Our favorite fictional characters may be dressed up in magic cloaks, move things with their minds or even run as fast as the speed of light, but there’s a very strong chance they wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if they always acted selfishly. A few flaws may add some intrigue and texture to a story, but if the hero or heroine doesn’t help those less powerful than themselves, there’s a good chance we’re not going to be as enchanted by the character. Researchers are finding that this preference for pro-social behavior is likely built into our brains, as interest in sharing has turned up in everything from rats to monkeys. In case those animals were taught these ideas, researchers have also been working with human babies and finding that even before a person can talk, the idea of helping out is already attractive.
Saving less-fortunate shapes
While babies are always doing their best to soak up information about the world around them, at six months old, they usually can’t speak yet, and thus will be less influenced by cultural norms. Such an audience was shown a short movie about abstract, geometric shapes interacting with each other, avoiding other emotional influences like facial expressions or size differences. In the movie, two of the three shapes bump into each other while a third shape “observes” from a distance. Sometimes the third shape would intervene to help the bumped shape, while other times the observer would just exit the scene without interacting.
When later shown replicas of these abstract actors, most babies understood enough of their blocky drama to have a favorite character, usually selecting the intervening shape over all others. Even without words, the six-month-olds seemed to value a character that would help others. When ten-month-olds were tested, they added a new layer of discrimination in their judgement. If the intervening “hero” shape seemed to help by accident, the kids were not as impressed. Making an effort to help was more appreciated, a pattern that holds true in nearly all adult storytelling as well.
Giving is good, even if it’s hard
This may make things more straight-forward for writers, but researchers were more interested in just how innate human concepts of justice may be. Other research with toddlers found them to be surprised when shown other children receiving unequal amounts of food, even if their own snack supply was unaffected. Those same kids were also very likely to share their own favorite toys when asked later on. This isn’t to say that sharing and helping others is necessarily easy, or that being a good Samaritan is some kind of biological default— we know that sharing even unneeded resources can be difficult. But perhaps that difficulty is part of why we also appreciate moments of sharing and giving so much. We’re impressed by anyone who can do something to benefit the group at large, even if that action doesn’t require flying, shooting lasers or fighting off bad guys.
Source: Born to love superheroes, Scienmag