The researchers from the University of British Columbia say babies can distinguish between friends and foes as young as 9 months. In their study that was published in the Association for Psychological Science, the researchers conclude that babies approve mistreatment of those they perceive as dissimilar and even show signs of pleasure when a disliked individual is being harmed. In addition, the researchers found that babies recognize the enemy of their enemy as their friend.
The study is the first to show a “darker side” of the babies who seem to approve mistreatment of individuals whom they dislike or perceive as dissimilar. The conclusions were drawn on a basis of an experiment that included 9 to 14 months old babies. Firstly, the babies were asked to choose which they like more – graham crackers or green beans. Then they watched a puppet show involving two puppets. One obviously displayed the same food preference as the baby, while the second one demonstrated preference for the other food. Then a third puppet appeared, harming the one that preferred the opposite food and helping the puppet displaying the same food preference. In the end, the babies were asked to pick the favorite puppet. The researchers found that they mostly picked the puppet that harmed the dissimilar and helped the similar puppet.
Kiley Hamlin from the University’s Department of Psychology who conducted the study said babies at the age of 9 months are distinguishing between a friend and foe on the basis of similarities or by favoring individuals who are similar to them. She added that babies at this age also display some understanding of social alliances by perceiving the enemy of their enemy as a friend. Hamlin said the babies’ behavior to some extent exhibits social biases of adults, explaining that with age people begin to favor those with whom they have more in common. Things in common can include language, physical appearance, age and even things such as sport preferences.
Hamlin further explained that while their and other studies reveal that people tend to prefer people who are more similar to themselves, these preferences can also have a sinister side. The latter be in the form of mistreatment of the dissimilar people and excusing or even applauding other people who mistreat them. And this is exactly what they found in their experiment with the babies. Not only the babies picked the puppet harming the dissimilar and helping the similar one but they also revealed a sense of pleasure in watching the dissimilar puppet being hurt. Hamlin explained that babies choose friends on the basis on what they do and to whom – the person they like or dislike. She said this doesn’t necessarily mean that extreme forms of social behavior such as xenophobia cannot be avoided. According to Hamlin, findings of their study reveal the importance of recognizing such social biases and dealing with them at an early age.
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