Study of the Day: 8-Month-Old Babies Can Tell Right From Wrong

More

New research shows that infants gain an understanding of fairness and punishment earlier than anybody previously thought

main Aaron Amat shutterstock_66987220.jpg

PROBLEM: Though our neighborly ways make us vulnerable to being cheated and exploited, we've survived as intensely social creatures. University of British Columbia evolutionary psychologist Kiley Hamlin decided to find out how.

METHODOLOGY: Together with researchers Karen Wynn, Paul Bloom, and Neha Mahajan, Hamlin tested the ability of 100 babies to judge social behavior in scenarios where some puppets were less than nice. In one setup, the infants chose their favorite animal hand puppets after watching them either give or take away toys from other "good" or "bad" puppets. The scientists also examined 64 older infants aged 21 months, who were asked to reward or punish characters that previously helped or harmed another puppet.

RESULTS: Five-month-old infants uniformly liked the puppets that acted positively toward their fellow puppets. Eight-month-old babies, however, were more selective. They exhibited a preference for puppets that were friendly over those that were mean. The older infants physically manifested this inclination by taking treats away from the bad puppets and giving them to the good ones.

CONCLUSION: By eight months, babies can comprehend the notion of reciprocity and can evaluate complex social situations.

IMPLICATION: The findings provide new insights into the protective mechanisms humans use to choose social alliances. Hamlin says in a statement: "From as early as eight months, we are watching for people who might put us in danger and prefer to see antisocial behavior regulated."

SOURCE: The full study, "The Richness of Early Social Evaluation," is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image: Aaron Amat/Shutterstock.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgment, and what it means to love their bodies


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In