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Rethinking natural altruism: Simple reciprocal interactions trigger children’s benevolence

man and woman walking on path in forest engaged in conversation
Rodolfo Cortes Barragan
Carol Dweck (REP participant)
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


A very simple reciprocal activity elicited high degrees of altruism in 1- and 2-y-old children, whereas friendly but nonreciprocal activity yielded little subsequent altruism. In a second study, reciprocity with one adult led 1- and 2-y-olds to provide help to a new person. These results question the current dominant claim that social experiences cannot account for early occurring altruistic behavior. A third study, with preschool-age children, showed that subtle reciprocal cues remain potent elicitors of altruism, whereas a fourth study with preschoolers showed that even a brief reciprocal experience fostered children’s expectation of altruism from others. Collectively, the studies suggest that simple reciprocal interactions are a potent trigger of altruism for young children, and that these interactions lead children to believe that their relationships are characterized by mutual care and commitment.