Human Infants Can Override Possessive Tendencies to Share Valued Items with Others

I-LABSMedia Coverage, Publication, Research

Scientific Reports, 2021, 11:9635

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Rodolfo Cortes Barragan & Andrew N. Meltzoff

Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, University of Washington

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In adults, the feeling of possessiveness that we have toward certain favorite objects can be overridden by a counteracting tendency—the tendency for generosity and sharing with other people. As adults, we often want to retain our money and personal possessions, but we also share such items. I-LABS scientists Rodolfo Cortes Barragan and Andrew Meltzoff explored the origins of this tension during human infancy and found that 19-month-old infants can override their possessive tendencies in favor of sharing with other people. 

How the experiment was done. Barragan and Meltzoff showed 19-month-olds a person who needed help to pick up the babies’ own favorite items brought from home (e.g., a stuffed bear or their own bottle). While some toddlers took possession of these items or ignored the other person, others readily shared their personal object with the person who was expressing a desire for it. These toddlers shared their own personally valued item, even after they expressed a longing for it by reach out of it with their hands, rising on tip-toes, and even lunging at it! Despite this initial desire to obtain the cherished item for themselves, the infants showed generous when an adult also expressed a desire for the same object. Barragan and Meltzoff think this capacity to give away personally valued items to another who wants it is a distinctly human capacity—and an important part of what it means to be human, at that. 

Early sociocultural influences on toddlers. An interesting aspect of the research is that infants from Hispanic/Latino and Asian households were more likely to share than infants from other backgrounds. The researchers think this reflects that Hispanic/Latino and Asian parents work hard to teach their children to empathize with and to help others, such as through the notable Hispanic/Latino value of “ser acomedido” (to be accommodating and attentive to the needs of others). Using a large sample of 192 infants, the researchers demonstrate that already by 19 months old, having experience with different sociocultural groups (within the U.S.) plays an important role in infants’ sharing behavior toward others. Infants learn sharing practices from those in the family and culture around them. 

Broader impact. As a society that values caring for others, we strive to give others’ valuable items. The current research informs us about the fundamental ability of even our young children to treat others in a prosocial and generous fashion, by providing wanted items to people outside of their direct family. These are key building blocks of human society. Understanding these building blocks can help us to design programs to help children (and parents!) to show more care for others, and to change society for the better. Human infants’ tendency to flexibly share their own treasured possessions with others may be a precursor to the widespread giving of valuable resources which is characteristic of the human species and foundational to human society.

Read about this research in Scientific Reports, here.

Read how this research relates to the COVID pandemic in Thrive Global, here.

Good Morning America covered the research as it relates to parenting.  Watch that here.

For a sample of international coverage, read the Arabic version of Scientific American here.