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Infantile Justice

December 22, 2011

Eight-month-old babies seem to favor rewarding good behavior and punishing bad.



Infantile justice.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

It’s nice to see good rewarded and evil punished.  And apparently, even eight-month-old babies agree.  University of British Columbia psychologist Kiley Hamlin and her colleagues showed babies elephant puppets being either helpful or mean.  Later, the babies showed a preference not only for the nice elephants, but for other puppets that rewarded their good behavior.  Not so for the mean elephants.

KILEY HAMLIN (University of British Columbia):

Babies were choosing between someone who rewarded and punished a nice guy vs. someone who rewarded and punished a mean guy. And as adults, we would think that actually punishing the mean guy would be better. And that’s exactly what we found – that babies, by eight months, chose the guy who was mean to the mean puppet.


She notes that five-month-olds, on the other hand, favored puppets that were nice to anyone.  It’s not clear exactly how babies might use their sense of justice, but the fact that it exists so early suggests it’s deeply rooted in our consciousness.  I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.