Saint Augustine thought infants were ineluctably selfish. But a new study suggests that they may be more likely to behave altruistically. Why?
Anyone with kids can relate to Saint Augustine’s (in)famous description of infants in his great spiritual work, The Confessions. “It is an odd kind of innocence when a baby cannot bear that another…should share the milk that flows in such abundance.” He knows infants to be selfish, in fits of rage when they do not get what they want.
This is probably not unfamiliar if you have kids!
But a new study in Nature is making its rounds in the philanthropy world and flying in the face of Augustine’s sinful infants. Three professors from the University of Washington tested altruism in infants.
I don’t recommend reading the whole report—it’s not very interesting—but the study itself was fascinating. The researchers ran two experiments with 19-month-old infants to see how they respond when adults reach for objects within the infants’ reach but out of the adults’ reach. Their goal was to determine “whether human infants…in the absence of any verbal request, spontaneously, repeatedly, and swiftly give away desirable food to a begging stranger.”
In both experiments, the researchers dropped food near the infant. There was then a control group in which adults did not reach for the food (and still 4% of infants offered the food ). For the test group, the researchers reached for the food and found that almost 60% of the infants would regularly offer the food when a silent adult reached for it.
The second experiment was conducted when the infants were hungry. Parents waited until a feeding was approaching, and then they ran the test. Interestingly, in this case 0% of the infants offered their food without the adults reaching for it. But, more than a third (37%) of infants still offered the food when the adult (again, silently) reached for it.
This segment is particularly interesting, because these infants—like the poor widow—are not giving out of surplus, but out of their own poverty. The experiment was also conducted multiple times to see if the infants repeatedly displayed this generosity. The percentage of infants who offered the food takes into account the repeated tests—and still we see almost 60% and 37% offering the food in the two experiments.
These findings of course raise further questions as to why infants behave this way and how it is learned. Of course, culture and habit training are an important aspect. Social psychology suggests that certain cultures do a better job of engendering altruism, and having siblings helps with this, too. This stands to reason and is supported by the fact the churchgoers are dramatically more philanthropic than non-religious people.
But it can’t be the whole story. The University of Washington researchers point out that cultural differences only account for 10% of the variance (whether the infant offers the food or not). In other words, infant altruism is overwhelmingly natural, not cultural (even if certain cultures are better at promoting these habits).
WHAT DOES THIS TELL US?
We can glean a few things from this study.
First of all, philanthropy, apparently, is natural to humans. Even in infancy, giving to others that appear to be in need is a spontaneous and natural response to their need. We perceive it without their voicing it, and we respond accordingly.
It would seem, then, that putting one’s own good before the good of others is not a learned behavior. The great theologian and philosopher, Bernard Lonergan, describes this phenomenon: “Just as one spontaneously raise’s ones arm to ward off a blow against one’s [own] head, so with the same spontaneity one reaches out to save another from falling.”
Why? Because as persons we belong to one another before we belong to ourselves. Lonergan again: “It is as if ‘we’ were members of one another prior to our distinctions of each from the others.”
Giving is a gift for the donor
It’s important for fundraisers to keep this in mind. Our donors become more fully themselves when we give them an opportunity to become donors. Giving to others is good for the donor—as well as right and proper for the very human nature.
A thriving philanthropic sector is a sign of a healthy society in and of itself. In other words, philanthropy is not good merely for what it achieves. It is a good in itself insofar as it offers persons a chance to be what they properly are: social creatures, neighbors. If philanthropy fails, now and forevermore, to “solve” systemic issues, the activity of philanthropy would remain a good thing and a proper part of our being human.
The poor, perhaps, will always be with us. So, too, we can hope, will philanthropy.