Are Babies Born Good?

New research offers surprising answers to the age-old question of where morality comes from

Because they have barely been exposed to the world, children are some of psychology's most powerful muses. (JIll Greenberg)
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Warneken was initially interested in how little children read the intentions of others, and the question of whether toddlers would assist others in reaching their goals. He wanted to sound out these behaviors in novel helping experiments—“accidentally” dropping a hat, for instance, and seeing if the kids would return it.

But while this was an interesting idea in principle, his advisers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany said it was quite impossible in practice. Once toddlers got their hot little hands on a desirable object, Warneken was told, “they’ll just hold onto it, and there’s no way they’ll give it back.” Besides, prominent psychologists had previously argued that children are selfish until they are socialized; they acquire altruistic behaviors only as childhood progresses and they are rewarded for following civilization’s rules, or punished for breaking them.

Warneken put the notion on hold while he studied other aspects of toddler cooperation. One day he and a toddler were bouncing a ball together. Truly by accident, the ball rolled away—“the moment of serendipity,” as Warneken now calls it. His first impulse was to retrieve the toy and carry on, but he stopped himself. Instead, he stayed where he was, pretending to strain for the ball, though he was barely extending his incredibly long arms. The little boy watched him struggle, then after a moment heaved himself up, waddled over to the toy and—defying the scientific community’s uncharitable expectations—stretched out his own chubby little arm to hand the ball to his gigantic playmate.

In the following months, Warneken designed experiments for 18-month-olds, in which a hapless adult (often played by him) attempted to perform a variety of tasks, to no avail, as the toddlers looked on. The toddlers gallantly rescued Warneken’s dropped teaspoons and clothespins, stacked his books and pried open stubborn cabinet doors so he could reach inside.

“Eighteen-month-old children would help across these different situations, and do it very spontaneously,” he says. “They are clever helpers. It is not something that’s been trained, and they readily come to help without prompting or without being rewarded.”

The children even help when it’s a personal burden. Warneken showed me a videotaped experiment of a toddler wallowing in a wading pool full of plastic balls. It was clear that he was having the time of his life. Then a klutzy experimenter seated at a nearby desk dropped her pen on the floor. She seemed to have great trouble recovering it and made unhappy sounds. The child shot her a woebegone look before dutifully hauling himself out of the ball pit, picking up the pen and returning it to the researcher. At last he felt free to belly flop into the ball pit once more, unaware that, by helping another at a cost to himself, he had met the formal definition of altruism.

Because they were manifested in 18-month-olds, Warneken believed that the helping behaviors might be innate, not taught or imitated. To test his assumption, he turned to one of our two nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzee. Intellectually, an adult chimp and a 2-year-old are evenly matched: They have roughly equivalent tool-using skills and memories and perform the same in causal learning tests.

The first chimps Warneken studied, nursery-raised in a German zoo, were comfortable with select people. He replaced objects alien to chimps (such as pens) with familiar materials like the sponges that caretakers use to clean the facilities. Warneken waited in the hallway, watching through a camera, as the caretaker dropped the first object: As if on cue, the chimp bounded over and breezily handed it back. “I was freaking out!” Warneken remembers. “I couldn’t believe my eyes, that they would do that. I was going crazy!”

Once the euphoria faded, Warneken wondered if perhaps human-reared chimps had been conditioned to be helpful to their food providers. So he arranged for others to conduct a version of the test at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda, where semi-wild chimps live. In the experiment, two researchers appeared to argue fiercely over a stick: The winner of the fight puts the stick out of the loser’s reach, and he pines for it as a chimp watches. The chimp has to decide whether to hand the prized possession through the bars of the cage to the vanquished party. Many did.

“The expectation was that initially the chimps might help, but when they don’t receive a reward the helping should drop off over time,” Warneken says. “But there was no such pattern. They would consistently help when the person was reaching for the object,” even in the absence of any payoff.

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