could help a physician determine whether a patient has major depression or bipolar disorder.

Non-fearful social withdrawal linked positively to creativity

November 20, 2017
Everyone needs an occasional break from the social ramble, though spending too much time alone can be unhealthy and there is growing evidence that the psychosocial effects of too much solitude can last a lifetime.

Cultural values can be a strong predictor of alcohol consumption

November 20, 2017
Countries with populations that value autonomy and harmony tend to have higher average levels of alcohol consumption than countries with more traditional values, such as hierarchy and being part of a collective. This new ...

A walk at the mall or the park? New study shows, for moms and daughters, a walk in the park is best

November 17, 2017
Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature—even just a 20-minute walk—together can ...

6 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

hush1
1 / 5 (2) Oct 07, 2011
The researchers know the Achilles heel of their research:

1.)"...see... if sense of fairness related to their own willingness to share..."
vs.
2.)"...other third of infants did not share either toy, which might be because they were nervous around a stranger or were unmotivated to share"

The unknown is the motivation that manifests a will to share.
'Selective' motivation weakens the researchers' thesis.

After examining parents, the researchers will know that whatever they label "motivation" - in this case the conjectured manifestation for an infants' will - they will discover "motivation" as a result of parental nurturing.

It is critical to future research that this Achilles heel, weak spot or manko be eliminated.

The rest of the research is not so easily contested.

Wonderful wording: Surprise is a measure of expectation.
Vendicar_Decarian
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 07, 2011
"other third of infants did not share either toy." - humph

Worthless Republicans at birth.
Pirouette
1 / 5 (3) Oct 07, 2011
LOL. . .I think that the researchers are mistaking charity in the babies' behavior with redistribution of wealth from the haves to the have-nots. Altruism is a good quality in humans to share for the good of all IF there is enough for all. But these babies were not FORCED to share their toys or food, therefore the experiment lacks the reality of aggression as in many cases. The fact that the babies shared at all was a voluntary act of kindness because they wanted to. Not because they had copied what they saw on video. Babies will not allow themselves to go hungry to save another from starvation. They will practice rule #1 which is survival of the fittest. Personality traits are formed at an early age and are not always dependent on what a baby or child has learned, but how they feel at a particular moment. Perhaps the researchers were hoping to find a streak of Socialism starting in babies of that age or older. And if they don't find it, they will place the blame on the parents.
hush1
1 / 5 (2) Oct 08, 2011
You have pointed out many aspects, all of which fell short because none of the aspects you pointed out became a focus of closer scrutiny. To your defense commentary forums discourage sharp focus.
You assumed much and the assumptions never got a closer look.
Research bias and researchers' bias is the closest meme coming to mind when reading your comment.
Sinister1811
1 / 5 (2) Oct 10, 2011
If babies have a sense of fairness, then why is it that they fight over toys, and throw tantrums when they don't get their own way? I'm curious as to how they arrived at this conclusion.
hush1
1 / 5 (2) Oct 10, 2011
The answer obviously lies with what you felt and thought at the time. The tools to take you back and help you remember what you felt and thought with your first conflict fail.

The researchers' only conclusion is:
Infants show autism as early as 15 months.
The rest is lip service.

"Sense of fairness" is a place holder for:
"Associations in the brain for behavior labeled 'fairness'. We label those unknown associations as 'sense of fairness'".

Now it is possible to correctly word your question:

If babies have fairness, then what inhibits fairness? (sharing)

The conjecture is: The parents presence offers external stimulus for babies to form associations associated with both fairness and the opposite of fairness.

The researchers were led astray. The toy can be literally anything. As soon as the baby becomes aware of YOUR INTEREST
(in anything)the baby will associate YOUR INTEREST with meaning.

Your curiosity and question arises from a conclusion the researchers never stated

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.