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.