Babies can tell nice guys

Published: Saturday 28 February 2009

-- They too are socially inclined to like altruists

Our film industry has thrived for decades on stories that revolve around the good guy, the nice girl and the bad guy. The bad guy does not have to be a killer to be hated. But he needs to be untrustworthy, just what the good guy never is. Good guys in our fairy tales are handsome and brave. The second adjective usually means they are ready to lay down their lives for the good of others.

Society holds altruists in high esteem, and this might have deep-rooted evolutionary causes. A society thrives on cooperation between individuals. It is not difficult to envisage individuals ready to help others, even at their own cost and enhancing cooperation. But it is difficult to believe such traits could be inherent to humans and are not just by-products of a social life that punishes selfish behaviour and rewards altruism.

Karen Wynn and her group of researchers at the Yale University can tell we humans inherently prefer helping individuals. Karen's group studies infant behaviour; they design clever experiments to probe into the tiny minds to gain deeper insights into human nature.

Down to Earth In a paper published in Nature in November 2007, the researchers describe a set of experiments with six and ten-month-old infants, where the babies were first familiarized with animations on a computer screen, where a climber (a wooden block with large eyes) tried to move uphill and in the third attempt was either pushed up (helper) or down (hinderer) by a second block. Later, the babies were allowed to reach out for either the helper or the hinderer in a choice experiment. Fourteen of the 16 ten-month-olds and all 12 of the six-month-olds chose the helper blocks, showing they preferred the helping individuals based on previous experience.

When a different group of infants were put through a similar experiment where the helper and hinderer pushed a block without eyes (inanimate object) up or down the hill, the babies did not show any preference for either the helper or the hinderer. This strengthened the conclusion that the babies chose the helpers in the former case due to social inclinations, and not because of perceived preferences.

"Some prior work of mine had shown us babies expect an individual to hold different attitudes towards one who helped him or her and one who hindered him or her, preferring the former over the latter," Karen said. "It was the natural next step to ask if babies themselves preferred prosocial actors-- those they had seen helping another, over those they had seen hindering another."

This and other related work show the ability to assess others on the basis of their social behaviour is central to our evaluation of a social world. Activities like communal hunting, food sharing, co-habiting and warfare are the basis of social life in humans, and such group activities can be sustainable only if individuals have the capability to distinguish free-riders from co-operators.

We possess this ability even before we are able to build a rational understanding of the world. This has perhaps facilitated the rapid evolution of social life among humans. According to Karen, "Judging prosocial actors over negative ones is a precursor to moral cognition." So, by studying the developmental emergence and nature of these kinds of social evaluations, we can learn more about the nature and development of moral thought.

Social behaviour in humans is thus driven by instinct and fine-tuned by the environment. Currently, Karen's group is examining three-month-olds. So, the next time you are with a baby, remember you are being assessed. Be extra careful about your manners. Impressions made early last long.

Anindita Bhadra is at the Centre for Ecological Science, Indian Institute of Science, Bengalooru

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.