Experimenting on Babies: 5 Surprising Studies

PHOTO: A new study presents the first evidence that a basic sense of fairness and altruism appears in infancy.
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Teaching the concepts of sharing and fairness is the goal of every kindergarten lesson plan, but babies as young as 15 months may have already picked up these complex social skills, according to new research from the University of Washington.

"Our research shows that children become sensitized to the idea of fairness much earlier in life than previously thought. This concept of fairness also seems to influence an infant's tendency to act altruistically when given the option to share with a stranger," says Jessica Sommerville, a University of Washington associate professor of psychology who led the study.

In the study, experimenters capitalized on the fact that babies are known to stare longer at things that surprise them or challenge their expectations. The researchers had infants observe different scenarios in which an experimenter divided up crackers or a pitcher of milk among two people. The babies tended to look longer at the scenario when the treats were divided unequally (and hence "unfairly"), suggesting they were surprised by this outcome -- they expected that food should be divvied up equally.

Next, researchers gave the same infants two toys to play with and noted which one each baby preferred. Then they had an experimenter, who was a stranger to the infant, go up to them and ask for one of the toys. Babies who had stared longer at the "unfair" treat distribution were more likely to be "altruistic sharers," meaning that they readily gave their preferred toy to the stranger when asked. Infants who gave their less preferred toy were deemed "selfish sharers." These infants were significantly less likely to have stared longer at the unfair treat distribution.

"This research shows scientifically, what we would intuitively think -- that a stronger sensitivity to fairness is linked with the ability to act altruistically," says Sommerville.

The study was published Friday in the journal PLoS ONE.

Baby Labs -- Running Experiments on Infants

The concept of a baby lab may elicit images of little tykes hooked up to electrodes and beeping machines, but in reality, most developmental psychology labs look more like a day care center. Usually babies are brought in with their mothers, and, as far as they know, the infant gets to play with a few toys and watch a few videos.

By observing infant behavior in a number of play settings and by tracking how they react to different stimuli and video scenarios, developmental psychologists can piece together the inner workings of the most powerful learning machine ever invented – the infant mind.

Here are some of the most fascinating findings derived from "baby labs" in the past few years.

Babies Like the Good Guy

Somewhere between the first six and 10 months of life, babies learn to root for the good guy, according to a 2007 study from Yale University.

Researchers showed 10-month-olds a few video vignettes in which one toy is trying to get up a hill. In one scenario, a different toy helps the another toy up, in another vignette, yet another toy hinders it, pushing the original toy back down the hill. After watching these vignettes, babies were much more likely to reach for the helper toy to play with when given a choice between the helper toy or the hinderer toy.

"These findings constitute evidence that preverbal infants assess individuals on the basis of their behavior toward others. This capacity may serve as the foundation for moral thought and action, and its early developmental emergence supports the view that social evaluation is a biological adaptation," the study said.

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