Rethinking natural altruism: simple reciprocal interactions trigger children's benevolence

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Dec 2;111(48):17071-4. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1419408111. Epub 2014 Nov 17.


A very simple reciprocal activity elicited high degrees of altruism in 1- and 2-y-old children, whereas friendly but nonreciprocal activity yielded little subsequent altruism. In a second study, reciprocity with one adult led 1- and 2-y-olds to provide help to a new person. These results question the current dominant claim that social experiences cannot account for early occurring altruistic behavior. A third study, with preschool-age children, showed that subtle reciprocal cues remain potent elicitors of altruism, whereas a fourth study with preschoolers showed that even a brief reciprocal experience fostered children's expectation of altruism from others. Collectively, the studies suggest that simple reciprocal interactions are a potent trigger of altruism for young children, and that these interactions lead children to believe that their relationships are characterized by mutual care and commitment.

Keywords: altruism; morality; reciprocity; social development.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Altruism*
  • Beneficence*
  • Child Behavior / psychology
  • Child Development
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cues*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Intergenerational Relations
  • Male
  • Psychology, Child / methods
  • Social Behavior*