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Conventional wisdom might have you believe that human beings only really start showing empathy after a few years of learning social norms and morals. However, some research suggests that this kind of compulsion to do good might be innate. As in, there from birth. Do we act with altruism simply because we’re brought up to be kind, or is it something deeper?

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{♫Intro♫}.

Some psychologists used to think ofnewborn babies as a blank slate. Absolutely no knowledge, no beliefs, no nothing.

I mean, how could they have any of that? They haven’t exactly had time to pick it up. While this seems intuitive, current research tells us that it’s not quite that straightforward.

There’s evidence to suggest that human infants have an innate concern for the wellbeing of others, and that it sticks with us through our lives. In other words, we humans might be fundamentally… nice. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A person signs up as an organ donor, and donates a kidney to a stranger, saving their life and leaving the donor with one kidney and some fuzzy feelings. As heartwarming a story as this is, if you think about it, this kind of behavior doesn’t really make sense. The benefits of giving up literal organs to literal strangers are less than obvious -- to say the least.

Do we do these things simply because we’re brought up to be kind, or is it something deeper? This kind of behavior is known as altruism - helping behavior that seemingly offers no personal reward, and may even incur personal cost. And researchers believe it may hinge on our ability to feel empathy.

Some scientists argue that because empathy enables us to feel the emotional pain of someone in need, alleviating that pain is a reward in itself, as it makes both the helper and the recipient feel better. And, what’s more, some argue that this kind of compulsion to do good might be innate. As in, there from birth.

Conventional wisdom might have you believe that kids only really start figuring out how to be helpful when they’re maybe a couple of years old. You know, after they’ve had some life experience. Like ‘yes, you’ve gotta share your toys’, and ‘no, the cat doesn’t like being in the toilet’.

Tim... Get the cat out of the toilet Tim! However, a 2017 study published in Nature Human Behavior found that infants as young as six months old preferred intervening to protect characters from harm.

In the first part of this study, 20 six-month-old children were shown videos of two simple, circle-shaped characters with eyes interacting aggressively with each other. And next to them, a cube colored either green or orange watched. When the cube was green, it intervened and broke up the “fight”.

When it was orange, it just stood by. After watching some of these videos, the babies were presented with two little models - a green cube with eyes, and an orange cube with eyes. 17 out of the 20 children reached for the green cube over the orange cube that was happy to let its circle buddies knock each other out. Remember -- these were infants too young to even talk.

Nice cubes definitely don’t finish last. The authors believe this is evidence that even as young as six months old, we’re able to grasp the idea of behaving in a socially beneficial way, and want to associate with those that help others. These findings don’t totally disprove the idea that newborns are blank slates.

But they do point towards most infants having an innate understanding that they should help others. However, that doesn’t always mean that they’ll use it. A study published in 2014 illustrated this through some clever studies that showed preschoolers are more likely to help someone in need if they’d first taken part in what the researchers called a reciprocal interaction.

Over a series of experiments on thirty 1- to 2-year-olds, they found evidence that engaging directly with the children in reciprocal play - like, passing a ball between them - made the kids much more likely to help than if they’d each just played with their own ball beside each other. After playing either together or side by side, the experimenter would then put the toys away and pretend that they needed a hand reaching a small object that was just out of their grasp. The children were given 30 seconds in which they could jump in to help before the experimenter assumed they weren’t going to.

The results showed that kids who had played reciprocally with the experimenter were significantly more likely to lend a hand than those than had played solo. This suggests that even though we know how to help someone when we’re super young, whether that’s innate or not, the closeness of relationships between ourselves and others might govern whether or not we actually behave that way. Some researchers take this further and suggest that as we internalize social norms and morals, we build upon our potentially innate altruistic urges, and they shape just how ready we may be to help someone.

As we grow into adults, it can be harder to see the value of the random, small social connections between ourselves and others. And sometimes what society has led us to believe might make us less ready to help. But studies like this suggest that maybe if we continue to see others as connected to us, we can keep ourselves motivated to stay altruistic.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych. Before you go, we want to shout out to our new Complexly sister channel,. Journey to the Microcosmos.

If you’re fascinated by the natural world, you’re really gonna like this one. Journey to the Microcosmos shows you the universe in a drop of pond water, with incredible microscopic footage by James Weiss, music by Andrew Huang, and voiceover by Hank Green. And, guys -- it’s so relaxing.

If you just want to chill out to footage of tardigrades for 10 minutes, we so have you covered. Check it out at the link in the description below. {♫Outro♫}.