Born to help

Turns out that we may be hard wired to co-operate and help out. And this behavior occurs in children before, and in the absence of, specific training and in babies as early as  twelve months. Biologists are concluding that even infants are innately sociable and helpful to others.

And it’s not a matter of etiquette and social training and it’s not about rewards.

Did you catch the  NYTimes article We may be born with an urge to help on altruism and selfishness in children?

It’s research that certainly fits with my experience of children at school – they are all too happy to lend a hand when something, or somebody, needs their help and there is a ready fund of goodwill toward others that is easily tapped.  Students at every level are eager to assist each other and to be a part of a community project. It’s why service learning is not about resume building to enhance college prospects but a genuine desire to make a difference.

For those of an idealistic bent, these are supportive findings. Helping others and reaching out, it seems, are not something  to be imposed. Rather we have a natural inclination to cooperate, share and help others. But – that said – doesn’t it make sense to build social institutions – schools – on those principles? That way, the social norms of group membership can develop and help shape these natural inclinations.   A school culture of kindness and cooperation is not built on punishments, rewards, rules and regulations but rather on shared expectations and intentions. These are what strengthen and shape behavior. Shared intentions are what make us human.


In “Why We Cooperate,” a book published in October, Dr. Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, and co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany writes:

“Shared intentionality… is close to the essence of what distinguishes people from chimpanzees. A group of human children will use all kinds of words and gestures to form goals and coordinate activities, but young chimps seem to have little interest in what may be their companions’ minds.”

What are the implications for parenting and schools?

According to Dr. Tomasello it’s a matter of simply communicating with children about the effect of their actions on others and emphasizing the logic of social cooperation.

“Children are altruistic by nature,” he writes, and though they are also naturally selfish, all parents need do is try to tip the balance toward social behavior.

“Humans putting their heads together in shared cooperative activities are thus the originators of human culture.”

The article cites other researchers whose findings complement his work.

In “The Age of Empathy.” Dr. Frans de Waal writes: “We’re preprogrammed to reach out. Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.”

So if it is in our nature to be sociable and cooperative what about war? And what about The Lord of the Flies and all that other good stuff that reveals the plain truth that we are not always so nice to each other? The article explains it this way:

Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. ….

“Humans clearly evolved the ability to detect inequities, control immediate desires, foresee the virtues of norm following and gain the personal, emotional rewards that come from seeing another punished,” write three Harvard biologists, Marc Hauser, Katherine McAuliffe and Peter R. Blake, in reviewing their experiments with tamarin monkeys and young children.

If people do bad things to others in their group, they can behave even worse to those outside it. Indeed the human capacity for cooperation “seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the local group,” Dr. Tomasello writes.

Sociality, the binding together of members of a group, is the first requirement of defense, since without it people will not put the group’s interests ahead of their own or be willing to sacrifice their lives in battle. Lawrence H. Keeley, an anthropologist who has traced aggression among early peoples, writes in his book “War Before Civilization” that, “Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for cooperation, but merely the most destructive expression of it.”

The roots of human cooperation may lie in human aggression. We are selfish by nature, yet also follow rules requiring us to be nice to others.

“That’s why we have moral dilemmas,” Dr. Tomasello said, “because we are both selfish and altruistic at the same time.”

Not seeing this altruism and helpfulness at home?  Have a sense of disconnect when you hear from teachers about behavior in school that does not altogether match what happens around the chores at home? The article has an explanation for that too.

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