It’s commonly held that young children are, well, selfish, but as Caroline Williams discovers, they are often kinder than adults.

Last Christmas I took my young son to the theatre. The show, called Antarctica, was for 4-7 year olds and, from an adult perspective, it was all a bit surreal. The actors flung around snow made of pieces of white paper and let it flutter to the ground. Later, they would dress up as seals and roll around in the paper-snow, honking at each other whilst wearing fake moustaches. 

But if I thought that was strange it was nothing compared to what happened after the show. When the actors had left the stage and the parents were busy gathering up coats and bags, a woman carrying a small box walked, virtually unnoticed, to the back of the stage. Without saying a word or looking at anyone in particular she put the box on the floor and quietly stepped back.

A split-second later every child in the room rushed forward, grabbing handfuls of paper snow and putting them in the box. No-one told them to. There was no discussion between them and no arguments about who grabbed what. They just did it. Parents started exchanging glances, totally confused. It was spooky, as if they'd been hypnotised.

So what was going on? Did the woman with the box use some kind of mind trick on the children? Did one child start it off and make it look like such fun that the rest of them joined in? Or could it be that young children simply like to be helpful?

(Credit: Thinkstock)

(Credit: Thinkstock)

The last explanation might seem the least likely – after all young children don’t have a great reputation for selflessness and, at least in my household, tidying is something kids do under duress. But according to developmental psychologist Felix Warneken from Harvard University, it is a definite possibility. He has been studying “helping behaviour” in children from 14 months old to 5 years and has come to the conclusion that young children are about as helpful and giving as human beings ever get.

“There is the assumption that we have to train children to be altruistic because they are selfish at the beginning, but now studies have shown that the story is much more complex,” says Warneken. In fact, studying children might actually teach us a lot about the roots of human kindness.

Group assist

Helping is a key component of what psychologists call prosocial behaviour – it keeps our social group ticking along. In adults it is tied up in morality and social norms, which makes it’s difficult to answer the question of whether it is ever genuinely selfless.

(Credit: Thinkstock)

(Credit: Thinkstock)

That’s why Warneken wanted to study it in children – if you catch them early enough they shouldn’t be too influenced by societal norms. And if it is a basic part of human psychology it should be there from the first year of life, as soon as they are physically able to help. He came up with the idea when he was a young and enthusiastic PhD student, and at first his more experienced colleagues weren’t convinced he would find very much. “I wondered, if I accidentally drop something – will the children return it to me?” he recalls. “Other people said ‘no way. The children would just keep it’. I tried it anyway,” he says. And guess what? The children helped. 

Since then he has found that children as young as 14 months will spontaneously help a person who is struggling or looks worried, even if they have to stop doing something they enjoy to do it. At two they will help someone who isn’t even aware that they need it – because they haven’t noticed dropping something, for example. In this TEDx talk, you can watch adorable videos of toddlers helping people:

This video is no longer available

This video is no longer available

Interestingly, the children don’t seem to be calculating what’s in it for them. In experiments in which 20-month-old children got a reward for being helpful, it didn’t make them any more helpful than a control group who received nothing (although it did make them less helpful when the reward was taken away).

Other studies seem to suggest that helping each other is a basic part of human nature. Chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary relatives, help each other even when there is nothing in it for them, suggesting that this kind of thing evolved before the niceties of human society. And a study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany found that at two years old, a child has the same emotional response, as measured by changes in pupil size, when they help other people as when they themselves are helped. This suggests that they are hard wired to care about others.

Bad turn

All of which begs the question: what happens to our lovely helpful tendencies when we get older? After all, the adults could see the sweeping-up problem in the theatre I attended, but not one of us thought to lend a hand. Why not?

At first it might seem that we lose our caring streak as we get older, but Martin Hoffman, a clinical psychologist at New York University who has been studying empathy for more than 30 years, isn’t convinced. “There is no evidence adults are less empathic than toddlers,” he says.

(Credit: Thinkstock)

(Credit: Thinkstock)

Instead, it seems that we get better at processing what it going on and deciding what needs to be done about it. Ultimately, we still want to help, we just do more mental gymnastics to weigh up all the options. This, Warneken points out, is probably for our own good. “These things are all good survival strategies because it would not be good to give, give, give all the time,” he says. After all, no one is suggesting that human nature is always selfless – taking advantage is definitely part of the hardware too, he points out.

Back in the 1970s psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley quantified this decision-making process. They described what’s known as the ‘bystander effect’, a rule that explains why in a group of strangers, the more people there are, the less likely anyone else is to help. According to Bibb and Darley, we go through a five-stage process of deciding whether to get involved. First we notice that someone needs help, then realise it is urgent, feel responsible for helping and then decide what to do. Only then will we actually do it. The more people are around, the less responsible each person feels.

“Very young children don’t go through this complex reasoning,” says Warneken. "They see the situation and just go ahead and do something.”

(Credit: Thinkstock)

(Credit: Thinkstock)

Our innocence only lasts so long, though. A recent study by Maria Plotner of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology shows that children experience the bystander effect as early as age five.

Most of the children in the theatre that day were five or older, and in theory should have been victims of the bystander effect. So maybe there was something in my spooky feeling that the children had all been hypnotised by the lady with the box. Children – particularly preschoolers are thought to be more susceptible to hypnotic suggestion than adults, so perhaps the mere hint that they should be tidying was enough to get things going.

Whatever motivated the zombie-like helpful behaviour of those children, it seems not to be an isolated incident. Actor James Stenhouse recalls a similar incident in which a two-year old girl interrupted a tense scene in a play to help sort things out. In the scene, he had just thrown a bucket of ping pong balls at his stage girlfriend in frustration and sat down with his head in his hands.

(Credit: Thinkstock)

(Credit: Thinkstock)

For four years the audience had stayed silent in every performance, awkwardly watching the balls fall still. Then one day the little girl decided to help him by putting the balls back in the bucket. And where she led, the audience followed. Since that day the audience has picked up the balls more often than not.  

Stenhouse says that they haven’t changed the way they perform the scene since the girl helped – at least not deliberately. “It just must be a tiny change that we can't see but that audiences can sense,” he suggests. “We expect them to do it now, and so they more often than not, do it.”

Clearly, the reasons both children and adults feel compelled to do nice things for one another are complex, and still not fully understood.

Whatever spooky forces might be at work in theatres around the land, one thing we do know is that kids come wired for kindness for a short time only before they start factoring in number one. So when it comes to playing nice it might be an idea to take the lead from the smallest person in the room.

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