04 December 2020

humans are social animals

While I was reading what Robin wrote today about kindness and the wonderful poem "Small Kindnesses" (here is the link to that post), two things came to mind.

The first thing is the ongoing research by Felix Warneken, professor of psychology at Harvard University, and Michael Tomasello, anthropologist and behavioral researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. 

They have been investigating altruism in human infants and compared it to altruism as shown by young chimpanzees and then developed this further to figure out more about altruism as a human trait or whether it's a learned thing and so on.

There are lovely videos online of their research experiments where they looked at how small infants react when faced with adults in a dilemma.  

(more videos can be watched here)

Recently, they carried out another, particularly impressive, experiment, examining the influence of extrinsic motivation, such as praise, on the helpfulness of young children. 

They had three groups of small kids for another experiment where an adult showed that help was needed (similar to what is shown in the video above): the children from the first group received no response to any help provided, the children from the second group were thanked and the children from the third group even received a reward. 

They did that a couple of times and then they repeated the test without giving any reaction or reward to any of the kids in the three groups. This is what happened:

The first group, the children who initially had helped and never received a response, continued to show a very high level of helpfulness. 

The second group, the kids who had received a "Thank You", showed a minimally reduced level of helpfulness.

The third group, the kids who had been receiving a reward, showed a significantly lower level of helpfulness. 

In other words: An unconditional willingness to help had turned into a conditional willingness to help. In technical language this is called the corruption effect. 

But because most societies are convinced that children are not naturally helpful, it seems imperative to create an incentive - i.g. parents give their children money to help in the household or, believing that children are naturally lazy, pay them for bringing home good grades. 

(I could go on about household chores, which are mostly repetitive, boring jobs we adults assign to kids because we think they are dummies who need to learn, but that's for another day.)

The second thing that came to mind is another study investigating honesty and selfishness in adults. This experiment was carried out in 40 countries involving 17,000 people and the results were published last year (here). Briefly, "lost wallets" containing varying amounts of money were handed in anonymously by the researchers at various public and private institutions (hotels, libraries, banks, post offices, shops etc.) and then it was examined whether the recipients did in fact contact the owners to return the wallets. 

In every country, whether in Asia, Europe, Africa or America, people were more likely to return the wallets that contained a higher amount of money. 

The researchers concluded that these were "acts of civic honesty, where people voluntarily refrain from opportunistic behavior" despite "monetary incentives to act otherwise". 

And on a final note: Occasionally, the university clinics I work for run low on blood plasma and we all receive emails encouraging us and our families and friends to donate blood. Several times people have suggested that if the clinics would pay people for this there would not be a shortage. 

Not so, there have been many studies that have shown again and again that the number of blood donors will decrease if the donation is rewarded with money. 

Anyway, reasons to be cheerful.



Anonymous said...

Oh Sabine that video brought tears to my eyes. It is so beautiful and reassuring about our true inner spirit. I love the research that you mention and what it means about us. And always, just seeing the word Leipzig makes me think of my grandparents who left there in 1921 and came to America. It's a deep connection to my family history. I'm glad you liked the Small Kindnesses poem. Thank you. Hope all is well for you and your family. Stay safe and well, my friend.

ellen abbott said...

I have believed that altruism, the willingness to help someone who is struggling with something is innate, as is compassion. unfortunately, I think that sometimes our culture or society causes us to unlearn it or ridicules us for it. or maybe some of us are just born without that impulse. we do know that babies who are left to 'cry it out', who are not picked up and cuddled, learn that the world will not be responsive to their needs.

am said...

Yes. Thank you for this today. When I go out walking while wearing my mask, I smile with my eyes at the tiny children who are just learning to walk. What a delight to see their kind faces smiling in response! They radiate kindness.

Ms. Moon said...

I love this. Just love it. I think of how my children, and now grandchildren, want so much to help and sometimes that "help" is far more of a hindrance and yet, there is something that seems to be intrinsic in adults that knows that it's important to let the child give that help. We think, "This is how they learn." And it is. Thank you for such sweetness. And as an aside- I do love Alan Alda.

Steve Reed said...

Interesting! I wonder if people are more likely to donate when unpaid because it makes them feel more virtuous? Is it an instinct to help or a subconscious exercise in ego fulfillment? (Probably an inherently cynical question...)

Steve Reed said...

Answering my own question: I guess it can't be ego because certainly small children wouldn't be responding for that reason.

molly said...

Aha. So this is why I cringe when I hear adults praising kids to the stars and beyond for doing things that make them feel like they have value even though they are small! Loved that video. Will be watching more from your link. So nice to hear something so positive when, at the moment, there is so much negativity swirling around. Thank you for sharing.

37paddington said...

A fascinating post, Sabine.

My life so far said...

Our rock stupid premier just passed a law allowing people to be paid for plasma donations, ignoring science and studies.

The experiments you mention give me hope for the future. And I won't be rewarding my grandson for help obviously:)

Barbara Rogers said...

Wonderful videos, and I appreciate your comments on others. I couldn't see the ones at the description link, but did read about them. Aren't we such wonderful funny animals? And then, no matter what we DO, we can think about it and talk about it! I've loved Alan Alda's scientific works, as well as his acting! It was fun going back to Robin's post and reading all the comments and her replys!

beth coyote said...

Wow. thank you.

Barbara Rogers said...

I've been thinking about the 3 response areas for children's offers of help, and how they learned NOT to offer help by being given rewards. It goes against all the early childhood training, and parent's own tendencies to give high praise for children's accomplishments...but I think the main thing is how the child feels about him/herself...when dependent upon no outside source of self esteem. A stunning concept for this old person!

Joared said...

These studies and results are very interesting. So much for rewarding children for their actions.

Joared said...

Perhaps altruism doesn't really exist, and the individual is actually deriving something from their act.

Sabine said...

I don't know if it's learning NOT to offer help rather than learning that helping/altruism will be rewarded. Hence, the corruption effect. We all learn early on how to corrupt each other - or in other words, how to charm our way into/out of a situation, how to use our offers of help etc. to whatever advantage. We call it social skills and our societies are based on this, all the way to Adam Smith's "invisible hand" concept that society benefits from our individual self-interests. Whether it's actually working, that's another debate.

Roderick Robinson said...

Just to say I turned yellow with jaundice in my youth and it seems my blood is thus unacceptable at the blood bank. I discovered this during National Service when those who volunteered to give up their vital essence were excused an hour's drill on the parade ground.

Of course jaundice was only a symptom. There was vague talk of "inflamed kidneys" at the time. My vocabulary was only nascent then and I passed on this detail as "inflated kidneys" to the confusion of the adult world.

The results of these tests you mention are cheering, sort of suggesting (confirming?) that human is cognate with humane. But what might our prior expectations be on knowing that the tests were going to be carried out. Stories about found wallets being returned are often told with a degree of wonder; as if they were against the norm. Do we believe in our hearts of hearts that they won't be returned? And is this conclusion arrived at through self-examination?

Faint hope. In our dreams we imagine the world's leaders being tested in this way as qualification for the position they subsequently hold. Were this the case I would expect a sea of entirely different faces.

Colette said...

The results of that experiment are SO interesting.