Most of us, it seems, like to imagine that people are good at heart. Despite the torrent of news reporting human-caused suffering, the notion that altruism is our default mechanism remains a popular one.
Now, a new study suggests that people might naturally be kind, at least in infancy. Researchers at the University of Washington’s Learning & Brain Sciences division (known as I-LABS) studied close to a hundred 19-month-old infants and found that “the babies were quick to share their food with researchers, even when they themselves were undoubtedly hungry.”
“We think altruism is important to study because it is one of the most distinctive aspects of being human. It is an important part of the moral fabric of society,” says Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral researcher at I-LABS and lead author on the study. “We adults help each other when we see another in need and we do this even if there is a cost to the self. So we tested the roots of this in infants.”
According to the university’s own news article, “For this study, researchers chose kid-friendly fruits—including bananas, blueberries and grapes—and set up an interaction between child and researcher. The goal: to determine whether the child would, without encouragement, verbal instruction or reinforcement, spontaneously give an appealing food to an unfamiliar person.”
One group of infants, the control group, witnessed an adult toss a piece of fruit onto a tray slightly out of the adult’s reach. Because the adult gave no indication of wanting the fruit, the majority of the control infants did not return the discarded fruit back to the adult.
In the other group, the adult dropped the piece of fruit as though by accident and then indicated his interest in getting the fruit back. Over 50 percent of the infants helped the adult retrieve the fruit.
Then a second experiment was performed with one slight variation: The children who participated were tested near their usual snack time, indicating higher stakes for the altruistic act. This time, none of the control group gave the fruit to the adult, whereas 37 percent of the other group did.
“The infants in this second study looked longingly at the fruit, and then they gave it away!” said Andrew Meltzoff, I-LABS co-director. “We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping.”
This conclusion, while optimistic, does not seem quite accurate. For starters, choosing as test subjects children who have already spent over a year and a half living, learning, and growing up with their respective families does not bode for an accurate study of any inherent quality—whether benevolent or not. Did the researchers account for the daily practices the parents had been instilling in their children or the chance that the children had already witnessed the same action in their households and had learned to copy the responses of other family members?
The Eternal Optimism of the Human Race
Have we allowed this ideal view of ourselves to contort our reality? As she suffered under Nazi oppression, Anne Frank, the teenage author of The Diary of a Young Girl, declared her faith in humanity: “[I]n spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.”
But we know what happened to the young Jew: She died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February of 1945, months before the end of the Second World War—a conflict that dramatically illustrated the inhumanity and evil in the world.
The late Nelson Mandela asserted, “Love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” But is that correct? Cyberbullying, hate crimes, and school shootings seem to be today’s rampantly growing trends.
And it’s not just our current society. The wickedness of humanity traces back to the book of Genesis. Cain killed his brother Abel in a fit of anger, as recounted in the fourth chapter of Genesis. Haman plotted a mass genocide of the Jewish people after a wound to his ego (Esther 3:5, 6). Stephen was stoned to death for declaring that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 7:54-60). And, most glaringly of all, Jesus Himself was crucified because of pride, fear, and a raging jealousy.
Changing Our Nature
What is the reason for all this human conflict and death? Sin. The Bible states that we are all born with a sinful—not altruistic—nature; we naturally desire sin. “The carnal mind is enmity against God” (Romans 8:7); “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).
"The beautiful fact about God is that he has given us the free will to change our natural inclinations."
But the beautiful fact about God is that He has given us the free will to change our natural inclinations. He has given us the ultimate motivation for that change and the very definition of altruism “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We can, if we so choose, accept that gift and ask God to give us a new heart, one like His. Pastor Doug continues by saying, “To be converted means that our hearts are changed, where now we think about God first. Love for God is supreme, and love for others, and then love for yourself.”
You can find that Bible study online, free of charge, along with other resources that help define what sin is, what it does, and how you can—with God’s help—overcome sin and live a victorious and genuinely altruistic life!