First things first: the baby above is NOT related to me. I don’t want anyone thinking it’s my new nephew, Samson, who’s way cuter. Apologies to parents of Superbaby.
Now that that’s out of the way…
The NY Times has an article in this week’s Science section claiming that humans are born helpful. The proof? At 18 months, babies will try to help out if they see a stranger struggling to open a door.The article asserts that:
- this is before the baby has learned that helping is the right thing to do, and
- the baby is helping without any promise of reward.
Sorry, disagree. A baby learns from the get-go that being helpful earns praise, or thanks, or a big smile. And maybe even a cookie.
THAT’s what we’re born with: the need for praise, smiles, and cookies.
If that baby were invisible and knew he wouldn’t get any credit, would he still help the stranger? Would he help anyone? No. He’d be like, “screw that.”
Maybe the invisible baby would consider helping if he knew how to write, so he could leave a note saying, “You’re welcome. Love, the Invisible Baby.”
I know I wouldn’t help if there were no thanks or cookies in it for me. Which makes me a not-very-helpful person. Helpful gestures, now those come naturally to me. If someone looks like they could use assistance, I’m the first (okay, one of the first) to offer. But when I ask, “how can I help?” I’m SO hoping you’ll say, “I’m all good. You just sit.”
If we had naturally helpful instincts, I’d be compelled to get all up in that sinkful of Palmolive. But I’m perfectly fine watching from a chair while someone does all the dishes, so long as they know I “tried” to lend a hand.
What motivates me to help is usually one of two things:
- appreciation (It doesn’t have to be a gift basket. Or even a thank-you. As long as I know you know I helped and now think of me as helpful.)
- risk of looking like an unhelpful a-hole.
Really. I was in the dressing room at J Crew yesterday, and had a sloppy pile of inside-out shirts and jeans that I’d tried on. Instead of just right-side-outing them and hanging them up, I ran through this sequence of thoughts:
“I would really, really like to just leave this pile here and go. But the salesperson who helped me will know I left it that way and think I’m an inconsiderate shit. Then again, I probably wouldn’t hang them up right, and she’d have to redo it all anyway. So it’s easier for her if I leave it all like this. Then again, she’ll still think I’m a turd. If I were a sales person and someone left me this pile, I’d think they were disgusting. I’d say, ‘what’s wrong with people?” Then again, they are paid to do this…Oh, hell, I’ll hang them up.”
Those are not the thoughts of a born helper. Neither is the thought I have when my husband starts cleaning around me on Saturday mornings. The thought is: “Oh crap, he’s cleaning again.” If I were naturally helpful, I would jump up and grab the duster. Instead, I get grumpy when all he asks me to do is lift my feet so he can pass the vacuum through.
It’s not that I don’t have an impulse to help. It’s that my impulse to keep reading Arts and Leisure is so much stronger.
Now, maybe if he offered me a cookie…
What do you think? Are we born helpful, or are we just born more hungry for approval than lazy? Do you help out when no one is watching?