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What Is Altruism?

My 9-year-old granddaughter announced, “I feel very sorry for my friend Olivia.”
“Why?” her father asked her.
“Because I will be away and won’t be able to attend her birthday party,” she replied.
This struck me as a typical child’s self-centered behavior. But another way of looking at it is that it’s the epitome of altruism.
Most young kids view themselves as the center, or near the center, of the universe; that being so, their absence from an event honoring somebody else will in their minds detract from the other person’s enjoyment, so that my granddaughter’s sympathy for Olivia can be viewed as charitable.
We economists have lots of trouble describing what constitutes true altruistic behavior, and in that light, my granddaughter’s pronouncement doesn’t look so bad. Of course, if she were 13 and made this comment, I would be pretty convinced that her grandmother, her parents, and I had succeeded in spoiling her!
(Hat tip: M.A.H.)