Four Out of Five Babies Prefer Victims to Bullies

At just 10 months old babies already have a sense of sympathy and right and wrong. This recent study (published yesterday in PLOS ONE and therefore FREE!) has a good write-up in LiveScience.

Because 10-month-olds can’t yet express sympathy verbally, Kyoto University researcher Shoji Itakura and colleagues turned to a common tactic in baby-brain research: using simple animations to determine what infants prefer. They showed 40 babies an animation of a blue ball and a yellow cube.

Half of the infants watched a short clip in which the blue ball chased the yellow cube around the screen, hitting it seven times before finally squishing it against a wall. The other half of the group saw the same movements, including the squishing, but the two shapes moved independently without interacting.

In some cases, the “bully” and “victim” roles were swapped, so that the yellow cube was the bad guy. After watching the show, the babies were shown a real yellow cube and a real blue ball, and given the chance to reach for one of the objects.

In cases where the babies had seen one shape beating up on the other, they overwhelmingly reached for the victim, 16 out of 20 times.

The seeming-silliness of studying babies via videos of shapes and then letting them choose real shapes reflective of the video they just watched is really not silly at all – it is fantastic experimental design. And the data is terrific too. Yes, moral sense within 10 months of birth.

Baby brains develop incredibly quickly. And it is a longstanding truism of studies of babies that there is probably more there than what you can detect. Improved experiments will find more and more. We are the deficient ones; they know more than we can know that they know.

Anyway, I think this is a win not only for morality and its innateness (and a great follow up study would be to see if babies with older siblings have modified outcomes in any way), but also for babies themselves. For those like Peter Singer who would allow infanticide, I would hope that this gives some pause. Babies are not just lumps. They are thinking and moral beings. Even newborns and prenatals can do some pretty fantastic things. We should recognize that many of the limitations that we perceive in babies are not in the babies, but rather in us. (Not that I think that human value relies on our abilities/lack-of-limitations in any case.)

The moral history of humanity has shown, I think, that it is better to draw the bounds of humanity too wide and include too many (not that this has ever happened), rather than too narrow and include too few (the human default morality).

As a last thought, and to explore the above too-narrow-boundaries-of-humanity problem with in-group and out-group, it might be interesting to condition the children to perceive the victim shape as out-group and the bully shape as in-group. Give them all toys and clothes marked with a blue ball. Give mom and dad the same markings. Then show them the video of the blue ball squashing the yellow cube.  See if the babies-prefer-victims theory still holds then. If not, then we’ll have begun to see the origins of “drawing the moral bounds too narrow” as well.

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