7 December 2014

“Social Evaluation by Pre-Verbal Infants”

[This is a little more serious and thought provoking than my usual blogposts]

I was blown away by a research experiment done by Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, and Paul Bloom from Yale University and published in Nature magazine in Nov 2007. The design of the experiment is very interesting. The results, extremely thought provoking.

They took 56 kids – 24 of them six month olds and 32 of them ten month olds – and divided them into two equal sets and then did the following:

For one set, they showed two sequence of movements involved blocks of three shapes – circle, triangle and square – but each shape made to look lively with googly eyes. In one sequence the googly eyed circle was trying to go up a hill structure without success. A googly eyed triangle came along and pushed it gently up to the top. In a second sequence, the same thing happened except instead of a triangle, a googly eyed square came from the top and pushed the circle down against what the direction fo the movement that the circle was trying to go.

For a second set of kids, they did the same thing except the shapes had no google eyes and therefore did not look lively. They looked like what they were – inanimate objects.

The infants watched this till they got bored as exhibited by they not paying any more attention to keep watching the sequence. Now, the experimenters presented the infants with a tray carrying similar square and triangle blocks (no circles) as they just saw in the sequence. (Googly eyed objects for the ones who saw the googly eyed sequence and vice versa).

In set A, ALL the six month olds reached out for the helpful toy. ALL but two of the ten month olds reached out for the helpful toy too.

In set B, there was no statistical difference on which inanimate object the kids picked up!

These were kids who could not talk or get up and walk!!! Yet they showed a distinct preference – and it was a social preference. They liked helping – not pushing up. They disliked hindering – not pushing down.

The ramification of this experiment is realizing that we are all born being judgmental!! Passing judgment is not necessarily something that is formed later because we learn logic and language. A lot of tribalism that drives our taking sides – e.g. in Democrat versus Republican, Israel versus Palestine etc comes from a sense of morality that is inborn in us over generations of evolutions. [This, however, does not mean that people cannot change positions over time, as further research has shown]

Posted December 7, 2014 by Rajib Roy in category "Musings


  1. By Sibapriya Dasgupta on

    Here in India politicians are changing positions at the drop of a hat! Actually we are all born good and later fall into the trap, develop herd mentality where we do not bat an eyelid while committing crimes as a nation or groups like apartheid, religious dogmatism and the likes! Nice read Rajib. Do you know whther further developments have occurred over these seven years? Because it is a pretty long time for medical science!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.