Why babies will give food to others even when they're hungry

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

A new study has revealed that babies show signs of early altruism, sharing their food with others even when they are hungry.

Researchers from the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), studied 100 babies of the same age, finding that 19-month-olds will offer their own food to a stranger who is hungry, even when they want it for themselves.

Published in Nature Publishing Group's Scientific Reports, the research shows that babies experiment with positive social interactions through sharing.

Lead author of the study Rodolfo Cortes Barragan said in a statement, "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,"  

He added, "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."

Researchers observed how the babies behaved when appealing fruit such as bananas, blueberries, grapes, and strawberries, were 'accidentally' dropped in front of them by a researcher.

The babies were divided into a 'begging' group and a 'non-begging' group. In the former group, the researcher reached for the dropped fruit and in the latter, they didn't.

In the begging group, 58 per cent of the babies picked up the fruit and handed it back to the researcher. Just 4 per cent of the infants attempted to give the fruit to the researcher who didn't reach for it.


The researchers changed the stakes, bringing in a new group of infants right before their usual meal time, conducting the same experiment.

They wanted to find out if the babies would still try to give back the fruit even though they were hungry. The results were almost the same as the first experiment where the babies were not hungry.

37 per cent of the babies offered back the food to the begging researcher. No babies offered it back in the non-begging group.

Andrew Meltzoff, the co-director of I-LABS, said, "We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping."

It was observed that, "babies with siblings and from specific cultural backgrounds were more likely to help and that 'certain childrearing practices and values (e.g., a family environment that emphasises the connectedness and commitment between self and others) convey the expectation' to help those in need."

"We think certain family and social experiences make a difference, and continued research would be desirable to more fully understand what maximises the expression of altruism in young children," Barragan said in the statement.

"If we can discover how to promote altruism our kids, this could move us toward a more caring society."