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Babies Can Tell Good From Bad

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Babies Can Tell Good From Bad
Babies as young as six months old are able to tell friend from foe, according to a study that suggests a human being's sense of right and wrong develops well before formal teaching.

Social animals, including humans, need to be able to rapidly distinguish whom they can trust from those they cannot in order to cooperate, thrive and survive.

Babies seem to know the 'good guys' from the 'bad guys'. It could be that it is part of our nature to know the difference between right and wrong, rather than a result of nurture. This research shows that the instinct is so fundamental to our survival that we are able to spot a good Samaritan, even before we are able to talk.

Kiley Hamlin and her colleagues, of Yale University in the USA, report a clever way to seek the birth of our moral values by testing the reaction of babies to "good", "neutral" and "bad" toys.

They showed 6-month and 10-month old babies one toy character who tried but failed to reach the top of a steep hill. Babies were then shown a second, helpful triangular character, who pushed the climber up the hill, and then a third, unhelpful square character, who pushed the climber back to the bottom of the hill. The characters were colourful wooden shapes with "googly eyes" to ensure that the babies were kept interested in their antics. After the baby viewed the unhelpful and helpful characters help or prevent the climber from getting to the top of the hill, they were offered a choice between the helper toy and the hinderer toy.

What is remarkable is that the babies "strongly preferred" the character who had been helpful rather than unhelpful. They seem to know the "good guys" from the bad. This supports the view that our ability to tell good from bad is universal and unlearned. "We can't say that babies are born with this - just that they have it by six months,".

"It is present before language and explicit teaching, yes, but perhaps not there exactly from the start."


The results of these experiments with Profs Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom suggest that an ability to distinguish those who may help us from those who may harm us is "central to processing the social world." The fact that babies may have a sense of right and wrong far earlier than previously thought could be a biological adaptation that may also serve as the foundation for moral thought and action later in life, they speculate. The ability to tell helpful from unhelpful people, and to favour the former was undoubtedly essential for our ancestors in activities such as group hunting, food sharing, and warfare.

November 2007

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