Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Are we born altruistic?

Greed has been put forward a one the main reasons for the current crisis, yet there is plenty of evidence for altruistic behavior around us. In fact, plenty of experiments have shown that people are willing to share with complete strangers, because of some sense of fairness. There is also evidence, reported here recently, that altruism can differ quite a bit across populations. This raises the question of why altruism differs across people.

Kirsten Häger performs some experiments on seven to ten year olds in Germany and comes to an interesting conclusion: altruism is more prevalent among the older children, which would lead us to think that altruism is acquired. From casual observation on playgrounds, it is certainly so that toddlers are very egoistic and need to be reminded to share with others. Over the years, this idea seem to stick with them.

But if education is important for altruism, the there should be some explanatory power in socio-economic indicators, yet there seem to be none according to Häger. It then altruism not acquired after all, but rather something hard-coded that reveals itself as one grows up? Or is it something that one acquires not from one's direct environment (family and school), but from a larger environment? That would explain differences across societies.

1 comment:

jsskagray said...

It is once again a question of nature vs nurture. In the case of altruism I think nature takes the cake. Mom teaches us to share because that is what nice little children should do but as an adult I have to get what's mine to feed my family. Maybe as the recession continues on is it more likely for people to become less altruistic just to survive these hard times? Is altruism a good trait or a bad trait to have? Now that's a hard question for me to answering even for myself.