If you have any experience of babies you’d be forgiven for thinking of them as entirely selfish, self-oriented little beasts with scant regard for others. It has long been thought that children are born amoral and that it is the job of their culture to teach them the difference between good and bad. However, studies with very young babies suggest that they might be much nicer than we previously thought.
For instance, babies seem to empathize with the distress of others - crying in response to the cries of other babies and stroking or offering toys to those who seem to be upset. Babies also spontaneously help strangers who are struggling. When experimenters acted out a range of troublesome scenarios such as trying to open a cupboard with their hands full or straining to reach a dropped peg - 1-year-olds came rushing to their assistance, sometimes traversing extensive obstacles to do so. And it's not just that babies happen to like picking up dropped pegs. If the experimenter was straining to reach a peg that they had deliberately thrown down, rather than accidentally dropped, babies didn’t come to their rescue.
These findings suggest that young children may have natural inclinations to assess the intentions of those around them and to help them achieve their goals when they seem to be struggling. The experimenters were unfamiliar to the babies yet they tried to help them spontaneously and without any encouragement from their parents or any reward. If you watch the linked videos above, you’ll note the experimenter doesn’t even thank them. The authors of these studies interpret this behaviour as evidence that the rudiments of empathy, compassion and altruism may already be in place much earlier than expected, perhaps even from birth. But simply feeling for someone’s anguish isn’t necessarily as sophisticated as reasoning about good and bad.