Infants aren’t known for their highly developed social skills, what with their messy table manners and tendency to babble on and on. However, a recent study suggests that behind those wide eyes, a sophisticated social-analytical mind is whirring away.
Researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center examined whether six- and ten-month-old infants could distinguish kind from malicious playmates. The infants watched short puppet shows centered on a “climber” character attempting to reach the top of a toy mountain. After failing to scale the hillside a few times, the climber was either pushed to the top by a “helper” puppet or knocked back to the bottom by a “hinderer.” The scenes were repeated a number of times, with the characters reprising the same roles each time. When the infants were allowed to choose to play with either the helper or the hinderer puppet, they overwhelmingly chose the helper, indicating that they had not only understood the social dynamics portrayed in the puppet shows, but preferred the character who had helped another achieve its goal. This held true for the six-month as well as the ten-month-old babies.
These results, published in a November issue of Nature, indicate that even infants are capable of making complex social judgments—more complex than had ever been observed among babies this young. “In order to prefer one character over another, the babies need to understand that there is an unfulfilled goal, understand the roles of the characters, and also remember who was who,” says Kiley Hamlin, the study’s lead author and a psychology doctoral student at Yale.
Hamlin says she was impressed that infants could demonstrate these skills so early in life—evidence, she suggests, that these kinds of social judgments are deeply ingrained in humans and may be essential to their survival and morality. “It is hard to imagine a moral system developing that didn’t have as its basis a bad feeling for bad people and a good feeling for good people and events,” she says.