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Born to Help

By Jason Marsh | December 1, 2009 | 2 comments

Check out the article in today's New York Times on the evolutionary roots of altruism. The piece, by Nicholas Wade, reports on research that suggests kind, helpful behavior may be innate to humans.

Wade zeroes in on studies documenting helpful behavior among kids as young as 18 months old–research covered in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Greater Good–as well as research suggesting the evolutionary benefits of cooperative behavior. He focuses on the work of Michael Tomasello, a psychologist who's co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. Tomasello has found that 18-month-old infants will recognize when an adult needs help–such as when they're trying to open a door with their hands full–and will offer them assistance, unsolicited. Wade writes:

Dr. Tomasello finds the helping is not enhanced by rewards, suggesting that it is not influenced by training. It seems to occur across cultures that have different timetables for teaching social rules. And helping behavior can even be seen in infant chimpanzees under the right experimental conditions. For all these reason, Dr. Tomasello concludes that helping is a natural inclination, not something imposed by parents or culture.

You can read more about the evolutionary roots of cooperation in last month's Greater Good article by Alex Dixon and Jeremy Adam Smith, which reports on how cooperative behavior prevails across the animal kingdom.

Also worth checking out in today's Times is this short piece about the new book 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life. The Times reporter, Tara Parker-Pope, uses the book as a springboard to discussing research that has shown the physical health benefits of doing good things for others.

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Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.


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The research is intriguing.  It has always been my contention that we (mammels) are inherently endowed with goodness.  After all, it seems the species most likely to survive is the one which is mutually cooperative.  My unscientific observations lead me to believe hate or ‘otherness’ is a learned behavior.

Edith Rappaport | 10:33 am, December 7, 2009 | Link


A week or so ago I was minding my two, three year old grandchildren, Matthew and Anabel. Anabel was sitting at the little childrens table and pushed the chair backwards. Matthew was standing behind and immediately grabbed the back of the chair to stop it falling. I was amazed. Matthew said Anabel may have hurt herself when I expressed that he had done a good thing. I think this example proves your point.

Jennifer Micheli | 1:12 pm, January 3, 2012 | Link

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