Sunday, March 05, 2006

Altruism is hard-wired in humans, study shows

Humans have a natural tendency to be helpful, German researchers have discovered, according to BBC News. Infants as young as 18 months show altruistic behaviour, the journal Science reported this month.

Both toddlers and chimpanzees helped strangers complete tasks such as stacking books.

The trait may have evolved six million years ago, the study suggestse goodness of their hearts" by helping non-relatives regardless of any benefits for themselves.

"This is the first experiment showing altruistic helping towards goals in any non-human primate," said Felix Warneken, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

"It's been claimed chimpanzees act mainly for their own ends; but in our experiment, there was no reward and they still helped."

The experimenters performed simple tasks like dropping a clothes peg out of reach while hanging clothes on a line, or mis-stacking a pile of books. Nearly all of the group of 24 18-month-olds helped by picking up the peg or the book, usually in the first 10 seconds of the experiment.

They only did this if they believed the researcher needed the object to complete the task — if it was thrown on the ground deliberately, they didn't pick it up.

"The results were astonishing because these children are so young — they still wear diapers and are barely able to use language, but they already show helping behaviour," said Felix Warneken.

The pair went on to investigate more complicated tasks, such as retrieving an object from a box with a flap, or picking up a dropped spoon. The children only retrived the objects if they believed they were lost accidently. If the object appeared deliberately dropped, the children did not attempt to retrieve it.

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