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Because they have barely been exposed to the world, children are some of psychology's most powerful muses. (JIll Greenberg)

Are Babies Born Good?

New research offers surprising answers to the age-old question of where morality comes from

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Though housed in a stern stone edifice on the Yale campus, the baby cognition lab is a happy nest of an office with a comfy couch, meant to be torn apart by one tornado of a toddler after another, and huge, sunlight-streaming windows, through which researchers spy on approaching strollers. Ranging in age from 3 months to 2 years, the visiting infants are elaborately received by staff members who crawl around on the floor with them while parents sign consent forms. (A little-known expense of this line of research is the cost of new pants: The knees wear out fast.) In the back room, the atmosphere is less cozy. There’s lots of weird stuff lying around: plastic molds of Cheerios, houseplants that have been spray-painted silver.

Infant morality studies are so new that the field’s grand dame is 29-year-old J. Kiley Hamlin, who was a graduate student at the Yale lab in the mid-2000s. She was spinning her wheels for a thesis project when she stumbled on animated presentations that one of her predecessors had made, in which a “climber” (say, a red circle with goggle eyes) attempted to mount a hill, and a “helper” (a triangle in some trials) assisted him, or a “hinderer” (a square) knocked him down. Previous infant research had focused on other aspects of the interaction, but Hamlin wondered if a baby observing the climber’s plight would prefer one interfering character over another.

“As adults, we like the helper and don’t like the hinderer,” says Hamlin, now an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. “We didn’t think babies would do that too. It was just like, ‘Let’s give it a try because Kiley’s a first-year graduate student and she doesn’t know what she’s doing.’”

Wynn and her husband, the psychologist Paul Bloom, collaborated on much of Hamlin’s research, and Wynn remembers being a bit more optimistic: “Do babies have attitudes, render judgments? I just found that to be a very intuitively gripping question,” she says. “If we tend to think of babies being born and developing attitudes in the world as a result of their own experiences, then babies shouldn’t be responding [to the scenarios]. But maybe we are built to identify in the world that some things are good and some things are not, and some helpful and positive social interaction is to be approved of and admired.”

In fact, 6- and 10-month-old babies did seem to have strong natural opinions about the climbing scenarios: They passionately preferred the helper to the hinderer, as assessed by the amount of time they spent looking at the characters. This result “was totally surreal,” Hamlin says—so revolutionary that the researchers themselves didn’t quite trust it. They designed additional experiments with plush animal puppets helping and hindering each other; at the end babies got the chance to reach for the puppet of their choice. “Basically every single baby chose the nice puppet,” Hamlin remembers.

Then they tested 3-month-old infants. The researchers couldn’t ask the infants to reach for the puppets, because 3-month-olds can’t reliably reach, so they tracked the subjects’ eye movements instead. These infants, too, showed an aversion to the hinderer.

When I visited, Tasimi was recreating versions of Hamlin’s puppet shows as background work for a new project.

The son of Albanian restaurateurs, Tasimi likes to say that his parents would “prefer that I merely produce babies, instead of study them.” Friends joke that he attends Yale to be a puppeteer. Though it’s decidedly unfashionable in the developmental field to admit that one enjoys the company of babies, Tasimi clearly does. He’d only been back at work for a few days, and he often looked agonized when we walked outside, but in the lab he grinned broadly. When one of his subjects blew a blizzard of raspberries, he whispered: “The best/worst thing about this job is you want to laugh, but you can’t.”

He needed 16 compliant 12- or 13-month-olds to complete a preliminary study, and I happened to have one handy, so I brought her along.

The experiment was called “Crackerz.” My OshKosh-clad daughter sat on her dad’s lap; his eyes were closed, so he wouldn’t influence her decisions. I was watching behind the scenes alongside three other adults: one who worked the puppet show curtain and squeaked a rubber toy to get the baby’s attention, one who tracked the baby’s focus so a bell sounded when it drifted, and Tasimi, the puppeteer, who managed to make the plush characters dance around winsomely despite the metal rod in his ulna. The whole production had the avant-garde feel of black-box theater: intentionally primitive, yet hyperprofessional.

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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