A Blog by Ed Yong

Infants prefer a nasty moose if it punishes an unhelpful elephant

If you saw someone punching a stranger in the street, you might think poorly of them. But if you found out that the stranger had slept with the assailant’s partner, had kicked a kitten, or was Justin Bieber, you might think differently about the situation. You might even applaud the punch-thrower.

When we make moral judgments, we do so subtly and selectively. We recognise that explicitly antisocial acts can seem appropriate in the right circumstances. We know that the enemy of our enemy can be our friend. Now, Kiley Hamlin from the University of British Columbia has shown that this capacity for finer social appraisals dates back to infancy – we develop it somewhere between our fifth and eighth months of life.

Hamlin, formerly at Yale University, has a long pedigree in this line of research. Together with Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom, she showed that infants prefer a person who helps others over someone who hinders, even from the tender age of three months. These experiments also showed that infants expect others to behave in the same way – approaching those who help them and avoiding those who harm them. Now, Hamlin has shown that our infant brains can cope with much more nuance than that.

She worked with 64 babies, and showed them a video of a duck hand puppet as it tried to get at a rattle inside a box. This protagonist was aided by a helpful elephant puppet that lifted the lid (first video), but hindered by an antisocial elephant that jumped on the lid and slammed it shut (second video). Next, the babies saw the two elephants playing with a ball and dropping it. Two moose puppets entered the fray – one (the ‘Giver’) would return the ball to the elephant (third video), and the other (the ‘Taker’) would steal it away (fourth video). The babies were then given a choice between the two moose.

Hamlin found that over three-quarters of the five-month-old babies preferred the Giver moose, no matter whether it returned the ball to the helpful elephant or the antisocial one. They were following a simple rule: “helpful moose = good moose”. But the eight-month-old babies were savvier. They largely preferred the Giver moose when it was aiding the helpful elephant, but they chose the Taker when it was took the antisocial elephant’s ball.

In those three months, babies learn to judge an action not simply on whether it helps or harms a person, but also on whether that person deserved it. They prefer characters who help out good puppets, and who punish bad ones. They learn that context matters.

There is, however, another possible explanation. Perhaps the babies were just matching bad for bad. They saw the elephant behaving negatively, so they picked the moose that acted negatively to the elephant. Hamlin disproved this idea in a second experiment. This time, it was the duck that played with the ball and relied on the help of the two moose. Even if the duck had been wronged by an elephant, the babies still preferred the Giver moose.

Finally, Hamlin found that toddlers show the same tendencies themselves. She showed 32 toddlers, aged 19 to 23 months, the same video from before but with dogs standing in for elephants. When she asked the babies to give a treat to one of the dogs, they largely picked the helpful one. When she asked them to take a treat away from a dog, they picked the antisocial one.

Uta Frith, who studies child psychology at UCL, says that Hamlin’s earlier studies were “truly pioneering”. Indeed, many eminent child psychologists, like Jean Piaget, believed that infants only attend to their own needs and thoughts, responding only to an adult’s authority. Hamlin’s 2007study showed the opposite – infants are more than capable of making social judgments. Her new experiments take that conclusion to the next level.

“The experiments make clear that young children do not merely put positive and negative values on agents on the basis of their experience, and prefer the goodie,” says Frith. “Instead, they can tell the difference between appropriate reward and punishment according to the context. To me this says that toddlers already have more or less adult moral understanding. Isn’t this amazing? I don’t know in what way adults would react in the same situation in a more sophisticated way.”

Reference: Hamlin, Wynn, Bloom & Mahajan. 2011. How infants and toddlers react to antisocial others. PNAS http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1110306108

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21 thoughts on “Infants prefer a nasty moose if it punishes an unhelpful elephant

  1. We know that the enemy of our enemy can be our friend

    Unfortunately this is a misquotation; it should be
    “the enema of my enemy is my friend”.
    That makes so much more sense than asserting that simply being the enemy of someone opposed to me makes a third party a friend. It feeds on the whole “if you’re not with us you’re against us” crap that typifies far too much politics.

  2. “I don’t know in what way adults would react in the same situation in a more sophisticated way.”

    That’s easy, adults would come up with a reason the duck deserved to have the rattle taken away from it, and then they’d reward the elephant for having conformed to their rationalization.

  3. Very interesting, though I can’t help but wonder if the difference between the 5-month-olds and the 8-month-olds might be due to differences in working memory capacity instead of differences in social awareness.

  4. If a human presents the choices of puppets, the baby could just be responding to subtle body language cues as to who the adult thinks they should/are going to pick. Presenter of puppets should be blind to which puppet did what.

  5. Cool study, but I thought the comment from Uta Frith was way over the top:

    “To me this says that toddlers already have more or less adult moral understanding. Isn’t this amazing? I don’t know in what way adults would react in the same situation in a more sophisticated way.”

    Maybe not with this situation, but this is an extremely simple situation! It has to be in order for children to understand it. Moral situations get *way* more complex than this (e.g., what if the character who punishes the nice person has previously done you a favour; or the one who punishes the nasty person has previously punished *you* for being nasty?).

    I don’t mean to rant but I think this nativist trend of seeing adult competence in infants is going a bit too far these days. Let’s not throw out the whole of Kohlbergian moral psychology (the well documented evidence on the introduction of different moral reasoning styles at different ages) or Piagetian social cognition (the massive changes brought about by an increasing orientation towards peers in middle childhood) just yet!

    Children are not just miniature adults, they see the world very differently. If we are ever really to understand what is going on with child development, we need to focus on BOTH the similarities AND the differences in the way they see the world, not spend our time racing to shave months off the age that a particular competence springs fully-formed into existence, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.

  6. @Alex – They actually did exactly what you said. When the babies got to choose, their parents turned away and closed their eyes. The experimenter presented the two moose puppets and, critically, didn’t know which was the Take and the Giver. So no one could have given subtle body language cues.

  7. @Andy – The working memory hypothesis can’t account for the dramatic shift in preference. If it was true, you’d expect equal preference of the two puppets at five months and a skew at eight months.

  8. Alex – I can assure you that the presenters of puppets were ALWAYS blind to what the puppets did. Parents closed their eyes for this part as well, so that they could not influence infants’ choices.

  9. Very interesting.So what does that say about the exceptions I wonder.That leaves on quarter of the babies who didnt have this reaction.Does that mean there is a possibility a full 25% are anti-social?
    That would explain alot.

  10. I’m not sure I follow why this is profound. Morality can pretty easily be explained by natural selection. If our natural inclination were to kill, rob or rape each other society would have hardly progressed. Civilization wouldn’t be possible. Our natural instinct to help one another and to be hostile to those who don’t can easily be explained by our collective need for self preservation. While taking whatever you want by any means necessary may be more immediately useful to the person who engages in that kind of behavior it’s not ultimately beneficial to our collective health as a species. Who wants to live in that kind of world? We have, naturally and over time, eliminated that kind of thinking and behavior. It’s not useful to our survival as a species.

    Why is this concept so hard to grasp?

  11. I wonder if these experiments will reveal early indications of neuro-atypical development, in particular autism. Could these children be followed over time, so that their responses to these kinds of social situations can be compared to their own later development, which might tease out some usefulness of these kinds of tests for that purpose, as well as to establish a general norm?

  12. “To me this says that toddlers already have more or less adult moral understanding. Isn’t this amazing? I don’t know in what way adults would react in the same situation in a more sophisticated way”

    Wow — this is a crazy overreach. My daughter is 4, about 10 times more sophisticated in her thinking than an 8 month old, and her moral reasoning is incredibly simple and , well, childish.

    I suspect very strongly,that the further experiments will reveal this apparently sophisticated moral reasoning will be explained with a much simpler mechanism. Just a hunch — time will tell.

  13. If you watch the “choice” videos (they show up after you play the embedded ones), you might question the results based on what you see. I did.

    Seems like the way the choice is presented may be making a much bigger impression on which moose is chosen than the puppet show.

  14. The real lesson here is that adults need to be aware that babies know innately about right and wrong, and that adults behave in front of them in ways that challenge this judgement. It can be subtle adult behaviours, not the really crazy parental fighting or physical abuse towards children like surprising wacks on the head accompanied by laughter or teasing and taunting. When right and wrong are mixed up, with no acknowledgement on the part of the adults, a child’s brain will have to rationalize this leading to all sorts of behavioural problems. A daunting task to show a child the world of adults and try to keep their wired virtues intact! Makes me think of the story ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’!

    I agree with Aurelia (14) – can antisocial, autism, and even psychopathic behaviour be detected early?

  15. @Ed-I’m a little confused about why it couldn’t be an issue of increasing memory ability. Couldn’t it be the case that the 5-month-olds weren’t able to hold onto the memory of the elephant’s actions in the first video? The similar levels of preference for the giver moose just reflects giving=good. Whereas the 8-month-olds might be better able to remember “this elephant is bad/good” while watching the moose scenario?

    Could you examine this by showing both scenarios, but instead of presenting the moose, you ask kids which elephant they preferred? If there’s no memory of the elephant’s initial action, there should be no helpful/unhelpful preference. If they do remember that an elephant acted in a particular way, there should be a preference for the helpful one.

  16. @Troy, while I agree that moral behavior enables our survival as a species, I hardly think that selfish short-term behavior has been eliminated from our repertoire. And there is much in our culture to support that idea that people are primarily motivated by self-serving reasons; our economic system is structured around that idea.

    I think this research is exciting in part because in showing that infants have innate tendencies to make complex moral choices, it inveighs against the notion that children are blank slates who must be taught morality in order to act decently. We need to primarily support and encourage children to become more aware of, exercise, and thereby develop the capacities they already have. Better they should learn that their own judgment is generally reliable than to think that they must keep consulting external codes of conduct to know how to behave morally. They’ll thereby become more autonomous individuals.

  17. Interesting! I wonder if the color the elephants and moose were wearing had any affect. The bad moose wore red and the good moose wore green. The bad elephant wore red and the good elephant wore yellow. Also the good one was always on the left and the bad one on the right. Just wondering if they could have been variables.

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