We know that humans are hardwired to be aggressive and selfish. But a growing body of research is demonstrating that there is also a biological basis for human compassion. Brain scans reveal that when we contemplate violence done to others we activate the same regions in our brains that fire up when mothers gaze at their children, suggesting that caring for strangers may be instinctual. When we help others, areas of the brain associated with pleasure also light up. Research by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello indicates that toddlers as young as 18 months behave altruistically. (If you want to feel good, watch one of their 15-second video clips here.)
This was something that I didn't know, that we are programmed to help. The clips are fascinating, for instance this first one, where the researcher drops a clothespin just out of his reach. The 18 month old child crawls over to the clothespin, picks it up, works himself to a standing position so he'll be tall enough to give the researcher back his clothespin, which he does (to his own apparent delight).
I wouldn't necessarily call it altruism, though, at least not from my superficial understanding. To me, the impulse seems rooted more in a drive for efficiency (am I projecting my own thoughts here?). In each of these videos, the toddlers help out in a task that obviously requires cooperative effort for success -- a situation in which it is obvious that someone needs help with something, for instance opening a door when someone has their arms full. Without the toddler's help, the door never gets opened and that person never gets to their location, or they do so with much greater cost in terms of time and effort. By helping the researcher, even where there is no immediate promise of reward, the toddler is still engaging in value maximizing behavior that he can hope to benefit from in kind in the future.
This is clearly an evolutionarily advantageous trait, particularly to help out within a particular group or tribe of people. It expands the our ability to consolidate resources in order to scale particular operations. Just like the modern legal fiction of a corporation allows us to pool resources (via stock purchases) to create business entities that no one of us could finance independently, a natural inclination to participate in cooperative tasks promotes the overall well-being of society, which improves our own lives.
Maybe I'm reading too much into all of this, but I've always wondered where my compulsion for efficiency comes from, which will override almost any other impulse. Could it be related to this?
It could also be that the toddler is just trying to pull his own weight, starting to realize that he is a suck on social resources, and wants to avoid getting left in the jungle to die. Which is actually a risk for us all, in some ways. So be good everyone! Or else!