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Tag Archives: social development

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.

Materials

  • 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:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/311/5765/1301/rel-suppl/dfcb2c6b3b269a0f/suppl/DC1

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).

Procedure

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.

Reference:

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

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A Trusted Agent (3 years)

**How children strongly trust what people tell them**

Can children resist the urge to trust what adults tell them?  When can they suspend belief in others and change their behavior accordingly?  Jaswal et al. (2010) examined whether children have a strong inclination to believe what others tell them.  In the study, the researchers had children participate in different conditions which, when compared, tested their hypotheses.  Below, I’ll describe the mechanisms of the “testimony” condition which shows the strong effect of children’s trust in spoken testimony when searching for something desirable: a sticker.

Materials

  •  8 stickers
  •  Two plastic cups of different colors (e.g., red and blue) that the stickers can be hidden beneath
  •  A tray where the cups can be placed upside-down
  •  A piece of cardboard large enough to conceal your hands while hiding stickers under the cups but not so large that your shoulders and face are concealed
  •  A confederate (e.g., a family friend) who can provide the testimony

Procedure

Ask the confederate to sit at a table across from the child.  Start by explaining to the child that she’s going to play a game where she tries to find a sticker hidden under the cups.  If the child finds the sticker in the first cup she looks under, she gets to keep it – otherwise the confederate does.  He also tells the child, “I’m going to try to get as many stickers as I can! How about you?”

Start by placing the two cups on opposite ends of the tray and then position the cardboard screen to hide the confederate’s hands as he places the first sticker under one of the cups behind it.  He then lifts the screen and says that the sticker is hidden in the cup opposite to where it’s actually hidden; if it’s under the blue cup, he says:  “it’s in the red cup.” Next, push the tray toward the child and allow her to search under one cup. If she chooses the cup that was indicated, the incorrect cup, she will not find the sticker and the confederate can show her where it is and then keep it. If she chooses the correct cup, she can keep the sticker she finds.

This game continues for 8 trials; mix up whether the sticker is actually on the right or left so that it’s balanced. You can keep track of which cup the child chooses each time. Don’t worry, the child can have all of the stickers at the end (and even one occasionally during the game if he’s getting frustrated!).

Notes & Observations

What did you observe? Did your child search under the indicated cup the first time?  What about the subsequent trials?  Did he come to a realization about your “trickiness” and change course?

Research Findings & Extension

The researchers found that, naturally, all children looked under the cup that was indicated (“it’s in the red cup”) on the first trial.  Surprisingly though, children did not quickly realize that they should not trust what the experimenter said – many children did not find a single sticker over 8 trials!  In the study, a second condition was used called the “arrow” condition where the adult indicated which cup held the sticker by placing an arrow on it (children were trained to use this as a cue) but did not say anything.  In contrast, in that condition, children quickly realized that they should not trust the arrow’s location and found many more stickers.  The researchers argued that children’s belief in verbal testimony is so entrenched that it is difficult for them to inhibit responding to it (whereas they are not accustomed to trusting the arrow).  This sort of trust in the adults around them would be adaptive for infants and children since they have no other source for helpful information and would become stronger over time as it’s reinforced. By age 4, children do not show this same persistent trust.

Reference:

Jaswal, V.K., Croft, A.C., Setia, A.R., & Cole, C.A. (2010). Young children have a specific, highly robust bias to trust testimony. Psychological Science, 21, 1541-1547.