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Science in Mind

Babies prefer those who are like them, study finds

Babies were found to show biases similar to those of adults.

Babies were found to show biases similar to those of adults.

People often yearn for the innocence of youth, that time of unbiased childlike wonder that came before experience intruded, transforming us into cynical and self-interested adults.

But we may be nostalgic for a time that never quite existed, according to a new study that found babies prefer individuals who harm, rather than help, characters who are different from them.

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The research — conducted through clever experiments drawing on rabbit and dog puppets, balls, and graham crackers and green beans — reveals the possible cognitive roots of the social biases and attitudes underlying violence toward people who are perceived as different.

Led by scientists at Yale University and the University of British Columbia, the researchers posed a complicated social scenario to 9-month-old and 14-month-old babies: If they saw a rabbit puppet that was either similar or different from them in some fundamental way — in this case, preferring graham crackers or green beans — would they care how others treated the rabbit?

The researchers already knew two basic things about the choices and preferences of infants. Just like adults, who tend to like people who are similar to them, babies are drawn to others who share their tastes in food and toys.

But would babies always, universally, prefer heroes to villains? Or would their preference depend on who was being helped or hindered? The researchers wondered: Would they see the enemy of their enemy as a friend?

“I was surprised, and my liberal bleeding heart sunk like a stone, when we found them actually choosing, really robustly, the puppet who punishes” the rabbit puppet that did not share the baby’s preference, said Karen Wynn, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale and senior author of the work, which was published in the journal Psychological Science.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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