It's the thought that counts: Helping behavior in infants may be determined by previous interactions

Mar 23, 2010

We are usually eager to assist people who have helped us in the past. These reciprocal relationships are an important part of adult interactions and foster cooperation in society. New findings, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggest that this reciprocal behavior may have early beginnings and can be demonstrated in children as young as 21-months-old.

Psychological scientists Kristen A. Dunfield and Valerie A. Kuhlmeier from Queen's University in Canada wanted to examine the specificity of infants' helping behavior — that is, if they are likelier to help one person over another. In this experiment, were introduced to two actresses who offered, but failed to provide, them with a new toy. One of the actresses was unable to give the infant a toy: she offered the toy by placing it on the edge of a slanted table, and watched in surprise as it rolled away. The second actress was unwilling to give the infant the toy: she showed them the toy and then took it away. Then, when the actresses were sitting next to each other, facing the infant, the experimenter placed a toy on the edge of the table, so that it fell off. Both of the actresses reached for the toy (which was out of arms' reach) and the experimenters watched to see what the infant would do.

Infants were more likely to pick up a dropped toy and hand it to an actress who was previously willing, although unable, to give them a new toy than to hand the toy to an actress who was previously unwilling to give them a new toy. These results suggest that infants were selectively helping the actress who had earlier acted with good intentions towards them.

Next, the researchers wanted to see if the infants made their choice based on the positive intentions of the actresses or if a successful outcome can trump good intentions. The set-up was similar to the first experiment, except the unwilling actress was replaced by one who was successful in giving the toy to the infant. The infants in this experiment were equally likely to hand over the toy to each actress — a successful outcome was not enough to encourage selective helping.

These results suggest that by 21 months of age, infants display selective helping behavior and this behavior is based on their previous interactions with others. Furthermore, the intentions of individuals they are interacting with, even more than actual outcome, play a large role in determining infants' helping behavior. The researchers conclude that these findings indicate "that some of the characteristics of the rich reciprocal relationships observed in adults are in place in infancy."

Explore further: Impact of domestic violence on women's mental health

Related Stories

Prenatal Cocaine Exposure Impairs Infants' Response to Stress

Jan 20, 2009

( -- Infants exposed prenatally to cocaine react more emotionally to stress and appear to have fewer stress-reducing coping strategies than infants with no cocaine exposure, researchers at the University at Buffalo's ...

Recommended for you

Online illusion: Unplugged, we really aren't that smart

11 hours ago

The Internet brings the world to our fingertips, but it turns out that getting information online also has a startling effect on our brains: We feel a lot smarter than we really are, according to a Yale-led study published ...

People in MTV docusoaps are more ideal than real

11 hours ago

More midriff, cleavage and muscle is seen in MTV's popular television docusoaps such as The Real World, Jersey Shore or Laguna Beach than in the average American household. Semi-naked brawny Adonises and even more scantily ...

Score! Video gamers may learn visual tasks more quickly

11 hours ago

Many studies show that video gamers perform better than non-gamers on certain visual tasks, like managing distractors and identifying targets, but a small new Brown University study provides gamers with some ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.