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Every Little Bit Helps (18 months)

**How children have altruistic intentions**

Will young children help others reach a goal?  Are humans the only species that would do so without any immediate benefit?  Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany studied these questions in 18-month-old children and young chimpanzees (Warneken & Tomasello, 2006).  They created scenarios where the researcher needed help: either he could not reach an object, could not access something easily, or made a mistake of some sort.  In each situation, there was a point at which the child or chimpanzee could help the researcher fulfill his intention.


  • A confederate (e.g., a family friend) who can act the part

The authors posted supplementary material for the study, including adorable videos of children and chimpanzees doing the tasks, on Science’s website:

The materials for this study were very simple in most cases.  See video S1 for an example of an “out-of-reach” problem, where the adult accidentally drops a clothespin on the floor and unsuccessfully reaches for it.  See video S2 for an example of a “physical obstacle” problem where the adult wants to put magazines in a cabinet but the doors are closed so he bumps into it. See video S3 for an example of a “wrong result” problem where a book slips off of a stack as the adult tries to place it on top of the stack.  Note that for the scenarios you re-create, your child should be able to manipulate the materials used (e.g., if you try the cabinet scenario, your child should be capable of opening the cabinet doors).


Ask the confederate to act out each scenario, as in the video. After the “problem” occurs, the adult should look at the problematic object for 10 seconds, allowing time for the child to intervene.  After 10 seconds, the adult should alternate gaze between the object and the child for another 10 seconds.  Importantly, if the child helps, he should not receive any praise or benefit for helping before the next scenario occur

Notes & Observations

What did you observe? Did your child realize that the adult needed help in each scenario?  Were some scenarios harder than others?

Research Findings & Extension

For each scenario where the adult needed help, the researchers also tried a “control” version (with different children) where the adult acted intentionally instead of accidentally.  So, instead of accidentally dropping a clothespin, the adult intentionally threw the clothespin on the floor.  The results showed that children helped significantly more in the “accidental” action conditions than in the “intentional” conditions – that is, children helped when the adult actually seemed to need help and furthermore, did so within about 5 seconds of seeing that there was a need!  Similar tasks with chimpanzees showed that they also helped, but only did so reliably in the “out-of-reach” scenarios in which the adult’s intention may have been easier for them to understand.  This evidence of helping in chimpanzees differed from previous studies, possibly because it used non-food objects and involved chimpanzees helping humans rather than other chimps.  Regardless, the results of both the primates and very young children (too young to have been trained in helping) suggest an altruistic nature that is evolutionarily unusual.


Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees.  Science, 311, 1301-1303.


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