is to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a cost to ourselves. But what makes a person give? Since
, leaders in psychology have debated whether the quality was innate or required fostering over time. A key characteristic of being human is our willingness to help others in need. Mature adults often carry out altruistic behaviors without seeking immediate person gain, but when children exhibit selfless behavior it may reveal deeper biological and social roots.
When 15-year-old Sylvia Yoerke of Kansas City, Missouri was given the opportunity to make a wish, she demonstrated an altruistic inclination that went beyond the simple concept of giving and far beyond the social norms we expect of a teenager. Originally, Sylvia had wanted to use her wish to meet somebody she admired, but after her celebrity encounter fell through she told her mother she wanted to give her wish to someone who needed it more than her.
"As hard as she has it, she knows there are people out there who have it a lot worse," Sylvia’s mother Allegra Dalton said. "She wanted to give [her wish] to someone who may not qualify through Make-A-Wish, but is still having a hard time."
Sylvia immediately began working with her volunteer “wish granters” at Make-A-Wish to find someone to whom she could pass on her wish. Together they reviewed more than 200 profiles from the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association until she came across a girl her age who was in foster care.
“At first, I thought I wanted to grant a wish to someone younger than me — maybe a little kid,” Sylvia said. “But I realized that I’d have a lot of fun granting my wish to someone close to my age. Her smile looked so sweet, and I knew that having her wish come true could make her smile like that again.”
The girl chose to visit Disney World. Sylvia and her mother put together a travel guide including the best attractions and places to eat during her trip.
Altruism: Nature vs. Nurture
Starting at the very young age of 18 months old, Stanford psychologists were able to test the theory of childhood altruism to uncover if selfless behavior is governed more by the relationships they build from parents and other influencers, or if it’s simply instinctual.
For the study, researchers recruited 34 one- and two-year-olds, mixed them up, and split them into two groups. First, the experimenter would roll a ball back and forth with the child and communicate through the extent of language possible. After a few minutes of playing and baby babble, the experimenter would knock an object off the nearby table and make it appear to be an accident. The experimenter watched to see if the child would help pick it up.
In the second group, the experimenter and child each had their own ball to play. They engaged in the same level of conversation as the first group, but when the experimenter knocked an object off the table the children reacted differently than the first group of children.
The children who rolled with ball with the experimenter were three times as likely to stop what they were doing and help pick up the object, compared to children who played separately from the experimenter. But when researchers repeated the entire experiment with older children, those who rolled the ball with the experimenter were two times as likely to pick up the object compared to the younger group.
The researchers believe innate altruism is at play, but it was developed through the evolutionary necessity to survive. Instinctively caring for others would improve an individual’s chance of survival — one of the key drivers for forming communities. The children who rolled the ball with the experimenter developed an empathetic response for them because they engaged in a shared activity that required the other person to complete. When children worked autonomously, they were less likely to help the experimenter because they didn’t need them to complete their task as much as the children in the first group.
Furthermore, the older children were more likely to help pick up the object, signifying children develop a sense of dutiful altruism through social norms or their immediate family.
"They arrive at the process with a predisposition for helpfulness and cooperation," developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello said. "But then they learn to be selective about whom to help, inform and share with, and they also learn to manage the impression they are making on others — their public reputation and self—as a way of influencing the actions of those others toward themselves."
Altruistic children who are self-motivated to help others are operating on a combination of survival instincts and social norms. Children are adept learners. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, children form 700 new neural connections every second in the first few years of their life. After this period, the brain becomes more selective by strengthening the connections that have been exercised and delete the connections that stagnate with disuse. This pruning effect can either foster the natural inclination towards altruism, or it can hamper the child’s instincts to give. The American Psychological Association recommends parents to serve as an attentive role model for the children by being altruistic themselves and invite their children to participate. Parents who model selfless giving enhance their child’s altruistic instincts and ultimately help them grow up with a greater likelihood of becoming volunteers or simply empathetic, giving human beings.
Evolutionary theorists demonstrate the success of natural selection by highlighting human competition. But humans could not have survived in nature without the charity and social reciprocity of a group. When Make-A-Wish was first founded in 1980, it reflected a society’s collective demand to form a sophisticated system in order to efficiently give to others in need with success. The nonprofit organization is a product of a longstanding evolutionary phenomenon.
In the next blog we will be speaking to an extraordinary 16 year old boy from the Metro NY region whose wish is to sponsor a running team in support of the charity that helped him and his family when he was battling illness. He will tell us why. Don’t miss it!