babies keep showing us that we’re born with empathy

Scientists are studying if babies are born with empathy and altruism and their research may help us create a blueprint for solving today's partisan tribalism and civil cold wars.
little kid with cat

One of the funniest things you’ll ever see is little kids learning martial arts. Obviously, when you try to get small children to learn kicks, punches, and combinations, you’re definitely not going to turn them into killing machines. Basic physics dictates that they lack the speed and mass to do any real damage until they’ve at least started puberty. You teach them martial arts to give them a taste of discipline and help them improve their coordination. And when those little kids spar, they often just think of it as entertaining roughhousing with a few rules they might not even bother to take seriously. Observe these kids long enough and you might walk away with the impression that they all just want to play and be friends.

Well, according to science, your impression would be correct. A large body of work from the Max Planck Institute shows that kids too young for any formal instruction and barely able to walk prefer friendly social interactions and try to be helpful to those around them. And a new study from University of Washington adds to this theory by demonstrating that babies and toddlers will share and outright give up food to others who appear hungry, even when they seemed to want the food as well and weren’t expecting a reward. The study’s authors say this behavior shows us that altruism is an innate human because the kids were simply too young to receive and understand a lecture on sharing or empathy.

The experiments were fairly simple, measuring only whether a child would hand researchers fruit they would drop and pretend to try and reach, or at which they just ignored when it was close to the child. If they tried to reach for it, almost 60% children would help them out, even if they looked longingly at it first. Even when the researchers completely ignored the fruit and gave no indication that they wanted the food in the tray, a few kids still tried to hand it to them. It’s possible some kids were too young and didn’t understand the cues well enough, but on the whole, these experiments show that a very solid majority of children prefer to share and help rather than hoard when they understand they can be helpful.

why do we study empathy?

Of course, empathy on a biological level isn’t limited to children. We don’t just grow out of being empathetic and we can see that in studies showing adults cringing or reacting in other very emotional and visceral ways to seeing others suffer, and scans show our brains literally checking out of the situation when we’re being forced to inflict harm. The vast majority of us are wired to think of other humans with at least basic compassion, which makes sense since we’re social animals and seeing others of our species as potential friends rather than rivals would hold our nascent societies together. One could even argue it’s how our species got where it is today, although the full picture isn’t as simple or rosy.

But it’s the fact that while we’re wired to be friendly and helpful yet have always had wars and committed heinous acts against each other that makes studying empathy so important. We can chalk it up to our propensity for tribalism and pack bonding in which we can be led to believe our own family and neighbors are conspiring against us, but that doesn’t explain why so many humans become pacifists even in the middle of raging, vicious, existential conflicts, and reject tribal propaganda, refusing to believe those close to them wish them harm, even if it turns out to be absolutely true. In short, our inborn empathy and altruism create a fundamental paradox in the real world, and we want to know how we deal with it.

In a way, the question we want to ask is hate or disdain for others learned and is a product of very conscious dehumanizing propaganda? There are those who’ll point to studies which show that babies tend to prefer people who look more like their families to others, and that a child needs to be exposed to people of other races to see humanity as a spectrum rather than group each race into their own tribes in their mind, and use the research to argue that racism is just as natural of a trait as altruism. But other related research argues that these predispositions are malleable and have to be deliberately weaponized to turn into bigotry and racism. Which one is it? Well, we’re still trying to nail down the details.

can we kill modern politics with kindness?

Another reason why we want to study empathy and altruism and get people to understand its origins and importance is the need to break today’s cycle of populist politics. Consider that the rhetoric in much of the Western world today attacks the poor and struggling as lazy, immigrants as evil others coming to steal what they say rightfully belongs to the dominant ethnic groups, and worships the fortunes of the wealthy and powerful, who we know from research have their sense of empathy muted and eroded. We can look at this as “the real world,” write off those who engage in these stances and support politicians who want to turn them into law as lost causes, or we can try to understand the breakdown of empathy involved.

Modern politics in the West seeks to divide and conquer, which essentially dooms any reforms and modernization efforts from the start because it pits the electorate against itself, breaking people into camps and telling them that the other camp is evil and trying to destroy them and their way of life for shits and giggles or as part of a conspiracy. Who would want to pay taxes for a desperately needed project or reform if it would also help those evil others? Basic social psychology says that in such scenarios, you’re going to get cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face behavior that manifests as social unrest and political gridlock. The only solution is to eliminate those scenarios. But the real question is how.

If we understand the mechanisms that inspire and encourage empathy on a biological level, we can incorporate them into our format education and public discourse. If babies can share and work together as soon as they start to walk, so should adults, especially if they’re endowed with the same biological mechanisms which seek cooperation and social cohesion. And maybe, we’ll see more cooperation through globalization and urbanization as more and more people will get exposed to more and more diversity of ethnicity, race, and thought, learning to see humanity as a spectrum of colors, ideas, and customs, just like the research about the biases of infants and toddlers indicates should happen.

See: Barragan, R.C., et al. (2020) Altruistic food sharing behavior by human infants after a hunger manipulation, Sci Rep 10, 1785, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-58645-9

# science // children / empathy / social psychology

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