Magazine article Work & Family Life

Are We Born with an Urge to Be Helpful?

Magazine article Work & Family Life

Are We Born with an Urge to Be Helpful?

Article excerpt

New research offers a surprisingly upbeat take on human nature. It suggests that we're born with an innate willingness to help, according to studies of very young children in the U.S. and Europe.

In one study, when 18-month-old toddlers saw an unrelated adult whose hands were full and needed assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they immediately helped, writes developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, in his book Why We Cooperate. Another study found that, as early as 12 months, infants will point to objects that adults pretend to have lost.

Because the inclination to help shows up so early - before most parents start teaching the rules of polite behavior - Dr. Tomasello sees it as an inborn urge. He notes that this urge can be observed across cultures that have different timetables for teaching social rules.

As children get older, they become more selective in their helpfulness, however. Around age 3 they become more likely to share with a child who was previously nice to them. Kids start learning social norms because they want to be part of the group. …

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