Toddlers will, chimps won’t.

Posted by jlubans on March 16, 2020

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Caption: A toddler returns a blueberry to researcher Barragan.

Susan Pinker writes in the WSJ – “Babies Can Be More Altruistic Than Adults” - about a study showing our human tendencies to help, to cooperate, and to come to the aid of others.
When beseeched to retrieve and return a stranger’s dropped fruit 60% of the 96 toddlers did so. When hungry, 38% gave back the fruit.
In the control group with the stranger behaving indifferently to the dropped fruit, only 4% retrieved and returned the fruit.
In the greater animal kingdom, altruism sets human beings apart. The study’s authors say, “the knack for reading others’ needs and being motivated to help fulfill them is a distinctly human trait. Chimpanzees don’t give up food to a stranger.”
So, what has altruism to do with the workplace?
Well, consider the 40% of the toddlers who did not share. Is this an early indicator of jerkitude?
Jerks, as one definition has it, are “ignorant of the value of others, ignorant of the merit of their ideas and plans, dismissive of their desires and beliefs, (and) unforgiving of their perceived inferiority.”
Perhaps jerkiness in adulthood is too much to derive from a child’s gobbling down a stranger’s dropped piece of fruit. The 40% might have simply been hungry and opportunistic.
What chance is there that this “me, first!” attitude will change over time?
Indeed, how does one become more of a “social” being? That’s one of the study’s conclusions: “If we can discover how to promote altruism in our kids, this could move us toward a more caring society.”
In a way, this research offers something for both sides of the "nature or nurture" debate. Generally, people have some measure of an innate tendency to help others; this tendency can be either diminished or enhanced depending on one's life experience.
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Caption: Canadian shoppers stock up - and then some! - for the epidemic.

“The Mover” (2018) is a film depicting the heroic and complex actions of Žanis Lipke, a blue-collar worker. Lipke is famous for saving some 50 or more Jews from Nazi persecution/murder in Riga, Latvia.
In an early scene, shortly after the German military has re-occupied Latvia, a Latvian butcher refuses to sell meat to a Jew.
Lipke’s wife observes this and admonishes the butcher to sell the man the meat – he is a human being providing for his family’s needs. The butcher still refuses – he does not want to be seen as a Jew-sympathizer.
She then thrusts her package of meat into the Jew’s hands, a noble act done at great risk.
How many of us would do the same?
OK. Reduce the risk level to a mere inconvenience, how many of us would help a stranger?
In the workplace, it is not much different. When we see someone being vilified in an organization do we offer a helping hand or turn away, further ostracizing a former colleague?
The researchers in this study found that an infant’s siblings and cultural background “could account for some of the variance in the infants’ tendency to help strangers.”
If children’s altruistic behavior is indeed malleable then perhaps the actions of leaders and followers can influence an organization toward altruism and awareness of interdependence and away from overly selfish behaviors.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

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