Where brains are always on the menu! Serving up a heaping portion of the latest neuroscience news, plus a side of social commentary expertly seasoned with action potentials and cognitive functions. Garnished with general thoughts on science, ethics, and evolution. For dessert, enjoy a sickeningly-sweet understanding of human behavior!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Altruism is Hard-wired

Now this is an interesting study. It suggests that altruistic inclinations--the compassion and helpfulness that are often cited as the foundations for morality-- are in fact biologically ingrained.
Psychology researcher Felix Warneken performed a series of ordinary tasks in front of toddlers, such as hanging towels with clothespins or stacking books. Sometimes he "struggled" with the tasks; sometimes he deliberately messed up.

Over and over, whether Warneken dropped clothespins or knocked over his books, each of 24 toddlers offered help within seconds — but only if he appeared to need it. Video shows how one overall-clad baby glanced between Warneken's face and the dropped clothespin before quickly crawling over, grabbing the object, pushing up to his feet and eagerly handing back the pin.

Read on...
These behaviors were exhibited without any overt prompting by the experimenter.
Warneken never asked for the help and didn't even say "thank you," so as not to taint the research by training youngsters to expect praise if they helped. After all, altruism means helping with no expectation of anything in return.

And — this is key — the toddlers didn't bother to offer help when he deliberately pulled a book off the stack or threw a pin to the floor, Warneken, of Germany's Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, reports Thursday in the journal Science.

To be altruistic, babies must have the cognitive ability to understand other people's goals plus possess what Warneken calls "pro-social motivation," a desire to be part of their community.

But these behaviors weren't unique to humans; the investigator also performed the study with 3-4 year old chimps and found that they also helped locate a lost object, albeit to a lesser extent.

I find these results fascinating, particularly because we hear the old canard all the time: "you can't have morals without God". These results in infants who are really too young to know anything about religion, and in our chimp cousins, highlight the opposite. People are moral because our biology makes us moral, and we should expect variability in the degree of altruistic and other moral behaviors, plus the occasional amoral outlier like John Wayne Gacy.

Of course I'm not justifying immoral Gacy-like behavior. Rather, I'm suggesting that we should focus our research efforts on modifying behaviors that can be modified, while coming up with strategies to best identify and deal with those whose behavior cannot be safely addressed. Surely this approach is more realistic than simply locking up any misbehaving individuals and potentially turning them into hardened criminals (behavioral modification works both ways, after all), or pretending that any particular religion is a panacea for solving society's ills. An occasional pot user shouldn't be confined with and treated like bankrobbers or pedophiles, and religion isn't going to instill compassion in a person who doesn't have the biological capacity for empathy.


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