8-Month-Old Babies Like Seeing Bad Guys Punished

Family Matters on 11.30.11

Photo: simononly/Creative Commons

While a recent study suggested that babies develop a sense of fairness as early as 15 months, new research from the University of British Columbia found that infants who were even younger picked up on other antisocial behaviors -- and reacted positively to seeing those behaviors punished.

Professors from the University of British Columbia, Yale University, and Temple University showed 100 babies four different interactions between hand puppets, where the puppets acted in a negative or postive manner toward each other. From Science Daily:

After watching puppets act negatively or positively towards other characters, the babies were shown puppets either giving or taking toys from these "good" or "bad" puppets. When prompted to choose their favorite characters, babies preferred puppets that mistreated the bad characters from the original scene, compared to those that treated them nicely.

The researchers then ran similar test on older kids:

The researchers also examined how older infants would themselves treat good and bad puppets. They tested 64 babies aged 21 months, who were asked to give a treat to, or take a treat away from one of two puppets – one who had previously helped another puppet, and another who had harmed the other puppet. These older babies physically took treats away from the “bad” puppets, and gave treats to the “good” ones.

In both tests, the babies were okay with negative behavior as long as it punished the designated villain puppets -- which, say the researchers, could indicate that a sense of justice and happiness when people get what they deserve is at least partly ingrained from birth (and not just learned).

Lead study author Kiley Hamlin says that the study helps answer a basic evolutionary question: "How have we survived as intensely social creatures if our sociability makes us vulnerable to being cheated and exploited? These findings suggest that, from as early as eight months, we are watching for people who might put us in danger and prefer to see antisocial behavior regulated."

Read more from the University of British Columbia and see videos of the puppet interactions.

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