During our time on this planet, we humans haven’t lent a hand to just anyone. Instead, we have usually saved our solicitousness for our own kind. And although over millennia the boundaries separating “us” from “them” have widened—from only kith and kin to entire neighborhoods and nations—the tendency has stayed the same: We help our own. Yet a surprising new experiment shows just how easily this human bias can be transformed into altruism.

“The connections between affiliation to the group and prosocial behavior are so fundamental that, even in infancy, a mere hint of affiliation is sufficient to increase helping,” write coauthors Harriet Over, a doctoral student in psychology at Cardiff University in Wales, and Malinda Carpenter, a senior scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

For the study, a research assistant first showed each 18- month-old infant one of four possible sets of eight photographs. The photographs in all four sets featured a common household object (e.g., a teapot, book, or shoe) in the foreground. But each set had a different cue—a prime—in its background: two dolls facing each other (the affiliation prime), two dolls facing apart, one doll alone, or an inanimate object. (See the affiliation prime in the photograph above.)

After the infants viewed the photographs, a second assistant walked into the room carrying a bundle of sticks that she “accidentally” dropped on the floor near the infant. The researchers then recorded whether the infant tried to help the assistant pick up her sticks. Infants who saw the photographs with the affiliation prime helped the assistant three times as frequently as did infants in the other three conditions. Many previous studies have demonstrated that inconspicuous, even subliminal primes can influence people’s behavior.

Over concludes that “surprisingly subtle changes to our social environment might be sufficient to increase prosocial behavior.” These environmental changes might be as simple as changing the photographs and artwork on our walls, she adds. She cautions, however, that more research is needed to clarify the real-world applications of her findings.

Harriet Over and Malinda Carpenter, “Eighteen- Month-Old Infants Show Increased Helping Following Priming with Affiliation,” Psychological Science, 20, 2009

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