Anyone who’s ever been to a playground or read “Lord of the Flies” knows that children don’t have to be taught how to pick on unpopular peers. But a troubling new study in the journal Psychological Science offers evidence that the impulse to hurt those who are different shows up even in children too young to speak.
In a study involving 200 babies, researchers at Yale and the University of British Columbia first demonstrated that babies were far more likely to favor a rabbit puppet that preferred the same food they did. Then they broadened the experiment by introducing two dog puppets — a “helper” dog that was nice to the rabbits, and a “harmer” dog that was mean. When the infants were later offered a choice of the dog puppets, they overwhelmingly reached for the “harmer” dog that had tormented the rabbit that didn’t like the same food they did. Researchers inferred that babies don’t merely prefer those who share their own tastes; they actually like those who harm others whose tastes are different.
No, this doesn’t prove that babies are born to be bigots. But it does suggest that the roots of xenophobia and bullying may be as much nature as nurture. No one needs lessons in how to be nasty. It’s “Love thy neighbor” that requires effort and education.