Babies have a dark side under their cute exteriors, according to University of British Columbia-led study that finds infants as young as nine months embrace those who pick on individuals who are different from them.
While previous research has shown that babies generally prefer kind actors, the new study - published by the Association for Psychological Science - is the first to suggest that infants condone antisocial behavior when it is directed at individuals who are dissimilar.
"Our research shows that by nine months, babies are busy assessing their surroundings, trying to determine who is friend or foe," says Prof. Kiley Hamlin of UBC's Dept. of Psychology, lead author of the study. "One important way they make these distinctions, our study finds, is based on perceived differences and similarities."
To explore this, researchers had babies choose which food they preferred: graham crackers or green beans. The infants then watched a puppet show in which one puppet demonstrated the same food preference as the infant, while another exhibited the opposite preference.
In the experiments, other puppets harmed, helped or acted neutrally towards the puppets with different or similar food preferences. Prompted to pick their favorite puppet, infants demonstrated a strong preference for the puppets who harmed the "dissimilar" puppet and helped the "similar" one - one infant even planted a kiss on the puppet she liked.
"These findings suggest that babies either feel something like schaudenfreude - pleasure when an individual they dislike or consider threatening experiences harm," says Hamlin. "Or babies have some early understanding of social alliances, recognizing that the 'enemy of their enemy' is their friend."