Helping others is a nature imbibed in some people. Ever wondered why people often spend their valuable time and energy to help a neighbor, with no promise of payback?
Well, Harriet Over and Malinda Carpenter of Germany's Max Planck Institute have now found that priming infants with subtle cues to affiliation increases their tendency to be helpful.
During a study, they showed a large group of 18-month-old infants photographs of household objects, such as a teapot or a shoe.
The researchers revealed that the household objects were always the central image and the only thing that they talked about with the infants.
They further said that placed in the background were much smaller secondary images that were intended to prime the infants' subconscious thinking.
For these background images, some of the infants saw two small wooden dolls, facing and almost touching each other. Others saw the dolls facing away from one another, while others saw just one doll and still others saw some wooden blocks.
According to the researchers, the idea was that the two dolls who were obviously engaged with each other-and only those dolls-would spark thoughts of group identity and belonging-and that those unconscious feelings of affiliation would increase helpful behavior in the children.
To test that, after infants had seen the images, one of the researchers "accidentally" dropped a bundle of small sticks.
She then waited to see which of the infants would spontaneously reached out to help.
If the infants didn't help immediately on their own, the researcher dropped some hints about the sticks and needing help.
She found that the children who had been primed for affiliation and group belonging were three times as likely as any of the other infants to spontaneously offer help.
She also observed that it was specifically the affiliative relationship of the dolls that caused the effect.
The researcher revealed that infants that saw two dolls who were standing close to each other, but who were disengaged, were about as helpful as those who saw just the lone doll-or the wooden blocks.
Having observed that mere social hints could boost children's helpfulness in the lab, the researchers came to the conclusion that a few small changes in kids' social environments might help promote selflessness in the real world.
A research article on their study has been published in the journal Psychological Science.