How Does Altruism Develop? With Dr. Andrew Meltzoff and Dr. Rodolfo Cortes Barragan (video)

By Templeton Staff
July 19, 2021
Experts on child development investigate how early experiences shape human minds and values. Their research seeks to develop ways to foster and enhance altruism.

“Altruism comes into play when there is a little form of sacrifice or cost to the self and despite that one helps or assists the other to do them some good.” Dr. Andrew Meltzoff, Co-Director of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS.) Are humans innately altruistic? Is altruism biological or is it learned? Can we discover the origin of altruism in the human brain?

Together with Dr. Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, Dr. Meltzoff has performed experiments where toddlers are given a choice between helping others or taking a reward for themselves. Time and again, the toddlers choose altruism over selfishness.

“You take the biological roots of recognizing others like me, add social interaction, and what flowers from that is altruism.” Babies begin to display altruistic tendencies at six months of age. In infancy, humans understand early that other humans are like them. As they begin to interact socially, that recognition develops into altruism. The desire to help originates from personal experience with struggling and then witnessing that same need for assistance in others.

Dr. Meltzoff’s project seeks to determine how much of our desire to help others is built-in and how much arises from early social interactions. His research investigates how childhood experiences shape human minds and values, with the aim of developing ways to foster and enhance altruism.

Highlights from this installment of our award-winning “Stories of Impact” video series:

  • Prior to dividing the world into ‘us and them,’ children feel a global sense of ‘others are like me’ —  a sense of us, or “we-ness.”
  • By tracking the magnetic field surrounding the brain, Dr. Meltzoff has found that a touch to the hand of a baby activates the same part of the brain as the baby seeing someone else's hand being touched. The innate sense of “you are like me,” exists on a biological level and initiates altruistic behavior.
  • Imitation is a key component for babies to learn about people, objects, and their own capabilities. This connection to others is why it is so important for role models to be aware that children see the way that adults interact with each other and are using their observations to form social skills.

Learn more about the TWCF-funded research project related to this episode.

Read the transcript from the interview conducted by journalist Richard Sergay. Featuring: Dr. Andrew N. Meltzoff, Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Chair in Psychology and Co-Director of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences; Dr. Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, postdoctoral fellow working with Dr. Andrew Meltzoff at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.


Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” videos by journalist and senior media executive Richard Sergay feature human stories and critical perspectives on breakthroughs about the universe’s big questions. The inspiring narratives and observations in these award-winning videos portray the individual and societal impacts of the projects that bring to life TWCF-supported research.

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