Felix Warneken: The Precursor to Altruism in Young Children


Altruism is a description used when we act on behalf of others (even towards those unfamiliar to us) and we do so selflessly and at cost to ourselves[1]. Giving your seat up on the bus, intervening in a conflict, volunteering to watch a neighbour’s child, donating a kidney, and fighting a fire are examples of altruism that range from the everyday to the extraordinary. And while altruistic motivations are complex, the precursor to altruism is “helping”.

Studies[2] of very young children show significant developmental transitions throughout the first two years of life as “helping behaviours” expand with empathy.

In this interview, Dr. Felix Warneken debunks the myth that children are born selfish and society must “train up children” to become altruistic. In his research lab [3] at Harvard University, toddlers as young as 14 months show spontaneous helping tendencies; the precursor to altruism.

Altruism, as defined by Harvard researcher Dr. Felix Warneken, is our willingness to help others in need, "often in the absence of immediate personal gain and occasionally even at great cost to ourselves."

Researchers Svetlova, Nichols, and Brownell examined how prosocial behaviours change over toddlerhood. Findings suggest that over the second year of life, prosocial behaviour develops from explicit communication to understanding others' emotions from subtle cues.

Dr. Warneken studies both human children as well as young chimpanzees. His work has shown that young human children and young chimpanzees  both help others to achieve their goals in a variety of situation. These results suggest at an evolutionary root to altruism.


  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.