Abstract

Kenward, B. & Gredebäck, G. (2013) Infants help a nonhuman agent. PlosOne, 8: e75130



Young children can be motivated to help adults by sympathetic concern based upon empathy, but the underlying mechanisms are unknown. One account of empathy-based sympathetic helping in adults states that it arises due to directmatching mirror-system mechanisms which allow the observer to vicariously experience the situation of the individual in need of help. This mechanism could not account for helping of a geometric-shape agent lacking human-isomorphic bodyparts. Here 17-month-olds observed a ball-shaped non-human agent trying to reach a goal but failing because it was blocked by a barrier. Infants helped the agent by lifting it over the barrier. They performed this action less frequently in a control condition in which the barrier could not be construed as blocking the agent. Direct matching is therefore not required for motivating helping in infants, indicating that at least some of our early helpful tendencies do not depend on human-specific mechanisms. Empathy-based mechanisms that do not require direct-matching provide one plausible basis for the observed helping. A second possibility is that rather than being based on empathy, the observed helping occurred as a result of a goal-contagion process in which the infants were primed with the unfulfilled goal.