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?
"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