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Study: Babies Want Justice

Three babies (6-9 months) sitting on white background, one crying
Photograph by Getty Images

When it comes to right and wrong, babies might be more perceptive—and vengeful—than we think.

In his new book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, writes about an experiment in which he and other colleagues looked at how 5-month-olds and 8-month-olds viewed reward and punishment when it happened to other people—in this case, puppets.

"Would they prefer someone who rewarded a good guy to someone who punished a good guy? Would they prefer someone who punished a bad guy over someone who rewarded a bad guy?" Bloom asks, in an excerpt on Slate.

The experiment happened like this:

Using puppets, one "good" puppet would help a character open a box, while a "bad" puppet slammed the box shut. Then the researchers used the "good" and "bad" puppets in a new scenario, in which each puppet rolled a ball to two characters—one who rolled it back (good) and one who ran away with the ball (bad).

"We wanted to see which of these two new characters the babies preferred—the one who was nice to the good guy or the one who was mean to the good guy; the one who was nice to the bad guy or the one who was mean to the bad guy," Bloom writes.

Turns out the 5-month-old babies reached for the nice puppets—even when the nice puppets were nice to a "bad guy."

The 8-month-olds? Well, let's just say they didn't take too kindly to the mean puppets, and didn't think they should be treated so nicely, either.

In fact, the older babies chose the puppet that was mean to the "bad" one.

Moral of the story: Even babies will be OK doling out punishment if you deserve it.

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