For kids, altruism comes naturally, psychologist says

L.A. Cicero Tanner Tomasello

Psychologist Michael Tomasello, who delivered the 2008 Tanner Lectures in Human Values last week on campus, speaks at a discussion session Oct. 30. Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke, right, was a respondent.

Drop something in front of a 2-year-old, and she's likely to pick it up for you. Can't get into a cabinet because your hands are full? Count on the watchful toddler to wander over and open the door. And that stapler you were using a few minutes ago—where did it go again? Oh, yes—over there, right where she's pointing.

They all may be cute gestures by a child otherwise preoccupied with toilet training. But when Michael Tomasello watches young children in the experiments he's designed, he sees acts of altruism and cooperation—along with more examples of what sets humans apart from other species.

"From when they first begin to walk and talk and become truly cultural beings, young human children are naturally cooperative and helpful in many—though obviously not all—situations," Tomasello said during one of two lectures about the origins of human cooperation. "And they do not get this from adults; it comes naturally."

Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, delivered the 2008 Tanner Lectures in Human Values on Oct. 29 and 30, each of which was followed by lengthy discussion sessions. The psychologist's research focuses on processes of social cognition, social learning and communication, and language in human children and great apes.

Armed with data and several video clips of his experiments, Tomasello repeatedly showed during his two lectures that young children can be as selfless as they are adorable.

Lest you think he's asserting there is no such thing as the "terrible twos," Tomasello made clear the cooperative behavior he studies is "relative to nonhuman primates." In other words, kids are quite altruistic when compared to apes. They gesture to communicate that something is out of place. They empathize with those they sense have been wronged.

They have an almost reflexive desire to help, inform and share. And they do so without expectation or desire for reward, Tomasello said.

"There is very little evidence in any of these cases that children's altruism is created by parents or any other form of socialization," Tomasello said of his experiments.

But as they grow, children's spirit of cooperation is shaped by how they judge their surroundings and perceive what others think of them. They become more aware of what's around them, and worry more about what it's like and what it means to be a member of a group, Tomasello said.

"They arrive at the process with a predisposition for helpfulness and cooperation," he 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."

Apes, on the other hand, are in it for themselves.

Put through similar experiments as the children, apes demonstrate an ability to work together and share but choose not to. While a child's initial reaction—or sense of guilt or shame—might guide his decision to share some candy with the other child who helped him get it, a chimpanzee has no problem working with another ape to get a piece of food but will keep the spoils to himself.

Humans create a sense of shared intentionality—a sense of "we," Tomasello said. That bond helps explain even the simplest social norms, like why it's rude and socially unacceptable for someone to simply walk away from an activity involving another person with no warning.

"This sense that we are doing something together—which creates mutual expectations, and even rights and obligations—is arguably uniquely human even in this simple case," Tomasello said.

The Tanner Lectures are held annually at Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Princeton; the universities of California, Michigan and Utah; and in England at Cambridge and Oxford universities. Established in 1978 by Obert Clark Tanner, an industrialist, legal scholar and philosopher, the lectures are meant to advance and reflect upon the scholarly and scientific learning relating to human values.

The Tanner Lectures are sponsored by the President's Office and the Center for Ethics in Society.