Friday Factoids: Altruism–Is It Innate Or Taught?

Research has shown that altruism increases positive feelings. Many parents often wonder how they can increase their child’s empathy and kind behavior. There has been some debate as to whether this is a characteristic that individuals are born with or learn from their environments.


Numerous studies have shown that children as young as 1 year old can be observed participating in altruistic acts, suggesting that this was an innate ability. However, more recently there have been studies completed showing that children aged 1 – 4 years showed participation in more altruistic acts when they had recently been involved in reciprocal play. This implied that children who are exposed to others who help them, or are in environments where they observe others helping each other, are more likely to engage in benevolent behavior.


If you want to increase a child’s number of altruistic acts, you can increase the number of reciprocal acts they are involved in with others.  Children who observe environments where reciprocity is taking place are more likely to pick up on social cues that someone may benefit from their “help.” However, children who received material reinforcement for their helping behavior were less likely to continue the behavior in the absence of a tangible reward, regardless of the environment. Children should be exposed to others being kind to one another in an attempt to increase the likelihood that will continue to show kindness to others just because it feels good.


Barragan, R. C., & Dweck, C. S. (2014). Rethinking natural altruism: Simple reciprocal interactions trigger children’s benevolence: Fig. 1. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(48), 17071-17074. doi:10.1073/pnas.1419408111


Warneken, F. “The Development of Altruistic Behavior: Helping in Children and Chimpanzees.” Social Research: An International Quarterly, vol. 80 no. 2, 2013, pp. 431-442. Project MUSE,


Crystal Henson, MA
Doctoral Intern



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