Infants Recognize Good and Bad Intentions
> 11/26/2007 1:11:19 PM

The ability to distinguish Good Samaritans from individuals who mean us harm or inconvenience has proven so crucial to our collective well-being that it appears, unlearned, in our response mechanisms and behaviors long before we develop the awareness to consider it. Researchers at Yale University recently discovered that infants younger than 1 year already preferred the company of "helpers" to "hinderers," choosing to play with objects that help rather than those that hurt based on videos starring the same.

In the most recent study on the topic, infants 6 and 10 months old viewed short, colorful videos depicting toy shapes humanized by the appearance of cartoon eyes on their bodies. The "protagonist" of these videos was a circle attempting to climb a steep hill. In one video, a triangular character helped the protagonist by pushing it up the hill; the second video depicted a square character prohibiting the circle from reaching its destination by forcing it back down the hill. After watching both videos, the infants were presented with triangle and the square as toys to from which to choose; by an overwhelming margin, subjects in both age groups chose to play with the triangle. Additional experiments in which the objects moved in different directions determined that the infants were not choosing based on this variable; neither did they choose based on which shape was more visually appealing to each of them, as such tendencies almost certainly would have produced more evenly distributed results. When presented with one neutral shape in the group, infants again chose the helper over both the neutral object and the hurtful object.

Interestingly, the babies did not make the same distinctions when researchers removed the eyes from the objects in question. It would seem that the personalities granted to these simple shapes by a pair of glue-on eyes changed the way that the infants perceived them. The personality characteristics implied by these shapes' behaviors were the key factors in the infants' decisions. While these subjects undoubtedly learned a great deal in the first 6 to 10 months of life - and critics assert that this fact renders the study irrelevent - researchers have observed identical trends in the behavior of children as young as 3 months. And the trend certainly makes sense in an evolutionary context: we would all rather  associate with individuals who behave in beneficial ways. When we see people treat others badly, we naturally focus on the perceived likelihood that they will impose the same behaviors on us. If a child steals toys and throws temper tantrums during playtime, he will very soon find himself playing alone.

Perhaps the same inherent tendency reinforces acts of helpfulness and generosity by rewarding us with good moods and better overall health whether we perform or receive such positive acts. Not only do we feel blessed by the actions of generous third parties; we also gain emotional validation when providing good will. Additional research may further explore the depths of this universal human attribute in order to uncover the unconscious reasoning processes performed by infants presented with such a choice. Good behavior may go unrewarded among adults, but infants too young to consciously analyze their circumstances almost always make the right choice. We would do well to follow their model.

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