“Are humans born altruistic? And if not, can altruism be taught? “How do humans develop moral intelligence?” These are the fundamental questions that researchers at the University of Washington are trying to investigate and understand. 

Funded by a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, leading child psychologist Professor Andrew Meltzoff and postdoctoral researcher Rodolfo Barragan are focusing on how childhood experiences shape the human mind and its capacity for altruism. The project, which is part of TWCF’s Diverse Intelligences Initiative, also seeks to help develop methods for fostering social connections between people and enhancing the ethical choices we make.

The researchers are studying toddlers to see how they react to a set of challenges that involve helping other people. The investigations also involve neuroscience to see how infants under one year of age begin to form a social brain connecting “self” and “other” as a foundation for developing empathy and altruism. The hope is that one day — with a more complete understanding of the roots of altruism — scientists will be able to make recommendations about this societally important issue to parents, early educators and policymakers. At stake is fostering moral intelligence in childhood and deepening our grasp of what it means to be human.

By Richard Sergay


  • Richard Sergay is an award-winning veteran network television journalist and senior media executive who spent much of his career at ABC News. He reported on major domestic and international stories for World News, Nightline and Good Morning America and ABC Radio. Richard completed a six-year assignment as Bureau Chief and Correspondent based in South Africa covering the end of White rule and Apartheid, as well as the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the ensuing peace negotiations. After the South Africa assignment, Richard began a new beat for ABC News – the first for any major network --  focused on the digital revolution unfolding in the U.S.