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Shapes of culture People we should help

iStock Image by AlenaPaulus licensed by Artmarkman

Source: iStock image by AlenaPaulus, licensed to Art Markman

Imagine you’re walking down the street to get somewhere in a hurry and you see someone struggling to pick up groceries from a broken bag. I suddenly realize that it was my uncle who picked up the lost item. Maybe you stop to help. What if that person is your friend? Would you like to stop? What about random strangers?

Most of you probably have an intuition that you are most likely to help family members, most likely to help friends (perhaps least likely), and least likely to help strangers. There are even evolutionary theories that suggest that we must be hardwired to help our families more than strangers because we share more DNA with relatives than we do with humans.

Is it hardwired into us humans to help family over friends and strangers over strangers? This question was explored in our 2022 paper. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General By Julia Marshall, Anton Gollwitzer, Kellen Mermin-Bunnell, Mei Shinomiya, Jan Retelsdorf, and Paul Bloom.

They conducted two developmental studies in which children aged 5 to 9 responded to a series of scenarios.They had adults deal with the same scenarios. One study looked only at children and adults in the United States, and another study looked at children and adults in several different countries.

In the first study, participants were asked about scenarios in which the child needed help (in one scenario the child was hungry, in the next the child fell and was injured). They were told that someone (a parent, friend, or total stranger) had seen the child. .

The youngest kids basically felt like everyone should help. They felt slightly less strongly about strangers than they did about family and friends, but only slightly. , believed friends had no obligations and strangers had no obligations. This pattern was strongest among the adults surveyed.

There are two explanations for this pattern. One is that the youngest children are not very good at distinguishing between people, and as they get better at it, they display patterns that match the intuitions of adults. Over time, children learn from the adults around them what to expect in relation to support behavior.

To explore this question, a second study examined children and adults from different countries (USA, Germany, India, Japan, Uganda). In this study, the youngest children of all cultures felt that everyone should be helped. In the United States, Germany, India, and Japan, older children and adults tended to exhibit the aforementioned pattern of distinguishing between family, friends, and strangers. Interestingly, in Uganda, adults were more likely to think that everyone should help.

This pattern of results suggests that young children have a general belief that people should be helpful and ultimately learn ideas about helping behavior from the adults around them. Different cultures have different approaches to helping behaviors, but ultimately learn to incorporate an adult mindset into their culture. These data also suggest that the human brain does not have built-in patterns that fit evolutionary predictions.