Are Babies Born Good?

The process of leading children from birth to adulthood is a long and complicated journey. Sometimes just civilizing a toddler enough to get him to preschool seems like moving a mountain. But are we really working with a blank slate? Research in infancy seems to point to a naturally-occurring knowledge of what's good and what's bad, even when the child is too young to guide his own behavior accordingly.

Infant morality studies are so new that the field’s grand dame is 29-year-old J. Kiley Hamlin, who was a graduate student at the Yale lab in the mid-2000s. She was spinning her wheels for a thesis project when she stumbled on animated presentations that one of her predecessors had made, in which a “climber” (say, a red circle with goggle eyes) attempted to mount a hill, and a “helper” (a triangle in some trials) assisted him, or a “hinderer” (a square) knocked him down. Previous infant research had focused on other aspects of the interaction, but Hamlin wondered if a baby observing the climber’s plight would prefer one interfering character over another.

“As adults, we like the helper and don’t like the hinderer,” says Hamlin, now an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. “We didn’t think babies would do that too. It was just like, ‘Let’s give it a try because Kiley’s a first-year graduate student and she doesn’t know what she’s doing.’”

Wynn and her husband, the psychologist Paul Bloom, collaborated on much of Hamlin’s research, and Wynn remembers being a bit more optimistic: “Do babies have attitudes, render judgments? I just found that to be a very intuitively gripping question,” she says. “If we tend to think of babies being born and developing attitudes in the world as a result of their own experiences, then babies shouldn’t be responding [to the scenarios]. But maybe we are built to identify in the world that some things are good and some things are not, and some helpful and positive social interaction is to be approved of and admired.”

In fact, 6- and 10-month-old babies did seem to have strong natural opinions about the climbing scenarios: They passionately preferred the helper to the hinderer, as assessed by the amount of time they spent looking at the characters. This result “was totally surreal,” Hamlin says—so revolutionary that the researchers themselves didn’t quite trust it. They designed additional experiments with plush animal puppets helping and hindering each other; at the end babies got the chance to reach for the puppet of their choice. “Basically every single baby chose the nice puppet,” Hamlin remembers.

The same experiment on even younger babies showed that their gaze lingered longer on the "helpers," too. But that's just the beginning of the research going on with infants, and even on that oxymoron called "toddler altruism," that you'll see in a fascinating article at Smithsonian magazine. Link

(Image credit: Jill Greenberg)

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