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Babies Understand Fairness, Sharing, Selflessness

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

When does a child become aware of sharing, fairness and selflessness? A new study suggests that children may understand these traits, and practice them, as early as 15 months.

An interesting study, published online in journal PLoS ONE, found that 15-month-old babies could recognize unfair treatment. This recognition may also be linked to their willingness to share.

“Our findings show that these norms of fairness and altruism are more rapidly acquired than we thought,” study leader Jessica Sommerville, a University of Washington associate professor of psychology, said in a university news release. “These results also show a connection between fairness and altruism in infants, such that babies who were more sensitive to the fair distribution of food were also more likely to share their preferred toy.”

Here’s how the study, conducted in two phases by researchers from the University of Washington and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, worked.

In phase one, 15–month-old babies watched a video with their parents. Two people were given crackers to eat. The first time the crackers were distributed, the two people received the same amount. The second time, one person received more crackers than the other.

The actions were repeated again, this time with milk.

Researchers noted that the babies watched the video longer when the foods were unevenly distributed.

“The infants expected an equal and fair distribution of food, and they were surprised to see one person given more crackers or milk than the other,” explained Sommerville.

In phase two, the babies were given two different Lego toys. Researchers then asked them to share one of the toys with another child. They noted whether the baby shared the toy he had picked for himself, or the unwanted one. Babies who shared the toy they picked were labeled as “altruistic sharers” and those who shared the opposite toy were labeled “selfish sharers.

Researchers found that 92 percent of the “altruistic sharers” had spent more time looking at the unequal division of food. Meanwhile, 86 percent of the “selfish sharers” had paid more attention when the food was divided equally.

” When researchers compared the two tasks, they found that the “altruistic sharers were really sensitive to the violation of fairness in the food task,” according to Sommerville.

Early studies have placed the age of developed altruism at around 6 or 7 years of age. This study suggests that children may develop that characteristic much earlier.

What does this mean for your baby?

Scientists will continue to study babies to better learn how a child’s brain develops. That’s what they do. Parents on the other hand, watch their baby’s progress because they love them and are fascinated by every new developmental stage.

As adults, we can model and encourage the behavior we want our children to learn. As caregivers, we play a crucial role in helping our child understand social behavior and form satisfying relationships. Sharing, altruism and compassion are all healthy character traits that will not only serve our child well in the future, but society as a whole.

Knowing that children are able to pick up on these traits at such an early age should help parents and caregivers know that, even at such a young age, your little one is watching and learning.

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