Are Babies Born Selfish?

Surprised? You're not the only one. This news contradicts an important 2006 study that concluded children are innately selfless, reports the Daily Mail. But in that landmark study, researchers actually played with all the 18-month-old subjects for a few minutes to make them feel comfortable before determining their selflessness. That brief interaction may have been enough to trigger a sense of altruism in the kids looking for social behavioral cues, says the two lead Stanford researchers, Rodolfo Cortes Barragan and Carol Dweck.

In the new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of 34 one- and two-year-olds were split into two groups. In the first group, the initial 2006 experiment was recreated, where a researcher and child rolled a ball back and forth (reciprocal play) and chatted for a few minutes. Then the researcher "accidentally" knocked an object off of a nearby table and watched to see if the baby would help pick it up.  In the second group, a new experiment was conducted, where a researcher and child played with their own separate balls (parallel play) while they talked, instead of rolling it back and forth. Then an object was knocked off a table again to see if the baby would lend a hand.

Barragan and Dweck discovered that the babies who rolled the ball back and forth with the researcher were three times more likely to pick up the fallen item. "Following the reciprocal play, children felt a sense of trust in the other person," Barragan says. "If children trust the people in their world, they may have an easier time learning the culture of that world – effectively making it easier for them to achieve new levels of personal and interpersonal success." This suggested that selfless behavior is based on mutual connection and relationships -- even brief ones -- instead of pure instinct. Kids then need to rely on nurture (vs. nature) to develop a sense of selflessness -- and when a parent is able support altruism, the kids will surely be all right.

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Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up.Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+

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