Tuesday, June 18th, 2013
Babies who have not yet had their first birthdays may be able to express sympathy, or the feeling of concern for the well-being of others. This is the finding of a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, which found that babies preferred the victim to the aggressor in a bullying-type encounter they watched on a video screen. More from LiveScience:
Because 10-month-olds can’t yet express sympathy verbally, Kyoto University researcher Shoji Itakura and colleagues turned to a common tactic in baby-brain research: using simple animations to determine what infants prefer. They showed 40 babies an animation of a blue ball and a yellow cube.
Half of the infants watched a short clip in which the blue ball chased the yellow cube around the screen, hitting it seven times before finally squishing it against a wall. The other half of the group saw the same movements, including the squishing, but the two shapes moved independently without interacting.
In some cases, the “bully” and “victim” roles were swapped, so that the yellow cube was the bad guy. After watching the show, the babies were shown a real yellow cube and a real blue ball, and given the chance to reach for one of the objects.
In cases where the babies had seen one shape beating up on the other, they overwhelmingly reached for the victim, 16 out of 20 times. In comparison, when the shapes hadn’t interacted, the babies’ choices were basically random — nine went for the shape that had gotten squished, and the other 11 went for the nonsquished shape.
The results could have simply indicated that babies preferred to steer clear of a nasty character, not that they felt sympathy for the bullied one. To rule out that possibility, the researchers conducted a second experiment with 24 babies, also 10 months old. These babies saw a show nearly identical to the first, except there was a third character: a red cylinder. The red cylinder was a neutral presence on-screen, neither bullying nor being bullied.
After watching the animation, the babies were again given a choice of two toys. Half could pick between the “victim” shape and the neutral shape, while the other half got to choose between the bullying shape and the neutral shape.
This time, 10 out of 12 babies given the neutral-or-bully option went with the neutral cylinder. Meanwhile, of the 12 given the neutral-or-victim option, 10 picked the victim.
In other words, even when there was no mean character present that a baby might want to avoid, the babies still picked the victim.
Though researchers caution this study should not be taken as solid proof of sympathy in babies, it does follow other recent research, including a study published in January that found that babies could demonstrate signs of empathy, or being able to guess what another person is feeling.
Image: Baby, via Shutterstock
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Friday, March 15th, 2013
Babies may prefer to be around individuals who pick on, or even mildly bully, members of a group who are different in some way from the others. Researchers at Yale University and the University of British Columbia have determined their findings based on a study of babies who were observing puppets, beans, and balls. The results may help scientists better understand the roots of violence and discrimination, the Boston Globe reports:
Led by scientists at Yale University and the University of British Columbia, the researchers posed a complicated social scenario to 9-month-old and 14-month-old babies: If they saw a rabbit puppet who was either similar or different from them in some fundamental way—in this case, preferring graham crackers or green beans—would they care how others treated the rabbit?
The researchers already knew two basic things about the choices and preferences of infants. Just like adults, who tend to like people who are similar to them, babies are drawn to others who share their tastes in food and toys. Hollywood movies leverage our impulse to cheer for do-gooder heroes over villains; babies similarly prefer a character that helps someone else climb a mountain rather than pushing them down it, a previous study had shown.
But would babies always, universally, prefer heroes to villains? Or would their preference depend on who was being helped or hindered? The researchers wondered: would they see the enemy of their enemy as a friend?
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“I was surprised, and my liberal bleeding heart sunk like a stone, when we found them actually choosing, really robustly, the puppet who punishes” the rabbit puppet that did not share the baby’s preference, said Karen Wynn, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale and senior author of the work, published in the journal Psychological Science.
Image: Rabbit puppet, via Shutterstock
Thursday, January 31st, 2013
Babies as young as a year-and-a-half can guess what adults are thinking and demonstrate remarkable empathy and “mind reading,” according to a new global study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society this week. This ability to understand other people’s perspectives, wishes, and feelings had previously been believed not to appear until children are much older. More from LiveScience:
The findings may shed light on the social abilities that differentiate us from our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, said study author H. Clark Barrett, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. The study used a form of the false-belief test, one of the few cognitive tasks that young children, but not primates, can do.
Humans are “very good at inferring other people’s mental states: their emotions, their desires and, in this case, their knowledge,” Barrett said. “So it could play an important role in cultural transmission and social learning.”
In the classic test of children’s understanding called the false-belief task, one person comes into a room and puts an object (such as a pair of scissors) into a hiding place. A second person then comes in and puts the scissors into his pocket, unbeknownst to the first individual. When that first person returns, someone will ask the child, “Where do you think the first person will look for the scissors?”
The task is tricky because the children need to have a theory of mind, or an ability to understand other people’s perspectives, in this case that of the individual who didn’t see the scissors being retrieved by another.
By ages 4 to 7, most children in Western countries can answer that the first person will look in the original hiding place, because the individual doesn’t know the scissors have moved. But children across the globe tend to give that answer at different ages.
However, past work showed that if researchers don’t ask babies the question, but instead follow the infants’ eye movements, the children seem to understand the concept much earlier. Barrett and his colleagues wondered whether cultural differences in dealing with adults could be obscuring the amazing cognitive leap children were taking.
Image: Baby and adult, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, November 20th, 2012
Dr. Daniel Stern, the psychiatrist who coined the term “motherese” to describe the unique way mothers communicate with babies, has died. The New York Times has more on his life and work:
“Dr. Stern was noted for his often poetic language in describing how children respond to their world — how they feel, think and see. He wrote one of his half-dozen books in the form of a diary by a baby. In another book, he told how mothers differ psychologically from women who do not have children. He coined the term “motherese” to describe a form of communication in which mothers are able to read even the slightest of babies’ emotional signals.
Dr. Stern, who did much of his research at what is now Weill Cornell Medical College and at the University of Geneva, drew inspiration from Jay S. Rosenblatt’s work with kittens at the American Museum of Natural History in the 1950s. Dr. Rosenblatt discovered that when he removed kittens from their cage, they made their way to a specific nipple of their mother’s even when they were as young as one day old. That finding demonstrated that learning occurs naturally at an exceptionally early age in a way staged experiments had not.
Dr. Stern videotaped babies from birth through their early years, and then studied the tapes second by second to analyze interactions between mother and child. He challenged the Freudian idea that babies go through defined critical phases, like oral and anal. Rather, he said, their development is continuous, with each phase layered on top of the previous one. The interactions are punctuated by intervals, sometimes only a few seconds long, of rest, solitude and reflection. As this process goes on, they develop a sense that other people can and will share in their feelings, and in that way develop a sense of self.
These interactions can underpin emotional episodes that occur years in the future. Citing one example in a 1990 interview with The Boston Globe, Dr. Stern told of a 13-month-old who grabbed for an electric plug. His alarmed mother, who moments before had been silent and loving, suddenly turned angry and sour. Two years later, the child heard a fairy tale about a wicked witch.
“He’s been prepared for that witch for years,” Dr. Stern said. “He’s already seen someone he loves turn into something evil. It’s perfectly believable for him. He maps right into it.”
Dr. Stern described such phenomena in 1985 in “The Interpersonal World of the Infant,” which the noted psychologist Stanley Spiegel, in an interview in The New York Times, called ‘the book of the decade in its influence on psychoanalytic theory.’”
Image: Mother and baby, via Shutterstock
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Friday, November 9th, 2012
Sweden’s government has drafted legislation that would prevent images of babies from appearing in formula ads, the Huffington Post reports. Ads for formula would only be permitted in scientific journals, and free samples or discounts on the product would be prohibited, as well. Supporters cite research lauding the health benefits babies derived from breast milk, including antibodies associated with fewer colds, healthier digestive systems, and decreased likelihood of developing allergies. Critics argue that reiterating the idea that “the breast is best” is harshly judgmental towards women who are unable or choose not to nurse. If the bill is passed, the law would take effect in August 2013.
Image: Baby drinking from bottle via Shutterstock
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