Mean Baby? Science Shows Infants Can be Nasty, Enjoy Misery of Others

Thursday, 14 Mar 2013 11:00 AM

By Alexandra Ward

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A new study reveals that babies can have a mean steak, and even wish harm on people they perceive as different from them.

Babies as young as 9 months can experience what some people call schadenfreude, a German term describing the pleasure experienced when someone they dislike or consider threatening experiences harm.

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A study led by University of British Columbia psychological scientist Kiley Hamlin tested 112 babies, ranging in age from 9 to 14 months. First, the babies were given a choice of snack — green beans or graham crackers. Next, the researchers performed a puppet show, where Puppet 1 chose the same snack the baby picked and Puppet 2 chose the other food. Puppet 1 then either helped, harmed, or acted neutrally toward Puppet 2.

The subjects were then given a choice of which puppet they wanted to play with and "almost all the infants preferred the character who harmed the dissimilar puppet over the character who helped him," according to a press release for the study.

"Infants might experience something like schadenfreude at the suffering of an individual they dislike," Hamlin told Psychological Science. "Or perhaps they recognize the alliances that are implied by social interactions, identifying an 'enemy of their enemy' (i.e., the harmer of a dissimilar puppet) as their friend."

Hamlin theorizes that babies, like adults, tend to form biases not only based on what people do, but whom they do it to.

"The fact that infants show these social biases before they can even speak suggests that the biases aren't solely the result of experiencing a divided social world, but are based in part on basic aspects of human social evaluation," she told Psychological Science.

While the study's results might cause some to worry about the wider effects of xenophobia and racism, Hamlin says the outcome doesn’t necessarily mean that those things are inevitable.

"Rather, this research points to the importance of socialization practices that recognize just how basic these social biases might be and confront them head-on," she said.

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