When was the last time you helped someone in need? If you see someone having trouble crossing the street, and you are the only person there, would you help? For those who replied yes, your inclination to help others may have begun much earlier in life – during infancy. In fact, infants not only help humans, but they can also help objects, researchers find.
We’ve often encountered adults helping others, but, even infants, as little as a year and a half old, have been shown to favor victims of anti-social acts rather than aggressors – both of whom they had never seen before. But, why would they want to help strangers? Infants have an innate sense of sympathy that motivates them to help other humans. This feeling of sympathy comes from empathy; we need to distinguish between the two terms. Empathy is feeling the emotions that others might be going through during distress (putting themselves in their shoes) whereas sympathy is a sense of concern or understanding – and more superficial. So, empathy can give rise to sympathy, which in turn motivates people to help others.
You must be wondering how empathy arises in the first place? While it is highly debated, scientists suggest a possible explanation among adults through what they call the direct-matching mechanism. Here the observer perceives facial expressions and relates them to their experience of those kinds of expressions, arousing empathy. Alternatively, when observing someone in distress, they experience the situation themselves and empathize with them.
Direct-matching may explain why infants help other humans as they can observe human gestures. But, taking a step further, can infants help non-human agents that lack movable body parts? Kenward and Gredebäck, from Uppsala university in Sweden, investigated this with sixty 17-month old infants, who were randomly assigned to either the experimental group or the control group.
The experimental setup (shown below) consisted of a table where three wooden blocks formed a barrier in the middle, blocking a yellow ball-shaped agent with fabric eyes, from reaching the other side where a yellow spot indicated the intended goal of the agent. On the other side, there was also a pink ball-shaped agent with the same eyes, sitting there on a pink spot.
The control condition had only one wooden block separating the two sides, showing that the yellow agent is free to cross it. During the experiment, the yellow agent moved forward towards the edge of the barrier and then slowly shifted side-to-side parallel to the barrier in both experimental and control conditions (controlled by a magnet under the table). Then it swiftly knocked into the central blocks repeatedly until the infant intervened to pick up the agent or until a certain amount of time lapsed. They monitored the infants’ responses in each case.
The researchers found that a greater proportion of infants moved the agent to the other side in the experimental conditions compared with the control, indicating a tendency to help. Kenward and Gredebäck believed that the increased infant helping rates could not be explained by empathy-based on direct-matching because infants helped a non-human agent lacking facial expressions or body parts – and the helping rates were higher where there was an obvious barrier. They speculate that other mechanisms may explain the infants’ behavior. One possibility is they may assign social meaning to geometric shapes through a region of the brain called the amygdala. Another explanation may be that through observing the agent’s continual unsuccessful attempts to cross the barrier, they help the agent to fulfill its goal.
The rates of helping in this experiment were lower compared with rates when infants help humans from other studies. This may imply that human features play a greater role in motivating infants to help. It would be interesting if this experiment was repeated without the eyes on the agent to remove any human qualities associated with it. Would infants still help the agent at the same rates observed in this study? Also, if the study was carried out on a larger scale – say, with more than 100 infants – would the rates be similar?
While infants are hardly able to talk, they can still assess a seemingly complex situation seen in this experiment, suggesting that empathy may be hard-wired into our brains since birth. But, whether this trait remains with us as we get older probably depends on our upbringing and what we are taught – along with a multitude of factors.
Here we learn that empathy may arise through different mechanisms and help infants to make sense of the world around them. But, empathy isn’t a trait unique to humans, it’s also seen in the animal world, particularly among primates – our closest relatives.
Have you ever helped someone in need? What motivated you to help – empathy or sympathy towards the victim?
Have you ever witnessed an infant helping other people, or even objects?
Kenward B, Gredebäck G (2013). Infants Help a Non-Human Agent. PLoS ONE 8(9): e75130. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075130