Babies know a bully when they see one

"We feel that what we're witnessing is the beginning of how we assign meaning to social situations later in life," says You-jung Choi. (Credit: ju-leo/Flickr)

Babies as young as 13 months know how people should treat each other—and recognize when nasty replaces nice.

In the social world, we are constantly gathering information through visual cues that we use to evaluate others’ behavior. Babies do the same thing.

For a new study, researchers created social situations using puppets and then studied the reactions of 13-month-old infants.

puppets
Babies were shown puppets being nice and hitting each other. Researchers timed how long they gazed at each scenario. (Credit: U. Missouri)

Infant gazes

Scenarios included puppets being friendly or hitting each other with and without witnesses. In each situation, the infants’ gazes were timed, which is an indication of infant knowledge and understanding. The findings show that the babies understood what was happening.

“Our findings show that 13-month-olds can make sense of social situations using their understanding about others’ perspectives and by using social evaluation skills,” says You-jung Choi, a doctoral candidate at University of Missouri.

“Infants can’t tell us what they expect to happen, so we observe their looking time as a way of determining infant expectations. Things that are normal or expected are relatively boring and infants quickly look away; things that are unusual or unexpected, however, are interesting and cause infants to spend more time looking at them.”

Mean puppets

In the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers first manipulated two puppet characters so they interacted in a positive manner—by clapping their hands, hopping together, and turning to look at each other.

A third puppet was then introduced and was hit by one of the first two. The babies also witnessed different scenarios that showed intentional hitting or accidental hitting.

Researchers then examined how these scenarios would change how the babies reacted.

“These scenarios are a bit like adults witnessing their friends behaving badly,” says Yuyan Luo, associate professor of psychological sciences. “If you were to witness your friend hitting another person, you’d tend to avoid him or her.

“If you had not witnessed the hit, you still would hang out with the friend. If the hit were an accident, then you may or may not spend time with them. Our results showed that babies reacted to these scenarios in similar ways.”

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The results suggest that young children are developing skills that enable them to assess social situations.

“For adults, the answers to these questions are probably complicated, depending on various factors such as the nature of the friendship and both parties’ personalities,” Choi says.

“However, we feel that what we’re witnessing is the beginning of how we assign meaning to social situations later in life.”

The researchers will next study social interactions how babies react after watching prosocial acts such as helping or assisting the puppet who was hit.

Source: University of Missouri