Biases All the Way from Babyhood

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How babies pick sides even before they learn how to speak

Individuals are known to get drawn to those with whom they share certain things in common. These commonalities, for instance, could be a particular taste in music, or having grown up in the same town. What explains this cosiness? Does the experience of living in a divided social world result in such social bonds?

According to a new research study, this is not the case. Infants exhibit such social biases before they can even speak. The study, published recently in Psychological Science, done by Kiley Hamlin, a psychological scientist and professor at University of British Columbia, along with her colleagues, found that infants as young as nine months prefer individuals who are helpful to people like them and mean-spirited to those who are dissimilar to them.

For the study, the researchers had 200 infant participants, either nine or 14-month old, choose their preferred food—either graham crackers or green beans. After this, the infants were made to watch a puppet show in which one puppet preferred graham crackers, while the other preferred green beans.

In the next puppet show, the puppets lost the balls they carried with them. A new character helped puppets get back their balls, while another character harmed the puppets by stealing away their recovered balls. When the infants were made to choose between the helper-character and the harmer-character, almost all the participants preferred the character that helped the similar puppet over that which harmed the similar puppet. When a neutral puppet that exhibited no food preference was introduced, the 14-month-old participants, though not the 9-month-olds, preferred the character that harmed the dissimilar puppet over the neutral puppet. They also preferred the neutral puppet over the helper of the dissimilar puppet.

The researchers write in the journal: ‘A developmental trend was observed, such that 14-month-olds’ responses were more robust than were 9-month-olds. These findings suggest that the identification of common and contrasting personal attributes influences social attitudes and judgements in powerful ways, even very early in life.’