Science Shows that Babies Are Altruistic

Science has shown that babies are altruistic by nature. They're willing to collaborate and help without expecting anything in return.
Science Shows that Babies Are Altruistic
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

Altruism is certainly a desirable trait in any human being. We all enjoy being surrounded by considerate, caring, and helpful people. And, although education and the values we instill in our children undoubtedly play a role, science has shown that babies are altruistic by nature.

When we talk about older children or adults, altruism is mediated by the socialization process. That is, we often help in order to gain recognition or to build a positive reputation.

However, in infants, such reasoning isn’t yet in place. And yet, several experiments have shown that infants help without expecting anything in return, even when it comes at some personal cost.

Science proves that babies are altruistic

Two psychologists, Michael Tomasello and Felix Warneken, set up an experiment to test whether humans are naturally good.

A mother talking to her baby.

They selected a sample of children aged 14 to 18 months who, because of their age, hadn’t yet been formally socialized. They placed the little ones in a room with recording cameras installed and exposed them to different situations to test their reactions.

Babies collaborate

Several situations were created in which the adult needed the child’s cooperation in order to achieve their goal. For example, a tube is shown with a handle on each end; the adult grabs one of the sides and tries to pull. The child, realizing that someone is needed to do the same on the other side, quickly comes to do their part.

Babies help without expecting anything in return

The willingness of the children to collaborate to achieve a joint goal was clear. But will they also help when it’s someone else’s individual goal? To test this, various scenarios were created in which an adult was shown to be in trouble. For example:

  • A man carries some books in his hands and goes to a closet to put them away. He shows his intention to put the books in the closet, but doesn’t succeed, as the doors are closed. Faced with this scene, most of the little ones spontaneously got up and opened the closet doors for the man.
  • A person is hanging a garment on a rope and one of the clothespins falls off. He pretends to reach for it but doesn’t succeed. The babies quickly come to his aid by picking up the clothespin from the floor and offering it to him.
  • The same happens when a woman tries to write in a notebook, but can’t reach the pen. And when a man drops the spoon with which he’s stirring his drink. Children come to their aid without hesitation, reaching for the objects they need.

It’s important to emphasize that during these experiments, silence reigns. The experimenters don’t use any words and only make grimaces and gestures to express what’s happening to them. In other words, the children don’t receive any kind of order or instruction to act; they do so of their own free will.

 baby girl with a basket on her head as if it were a hat.

Nor do they receive any praise, recognition, or reward for their actions. It was even found that using external rewards was counterproductive and undermined the natural tendency of infants to help.

Babies are altruistic even when it comes at a cost

Another study wanted to go further and test whether infants would be willing to help even when doing so would come at a personal cost. To do so, they tested 100 19-month-old infants who were shown how an adult who was going to eat some fruit accidentally dropped it out of their reach.

The infants, perceiving the experimenter’s attempts to reach the fruit, gave it to them. That is, they gave up the food (they could have eaten it themselves) to give it to the person who showed that he wanted it. And this happened even when the experiment was conducted during the hours when the infants were hungriest because they hadn’t eaten for a significant time.

In the latter condition, fewer infants chose to give the fruit to the experimenter. But even so, a significant group of them showed this altruistic behavior.

In short, the studies show that babies are naturally willing to collaborate and help, without gaining anything, and even to their own detriment.

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  • Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2009). The roots of human altruism. British Journal of Psychology100(3), 455-471.
  • Cortés, R., Brooks, R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2020). Altruistic food sharing behavior by human infants after a hunger manipulation. Scientific reports10(1), 1-9.

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