Ayesha Azeem ‘23
Altruistic behavior is an intraspecies trait seen in no other species other than humans. Food altruism in particular involves giving nutritious food to needy strangers, even if one desires the food. Humans have developed customs and institutions to provide the needy with food, even when scarce and they need it themselves. Surprisingly, though altruism has been noted in humans, it is not seen in chimpanzees, our closest living primate relatives. A research team led by Rodolfo Barragan investigated to see if this behavior is also seen in infants, even if their favorite food is involved and they are motivated to eat through experimental manipulation.
For this study, the team used a nonverbal, out-of-reach object test on infants of about 19 months of age. The team conducted two experiments: they tested whether an infant would give away desirable food to a begging stranger without a verbal request, and whether altruistic behavior would persist even under conditions designed to increase hunger. Nutritious, highly desirable natural food was used during the study, and for the second experiment, infants were tested when their parents thought they would be hungry.
Under the “Begging Experimenter” condition, an experimenter fumbled and ‘accidentally’ dropped a piece of fruit, trying but failing to reach for the fruit with an outstretched arm. Under the “Non-begging Experimenter” condition, the experimenter intentionally throws a piece of fruit onto a tray, looking at it but not reaching for it. The infants were provided with a clear path to escape with the food – the experimenter was blocked from the child by a table.
As a whole, the study reveals that human infants tend to display altruistic food transfer behavior with nutritious, desirable food, even if they are motivated to take the food for themselves. The infants, though they could’ve easily escaped with the food, overrode their biological drive for the fruits and returned them to the begging strangers. The infants repeatedly engaged in altruistic behavior in both conditions, readily giving away the pieces of fruit. As the study theorizes, our altruistic behavior is instilled in us from a young age by our parents and family, who teach us that it is an obligation to help others in need. After all, being altruistic is one of the few things that make us truly human.