For a price, even babies will ‘deal with the devil’

baby in devil sweatshirt

Babies as young as 12 months old will take a smaller offering from a Good Samaritan rather than a larger one from a wrongdoer.

But that pint-sized honesty only goes so far. Kids are much more willing to “do business” with the bad guy if the offer is substantially higher than the do-gooder’s.

“It’s a study I like to call ‘the deal with the devil’” says Arber Tasimi, a graduate student in the psychology department at Yale University.

For the study, Wynn and psychologist Karen Wynn conducted a simple experiment: When given the choice between a smaller and a larger offering, which do children and babies choose?

[Baby morals may reflect parents’ sense of justice]

Not surprisingly, they almost always take the larger amount. But does it matter who is doing the offering—a “good” guy or a “bad” guy?

For the study, published in the journal Cognition, 5- and 8-year-olds were introduced to two characters, one described as mean and the other described as nice. Children were then told that the mean kid was offering them more stickers (either 2, 4, 8, or 16) than the nice kid, who offered a single sticker.

When the difference between the offerings was modest, most children were willing to reject the larger number of stickers and deal the nice kid. But, when the offer was upped to 16 stickers, most children were willing to “sell out” to the mean kid.

Even 12- and 13-month-olds seem to struggle with the moral dilemma. The researchers showed babies a puppet show involving a puppet attempting, but failing, to open a clear box with a toy inside. On alternating trials, one puppet helped open the box, whereas another slammed it shut. Afterwards, the mean puppet offered two crackers and the nice puppet offered just one cracker.

[Are kids born nice or do we teach them?]

Remarkably, over 80 percent of babies took the single cracker from the nice puppet. But when the mean puppet’s offer went up to eight crackers, babies showed a greater willingness to deal with a wrongdoer.

“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 says. “Even early on, we’re willing to pay personal costs to avoid wrongdoers in favor of do-gooders.”

And, what about those participants who reject any amount from bad guys?

“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 judgments of good and bad, right and wrong,” he says.

Source: Yale University


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