Babies Love Justice

[Edit: Note that this blog has a new URL: www.patheos.com/blogs/goodandtruth/ (changed from www.patheos.com/community/goodandtruth/).  RSS feed: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/goodandtruth/feed/.  Links from the old URL and its RSS feed should still work, but it's probably a good idea to update your bookmarks anyway.]

Stephanie Pappas, senior writer at LiveScience, writes of a new study indicating that infants as young as 8 months old like to see wrongdoers punished.  Excerpt:

Babies as young as 8 months want to see wrongdoers punished, a new study finds.

In contrast, younger babies prefer to see individuals being nice to one another — even when that means that someone is nice to a character who deserves a slap on the wrist.

“This study helps to answer questions that have puzzled evolutionary psychologists for decades,” Kiley Hamlin, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, said in a statement. “Namely, how have we survived as intensely social creatures if our sociability makes us vulnerable to being cheated and exploited? These findings suggest that, from as early as eight months, we are watching for people who might put us in danger.”

Pappas describes the series of experiments that led to the new findings:

So the researchers set up a series of experiments using puppets to act out scenarios of helping and harming while each of 32 5-month-olds and 32 8-month-olds watched separately. After each experiment, the infants indicated their preference for the puppets’ behaviors by picking their favorite puppet to hold.

The puppets — a series of cheerful characters, including moose, elephants and a yellow duck — were first shown interacting in either nice or mean ways. One puppet would struggle to open a box containing a toy, while another either jumped in to help or cruelly slammed the lid shut.

Next, the infants watched as the puppet that had helped or hindered played with a ball and dropped it. A third puppet then came into the scene, either to take the puppet’s ball away or to hand it back. …

The researchers wanted to know if the babies would prefer the ball-giving puppet or the one that took the ball away. They found that 5-month-olds always preferred the ball-giver, no matter whether the puppet that had dropped the ball had been mean or helpful in the previous scene. At this young age, the babies simply liked puppets to be nice in the moment.

But 8-month-olds were more discerning. They liked it when the third puppet gave the ball back to a previously helpful puppet. But they didn’t like it when the third puppet helped out a previously unhelpful puppet. In scenarios involving the mean, toy box-slamming puppet, 8-month-olds favored a third puppet taking its ball away by 13 to three.

The researchers conclude that “although this sense of justice may be learned, … the early age at which it develops suggests that an urge to punish antisocial types may be partially innate.”

From a New Church perspective, I wonder what is happening at that age on a spiritual level (since as a Swedenborgian, I believe that everything in the mind has a spiritual origin in addition to what’s going on physically).  Maybe at that point in a child’s development, spiritual angels (angels who act primarily from a love of truth) are first being introduced to the child, when previously there had only been celestial angels (angels who act primarily from a love of goodness).  Although it sounds from Arcana Coelestia that the spiritual angels don’t really take over until later in childhood:

The secret is this: from earliest infancy even to the first of childhood, man is being introduced by the Lord into heaven, and indeed among celestial angels, by whom he is kept in a state of innocence; a state in which (as is known) infants are up to the first of childhood. When the age of childhood begins, the child gradually puts off the state of innocence, though he is still kept in a state of charity by means of the affection of mutual charity toward those like himself, which state with many continues up to youth, and meanwhile he is among spiritual angels. (AC 5342)

I’d also love to see a follow-up study seeing if the way different babies are raised has any impact on whether they prefer punishment or kindness.

(Via Science + Religion Today)

About Coleman Glenn
  • Alison

    From my observations (which are mostly older than 8 months), children like to tell on other kids and make sure they get told off for doing something naughty. It doesn’t even have to be revenge for something that was done to them. They just like to make sure naughty things don’t go unpunished. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing though. Sometimes it seems that they like to see other kids in trouble, and it isn’t about justice at all.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/goodandtruth Coleman Glenn

      Yep, I definitely think that that childhood desire to see wrongdoers punished is both a good thing and a bad thing. In the early stages it’s pretty much an “eye for an eye” thing, plus there’s that enjoyment of seeing other kids in trouble that you mentioned. It lays the foundation for a truer, adult idea of justice, but it’s certainly not there yet. It makes me think of Arcana Coelestia 5135, which says one of the things a person learns as a little child that he will later affirm and deepen if he has faith as an adult is, “that God rewards those who do well, and punishes those who do evil.” Hopefully a person gets to the point where they realize that it is really the evil itself bringing its own punishment, but a kid can’t think on that level, and the concept of God punishing evildoers is an important one in their development.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X