Apropos to the current round of discussions we’ve been having with Rhology, news has appeared today announcing the result of a new study suggesting that even 6 month old babies can distinguish fundamental differences between good and bad social behaviors, and choose all by their little selves the better option.
Babies as young as 6 to 10 months old showed crucial social judging skills before they could talk, according to a study by researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center published in Thursday’s journal Nature.
The infants watched a googly eyed wooden toy trying to climb roller-coaster hills and then another googly eyed toy come by and either help it over the mountain or push it backward. They then were presented with the toys to see which they would play with.
Nearly every baby picked the helpful toy over the bad one.
The babies also chose neutral toys — ones that didn’t help or hinder — over the naughty ones. And the babies chose the helping toys over the neutral ones…
The choice of nice over naughty follows a school of thought that humans have some innate social abilities, not just those learned from their parents.
“We know that they’re very, very social beings from very, very early on,” Hamlin said.
A study last year out of Germany showed that babies as young as 18 months old overwhelmingly helped out when they could, such as by picking up toys that researchers dropped.
There is an obligatory quote from a psychologist who isn’t convinced of the “innate ability” part, insisting these behaviors were learned. But it seems he’s not recognizing that all these babies observed were the actions of the toys themselves, which toys “helped” one another and which “fought” each other. They were not then told by the researchers which to choose to play with. On their own, they overwhelmingly chose the “good” toy over the “bad” one.
He does make a good point about the social experience babies have in their first six months of life, and how this likely plays a role. But this experience would be limited exclusively to family, where the baby will naturally be getting cared for in most cases. But often, even at that age, there can be bullying and sibling rivalry in multi-child households. I can think of one good control for a future study to test how much the babies’ choices are innate, but it would be difficult to pull off. Find some 6-month-olds taken from homes where neglect, if not outright abuse, was the norm, and see if they choose the “meaner” toy.
While nothing in science ever rests on one study, and there is more research clearly to be done here, I think what this study can be confidently said to establish is that it wasn’t necessary to hammer these babies with a fusillade of Christian moral indoctrination about their innate “depravity,” and nasty threats of eternal hellfire and damnation, in order to persuade them to choose nice over naughty. Sure, they’re not old enough to understand such indoctrination in the first place, but that’s the whole point: even at this young an age, very fundamental notions of beneficial social behaviors appear to be entirely comprehensible. And the babies didn’t even need parental authority — the real-world analogue to Christianity’s reward-or-punishment-based morality paradigm — to distinguish good from bad behavior. We’re a social species, and it’s human nature to want to get along. Sadly, it’s only as we grow older, and are exposed to whatever social, political, or religious ideologies appeal to us (or are forced on us), that we feel more inclined to divide ourselves and view our neighbors, our former playmates, with hate, fear, and suspicion.