A new study conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, suggests that young children are intrinsically motivated to see others helped. The researchers observed three groups of 2-year-olds that all saw an adult dropping a small item and struggling to pick it up. One group was allowed to intervene and help the adult. Another group was held back from helping by their parents. The third group watched the adult receive help from another adult.
The researchers found that children’s feelings of sympathy (measured by dilated pupil size, which corresponds to increased feelings of concern) were twice as high when they were unable to help the adult and no help was provided, compared to the same indicator when they were able to provide assistance. Ten of the 12 children that were allowed to help did so.
The toddlers’ concern likewise decreased when they watched someone else help the adult. The study authors concluded that young children’s helping behavior does not require that they perform the behavior themselves and receive “credit” for it, but requires only that the other person is helped. Thus, from an early age, humans seem to have genuine concern for the welfare of others.