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Courtesy of Jessica Sommerville

As part of a study published in the journal PLos ONE, infants watched a video showing unequal food distribution.

All’s fair in Luvs and war

by Zack Aldrich
Oct 06, 2011

Children as young as 15 months might be capable of altruism and of sensing whether an outcome is fair, according to a study published Friday in the journal PLoS ONE.

The study demonstrates that buds of cooperative behavior may be observed in infancy and suggests we can create environments for children that reinforce a compassionate adulthood.

Forty-seven infants participated in the two-phase study conducted by University of Washington developmental psychologist Jessica Sommerville and co-author Marco Schmidt, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The first phase presented a “violation of expectation” scenario intended to test whether 15-month-old children could recognize unexpected behavior that, in this case, was unfair. A brief film showed a bowl of crackers distributed equally between two recipients, and a clip immediately followed where one recipient got a larger amount. Infants then saw the same demonstration with a pitcher of milk instead of crackers. Researchers measured the length of time the children looked at each clip.

The second phase allowed children to choose between a LEGO block or LEGO doll to ascertain their preference, but the children had access to both. Then an experimenter asked infants to hand back a toy of their choice.

The study found 86 percent of “selfish starters,” those who offered their less-preferred toy in the second phase, looked longer at fair outcomes in the first phase.

But 92 percent of “altruistic” children who presented their preferred toy, looked longer at the unfair food distribution. Experimenters inferred that altruistic children would be more surprised by unequal food distribution and maintain longer eye contact as they recognized an unfair situation.

Sommerville said these gestures might stem from a natural propensity toward fairness as well as learning through observation.

“I would imagine it’s some sort of confluence of the two,” she said. “The interesting thing is, even though those two tasks are about different things, we’re still seeing a nice linkage there. Fairness and altruism — at some level they’re cut from the same cloth.”

She said previous studies of altruism in children identify such qualities, but the subjects are usually two years old or older.

“It’s happening earlier than we thought,” she said. “So, it’s important that people are being more cognizant of things they do and the interaction they expose kids to.”

Amanda Woodward, William S. Gray professor of psychology at University of Chicago, specializes in infant cognition. She said she thinks Sommerville’s assessment — that infants’ own moral behavior is related to how they evaluate issues of fairness — is reasonable.

“The methods here are really novel, and I think they’re going to influence how people do their research going forward,” she said. “There’s been a resurgence of interest in figuring out ‘What are the mechanisms that give us morality?’" Woodward was not involved in the study.

The experimenters are planning a longitudinal study to observe infants at 18 to 20 months old, and she said future research is needed to determine the effects of infants’ altruistic tendencies.

“One of the limitations is that we don’t know if infants are making a negative evaluation or judgment of the people involved,” Sommerville said. “Will they not want to play with them or affiliate with them?”

Amy Wechsler of Roscoe Village in the North Side is a clinical social worker with PlayWorks Therapy, which provides developmental therapy services to children in the Chicagoland area. She believes the study’s violation-of-expectation test involving the video was well-constructed but that the sharing task possibly leaves room for a number of extraneous factors.

“They may not be sharing not because they don’t want a toy,” she said. “It might be because they don’t understand. I think they got a little lucky in finding a correlation between the two tasks.” She was not involved in the study.

The study notes multiple reasons that infants might not respond to tasks, such as distraction, a lack of understanding or stranger anxiety.

“It’s governed by different principles at different times,” Wechsler said. “Human development is so variable and so different, it’s impossible to really know if these kids are, number 1, on an equal playing field and, number 2, the field you think they’re on.”

Woodward said it is rare in infancy research for a study to combine two bases for observation. She said the analysis of both altruism and fairness is fitting because there is one class of psychological theories focusing on the human response of empathy and one on how humans logically deduce moral conclusions.

“If you think about it, as adults, those two things sometimes go together, but they’re not completely synonymous,” she said. “This study tells us that you can identify both.”