Thursday, November 3, 2011

Helping and Cooperation at 14 Months of Age

 An experiment by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello investigated the proclivity of 14-month-old infants; to altruistically help others toward individual goals. The infants helped another person by handing over objects the other person was unsuccessfully reaching for, but did not help reliably in situations involving more complex goals.
With regard to helping, children as young as 12 months show concern for others in distress and sometimes intervene by comforting them (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998). In addition, children occasionally point to objects another person is looking for as a form of helping through informing others most recently, it has been shown that 18-month-old children perform unrewarded acts of instrumental helping spontaneously and flexibly in diverse situations.

The experimenters set up six situations for helping for the young children to help.  The three that the 14 month old responded to were the simple tasks the “out-of-reach” scenario.

Clothespin (3). In the experimental condition, the experimenter used clothespins to hang towels on a line. He accidentally dropped a clothespin on the floor and unsuccessfully reached for it. In the control condition, the experimenter intentionally threw the clothespin on the floor and did not reach for it.

Marker (3). In the experimental condition, the experimenter used a marker for drawing, accidentally dropped it on the floor, and unsuccessfully reached for it. In the control condition, he threw it on the floor intentionally and did not reach for it.

Paper ball (3). The child and the experimenter sat at a table, facing each other. Three balls were on the experimenter’s side, and three on the child’s side. In the experimental condition, the experimenter collected three balls with tongs and put them into a container. He then tried to reach for each of the other three balls that were on the child’s side, but failed because they

The children helped 30% of the time in the clothespin scenario, 40% of the time in the marker scenario, and almost 70% of the time in the paper ball scenario. And in the controls less than 10% of the children helped the experimenter.  These results speak in favor of the view that an altruistic motivation is already apparent in early human ontogeny. It also shows children’s cognitive capability of discerning people’s goals.

In another experiment children were given material rewards for helping the experimenter, after helping the experimenter and receiving the material reward the children helped much less, where as children who did not receive a reward helped much more consistently.  Why did the altruistic motivation decrease so much when given a reward? Why is there a higher altruistic motivation when children are not rewarded?


  1. The textbook suggests that in this experiment the reason why the infants helped the experimenter is because they were aware that the experimenter was trying to achieve a goal. (p.354) However, when a reward is given, their motive slides from altruistic to egoistic. Therefore, their desire of helping others emerges from their desire to increase their own benefit, not to reduce other's distress. When there is a potential reward, people are more likely to help. (350) However, if the cause of their motive occurs in order to gain the reward, then after receiving it, there is no more reason to help. Also, in the book, Kassin gives the example of Batson's empathy-altruism hypothesis. According to Batson, altruistic motive emerges because the perception of someone in need creates feelings of empathy. (355)

  2. An article I read stated that altruistic motivation is an evolutionarily developed characteristic that people are born with, and that we learn to be more egoistic (Brunero, 2002). This supports the idea that the children would have initially acted out of altruistic motivations because they received "internal rewards", which can be conscious or subconscious, like the avoidance of guilt or just a "warm, fuzzy" feeling. Then, when an external reward is introduced, it takes precedence over the internal rewards, and its presence or absence becomes what determines helping behavior.