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Toddlers Help Those Who Are Helpful

Update Date: Apr 30, 2013 09:56 AM EDT

Toddlers value people who help them, and are motivated to return the favor, a new study suggests.

A new study conducted at Queen's University in Canada found that three-year-old children most often picked a person who was helpful to them in the past when asked to choose one person to help.

"Children can identify helpful individuals and will be helpful toward those people," researcher Valerie Kuhlmeier said in a news release. "As early as the age of three, children already appear to be engaging in a variant of the golden rule: 'do unto others as they have done unto you.'"

The study involved 29 three-year-old children. The children were presented with a puzzle that consisted of a picture covered in such a way as to allow only a small section to be seen.  The children could not see what was in the picture, but were able to interact with two puppets.  Researchers used puppets in the study because children treat them as peers.

In the study, one puppet announced that it knew what the picture was and proceeded to tell the child.  The second puppet also said it knew what the picture was, but was not going to tell.  Researchers said both puppets spoke in happy, friendly tones and looked alike.  The only difference between the two puppets was their willingness to provide information.

The children in the study were able to determine which puppet was helpful.  What's more researchers found that when the puppets needed help reaching a toy or solving a puzzle of their own, the children were able to quickly identify which puppet had helped them and return the favor.

"There is a growing body of research demonstrating that toddlers spontaneously help others in many situations," explained Kuhlmeier. "What we are also finding is that they pick out the helpers around them, even when the helpful act is as simple as teaching them something new about their world, and they return the favor with their own helpful acts."

"Within the animal kingdom, human cooperation represents an outlier. As such, there has been great interest across a number of fields in identifying the factors that support the complex and flexible variety of cooperation that is uniquely human," researchers wrote in the study. "The ability to identify and preferentially interact with better social partners (partner choice) is proposed to be a major factor in maintaining costly cooperation between individuals."

"These results suggest that even in early childhood, humans take advantage of cooperative benefits, while mitigating free-rider risks, through appropriate partner choice behavior," researchers concluded.

The findings are published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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