Are humans inherently compassionate? This study has the answer

Is empathy learned? Or is it a genetic predisposition? According to a new study some people are simply born kind.

Data published in the journal Scientific Reports concluded that altruism might actually be closer to an instinct that it is to a developed trait. Time and time again the majority of infants recruited for analysis would attempt to share their food with researchers even when they were hungry themselves.

“Nineteen-month-old human infants repeatedly and spontaneously transferred high-value, nutritious natural food to a stranger and more critically, did so after an experimental manipulation that imposed a feeding delay which increased their own motivation to eat the food,” the authors wrote in the new paper.

Altruistic food-sharing behavior by human infants after a hunger manipulation

The new study was co-authored by researchers from the University of Washington’s Learning & Brain Sciences division.

The team set out to identify the biological mechanisms that cause humans to engage in empathetic behavior differently than other species. There are plenty of mammals that display benevolent traits but rarely when doing so presents a  risk to their own survival.

“We think altruism is important to study because it is one of the most distinctive aspects of being human. It is an important part of the moral fabric of society,” says lead author Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral researcher at I-LABS, in a press release. “We adults help each other when we see another in need and we do this even if there is a cost to the self.”

To exercise this assumption the researchers recruited 100 infants—each around 19 months old. The participants were segmented into two groups. In the control group, infants were placed in a room with an adult that they did not know before positioning either an apple, a blueberry or a  banana on the floor. The fruits were easily obtainable for the infants but out of reach for the adults.

The same setting was employed for the experimental group except the adults would pretend to have dropped the piece of fruit by feigning attempts to retrieve it when it had fallen. After several trials, each using different infants and fruits, the majority of infants handed fruit back to the adults who appeared to desire it.

Both the control and experiment scenarios were replicated with a new crop of babies who were brought in just before their usual meal times. Thirty-seven percent of hungry infants handed fallen fruit back to the researchers in the experiment trial.

“The infants in this second study looked longingly at the fruit, and then they gave it away!” said Andrew N. Meltzoff, a co-director of I-LABS. “We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping.”

The fact that infants were just as likely to give away fruit in the first experiment trial as they were in the following ones suggest empathy to be an inherent trait as opposed to an instilled habit. That isn’t to say accidents of birth don’t have their part to play. Infants from certain cultures and infants with siblings were even more likely to offer fruit to adults in purported duress.

John Gardner’s Grendel might be the most cited mediation on the nurture vs nature debate. Using a literal fabled monster as a model, Gardner implies that the two forces tend to complicate if not outright counterbalance one another. The degree likely varies by reason of region and genetics. The researchers intend to explore the ecology more resolutely to promote a potentially innate desire to help those in need.

“We think certain family and social experiences make a difference, and continued research would be desirable to more fully understand what maximizes the expression of altruism in young children. If we can discover how to promote altruism our kids, this could move us toward a more caring society,” Barragan explained.