Babies’ preference for altruists suggests
social evaluation is unlearned
In the first evidence of its kind to date, Yale researchers find that infants
prefer individuals who help others to those who either do nothing or interfere
with others’ goals, it was reported in the Nov. 22 issue of Nature.
“This supports the view that our ability to evaluate people is a biological
adaptation — universal and unlearned,” write the authors of the study.
The study included six- and 10-month-old babies whose preferences were determined
by recording which of two actors they reached towards.
In the first experiment, infants saw a wooden character with large glued-on eyes
known as “The Climber.” At first, the climber rested at the bottom
of a hill. The climber repeatedly tried without success to make it up the hill
and was then either helped to the top by a triangular character that pushed the
climber from behind, or was hindered by a square character that pushed the climber
down the hill.
During the test phase — after the infants had sufficiently processed the
events — the researchers measured the infants’ attitudes towards
the helper and hinderer by seeing which characters they reached for. Fourteen
of the 16 10-month-olds, and all 12 six-month-olds, preferred the helper. A second
experiment ruled out the possibility that the infants were merely responding
to the direction in which the figures were moving. In a third experiment, infants
of both ages preferred a helper to a neutral party, and then a neutral party
over one who hindered.
“The presence of social evaluation so early in infancy suggests that assessing
individuals by the nature of their interactions with others is central to processing
the social world, both evolutionarily and developmentally,” the authors
The ability to tell helpful from unhelpful people and to favor the former was
undoubtedly essential in activities such as group hunting, food sharing and warfare,
say the authors. They add that these abilities may provide the starting point
for moral reasoning and the development of abstract concepts of right and wrong.
The infants’ evaluations were based solely on what they witnessed as bystanders
and not on their own relationships or experiences with any of the figures.
The authors say the next step would be to determine the complexity of this understanding — for
example, to explore whether infants prefer to interact with those who punish
hinderers to those who reward them.
Karen Wynn, professor of psychology at Yale, was senior author of the study. J. Kiley Hamlin was lead author and Paul Bloom, professor of psychology, was
a third author.
The animation can be viewed at www.yale.edu/infantlab/socialevaluation.
— By Jacqueline Weaver
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