A new study on children's moral behaviours has shown that babies will make a deal with the devil over choosing someone good - but only if the price is right. The research by Yale psychologists was published this week in the journal Cognition.
Despite the assumption that babies are innocent and morally good, this research shows that even babies have a price when asked to choose between a good Samaritan offering a small gift, or a "bad guy" offering a larger gift.
The study, led by Arber Tasimi, a Yale University psychology graduate student, shows that "a willingness to forgo self-interests when faced with wrongdoers is a fundamental aspect of human nature."
Yale is know for its Infant Cognition Centre, which has done many experiments with babies and children regarding moral cognition. For example, the video below shows how babies as young as 12 months can tell the difference between characters who are depicted as "good" versus ones depicted as "bad".
As for this study? “It’s a study I like to call ‘the deal with the devil’” Tasimi told Yale News.
The aim of the research was rather simple - when presented with a smaller gift and a larger gift, does the personality of the gift-giver make an impact on a child or baby's choice?
One of the experiments presented children aged 5 and 8 with two characters, one "mean" and one "nice". After watching these characters, the children were then presented with a choice - the nice kid would offer them one sticker, while the mean one would offer either 2, 4, 8, or a whopping 16 stickers.
The researchers found that when the difference between gifts was small, say, getting one sticker or two, most of the children chose the smaller gift from the nice character, avoiding the mean one. However, when the mean character's offering was substantially larger than the good one's - like the difference between getting one measly sticker or a load of 16, children were far more likely to "sell out" and accept the larger reward.
Surprisingly, this experiment conducted on babies aged 12 and 13 months also showed similar results. The babies watched two puppets - a good one which helped another puppet open a box with a toy inside, and a mean one which slammed the box shut. When these puppets then offered the baby crackers, 80 per cent of the kids chose the nice puppet's offering of one cracker when the mean puppet was offering two; but when the mean puppet raised its offer to eight crackers, babies were more likely to accept the greater offering.
Despite these results, Tasimi says that the results are a positive reflection on human nature at an early age.
“When I tell people about these findings, they often joke that babies and kids are sellouts, but I think the message is less cynical,” Tasimi said. “Even early on, we’re willing to pay personal costs to avoid wrongdoers in favor of do-gooders.”
And not all the babies and children did accept the mean characters' offerings. Of that, Tasimi says: “I think an exciting avenue for future research involves an understanding of how individual differences, even during the first few months of life, influence our judgements of good and bad, right and wrong".