HEART-MIND 2014: We Are All Built For Altruism

By Matthew Clarke

One of the highlights at Heart-Mind 2014 was the talk by Felix Warneken. Felix is a German-trained researcher whose work I was very excited to hear about. He is studying the roots of altruism. And most interestingly, he is finding that the prevailing wisdom - that children are innately selfish and must be taught how to be considerate - is wrong.

In fact, children are innately and instinctively altruistic and unselfish. His experiments are a wonderful blend of the fascinating and the adorable. He will purposefully struggle at a task in front of a young child and we see what the child does. For example, in one experiment he carried a large stack of books to a dresser, but couldn’t place them inside because the dresser doors were closed. And so the 18-month old child, after watching Felix bang up against the closed doors for a few moments, gets up and opens the door for him. In another case he struggled to stack books properly in front of a child and the child jumped right in and helped him stack the books properly.

There was a long list of “controls” and he also delved back into studies with Chimps, which all served to further legitimize the findings, and I found it deeply interesting. Two key things stuck with me. 1) If children are built for kindness, it changes the way we approach them a lot of the time. Dealing with someone whom we believe to be innately kind and altruistic is markedly different than addressing someone we believe to be selfish. 2) As an extension of this, if altruism is built into our DNA, then it doesn’t stop with children. We are all built for altruism. That’s a powerful realization about ourselves and the rest of the world.

Also, I couldn’t help but wonder if, as a side effect to his experiments, Felix was instilling these children with a strong sense of hope. I couldn’t help but wonder if these kids were thinking: “If this guy, who can’t even figure out how to open a door or stack a pile of books, if HE can get a PhD, well then I should be able to accomplish anything I dream of.”

To be continued

Matthew Clarke is a Vancouver-based filmmaker, songwriter, musician, writer, father of two awesome children, and a proud out -of- league husband.  His latest short web-series, "Convos with my two year old," has become an internet sensation in it's first season and is available on YouTube .




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