Studying psychology, week 3: first presentation as a psychology student on altruism

Preparing for my first presentation at uni & waving synonyms goodbye

I start prep for my first presentation as a psychology student together with my classmate M. Just three weeks ago, I had my last presentation at a tech conference. Presenting is one of the very few things at uni that I feel at least somewhat confident in. M. is also a really experienced presenter, so we make a great team and are done with our prep in no time.

Unlike what I’m used to with conference talks, the format is much stricter: Our topic is a study and the presentation structure follows the papers’. We review the study goals, prior findings, method incl. experiment design, results, discuss the knowledge gained, open questions, and include criticism. It’s important to ensure high consistency in vocabulary used: all terms need to be highly consistent throughout the entire presentation. In a regular conference talk, including variations in language can help increase audience engagement. But the rule here is clear: No more synonyms, baby!

Altruisim in human infants and chimpanzees

The presentation is part of our applied developmental psychology seminar and covers altruistic helping in human infants and chimpanzees (Warneken, Tomasello, 2006). Helping strangers without a immediate return, i.e. altruism, is a quite interesting phenomenon, scientifically speaking. It requires two crucial aspects: motivation to help, as well as the cognitive skills to understand what someone is trying to accomplish and to help them. For a long time, some theorists suspected that altruism was even uniquely human behaviour. This study sought to determine whether that’s actually the case.

Study design

To study this, the researchers set up 10 increasingly complex situations (5 experiment, 5 control tasks) in which the experimenter struggled with accomplishing a goal and expressed this their struggle. Study subjects were 18-month old infants and 36 to 54-month old.

The goal could be moving paper balls, hanging laundry, or putting books into a closed closet; you can watch the experiment videos here under 1.1 and 1.2, I highly recommend this, it’s a lot of fun.

Screenshot: Max Planck Institute for evolutionary anthropology (source)

The results are really interesting: almost all infants helped at least once and unprompted within just 5.2 seconds. The chimpanzees also helped, albeit only in low-complexity tasks and they took longer (12.9s). Overall, it showed that both infants and chimpanzees have an innate desire and cognitive skills to help even strangers and without immediate reward. The biggest difference between humans and chimps is in the ability to understand the goals in different situation. This also opens up the possibility that humans’ and chimps’ common relative may have had a tendency towards helping behaviours.

In studies such as this one, it’s always important to keep in mind all participants’ well-being, it’s one of the aspects we discuss in reviewing the material.

Pre-halloween scares

We also have our first classes in the module that terrifies me the most: statistics. I like math and am quite good at it even though it doesn’t come naturally to me, but among psychology students, statistics is one of the most-feared subjects. After the seminar, I dig out my calculator and realise the battery must have died at some point in the decade since I last used it.

Fun facts learned this week:

Chimps start weaning only at around 3 years of age, so much later than human infants. There is a really fun study that made the first attempt at systematic mapping of developmental milestones in wild chimpanzees. The study was conducted as part of a long-term project in the Taï National Park, Côte d’Ivoire. It aimed to compare a broad range of behavioural traits in wild chimpanzees to human milestones, with the ultimate goal to gain insight into fundamental evolutionary drivers of prolonged developmental periods. It’s a fun read: Systematic mapping of developmental milestones in wild chimpanzees (Bründl, Tkaczynski, Nohon Kohou, et al, 2020).

Fun fact: The median age for chimpanzees’ first laughter is at 12 months!

By Lena

Engineering executive turned leadership coach & consultant, public speaker, and psychology student. Fast walker, avid reader, poetry fan, violinist, pianist in the making, and intersectional feminist. Writes about all the above (and, occasionally, trees).

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