How to train a good Samaritan

September 9, 2009

Parents who start early in building the concept of relational connections or affiliations with infants can assist in fostering altruistic behaviors down the road, new research shows.

Parents who start early in building the concept of relational connections or affiliations with infants can assist in fostering altruistic behaviors down the road, new research in Psychological Science shows.

What the research indicated was that priming infants with indirect cues to affiliation improves their future ability to be helpful. The study entailed a large number of 18-month-old children who viewed photographs of household items, such as a teapot. These items were discussed with the infants, but there were secondary sets of photos in the background to active the child's subconscious.

The background photos might include two small wooden dolls, facing and practically touching each other. In some cases the dolls were not facing each other; and in still other instances, there was just one doll or just some wooden blocks.

The study was designed to show how the two dolls that were relating to each other would activate thoughts involving group identity and belonging. By having these feelings of belonging, the idea is that this would lead to encouraging helpful behaviors in children.

To test the theory, once children were shown the images, a researcher would "accidentally" drop a set of sticks. The researcher then observed which infants would readily help pick them up. Those who were "primed" with cues were three times more likely to help, compared with other children.