Drop a couple of pens in front of an eighteen-month-old toddler, and there is a decent chance your toddler will display a spontaneous act of altruism by picking them up for you. A recent experiment at the Max Planck Institute now shows that this kind of cooperative, altruistic behavior in toddlers can be increased by affiliative priming. Priming is a powerful tool in psychological research, and successful priming experiments usually hint that deep routed automatic mechanisms are influencing a particular behavior. For example, in 2003 a priming study related to adult affiliative priming showed that people who were primed with words such as "friend" or "together" will mimic mannerisms of a model more readily than unprimed adults.
In this very recent study, the primed subjects were eighteen-month-old toddlers, and priming was not induced by words, but by the pictures shown below.

Each of the pictures depict one priming condition, intended to help the researchers draw stronger conclusions of possible causality from their data.

After showing toddlers one of the above pictures, and them leaving them to play, the experimenters returned with six sticks, dropped them "accidentally", and then played through the following routine:

"during the first 10 s after dropping the sticks, the experimenter said nothing-she simply alternated her gaze between the fallen sticks and the infants' faces. During the next 10 s, if infants had not already begun helping, the experimenter looked toward them, called their name, and said, ‘‘My sticks, they've fallen on the floor,'' making two unsuccessful attempts to reach the sticks herself. During the next 10 s, the experimenter looked at the infants, called their name, and said, ‘‘My sticks, I need them back,'' making two more attempts to reach the sticks. During the
final 10 s, the experimenter looked at the infants and said, ‘‘Please will you help me?'' while holding out her hand, palm up."

The graph below, shows the main results (conditions relate to the a,b,c,d tiles of the pictures above):

As the study's authors point out, the finding, is of huge significance for many social science disciplines, and has consequences for such diverse research topics as

"cooperation, affiliation, aggression, intergroup attitudes, and prejudice"

Spontaneous helping occurred three times more often after toddlers vied the picture including the hugging dolls.

The original paper includes some additional discussion of the results, is quite short and definitely worth a read.


Main Reference:

Over, Harriet. (2009-10) Eighteen-Month-Old Infants Show Increased Helping Following Priming With Affiliation. Psychological Science, 20(10), 1189-1193. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02419.x

About the Authors

Kimberlee D’Ardenne, Ph.D.

Kimberlee D’Ardenne, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist by training, science writer by choice.

Rachael Grazioplene

Rachael Grazioplene is a graduate student in Psychology at the University of Minnesota. Her research is focused on individual differences and behavioral genetics.

Daniel Hawes

Daniel R. Hawes is a social psychologist stuck in an applied economist's body.

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