"Long before it's in the papers"
June 04, 2013


Infants may be drawn to those who mistreat the “different”

March 10, 2013
Special to World Science  

Ba­bies seem to dis­like those who are “dif­fer­ent”—enough so that some­one who harms a “dif­fer­ent” oth­er gains in ap­peal to the child, re­search­ers have found us­ing ex­pe­ri­ments with pup­pets.

The find­ings sug­gest that hu­man prej­u­dices for or against dif­fer­ent groups “are based in part on an in­born or early-developing propens­ity,” sci­en­tists wrote, re­port­ing the find­ings in the March 4 early on­line is­sue of the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

Past re­search has al­ready in­di­cat­ed that in­fants have a pre­ference for peo­ple of a fa­mil­iar race, sex, or lan­guage us­age or with simi­lar tastes to them—though cer­tain types of up­bring­ing may re­duce such ten­den­cies.

The new study, entitled “Not Like Me=Bad: In­fants Pre­fer Those Who Harm Dis­simi­lar Others,” added the twist of test­ing how chil­dren re­acted to char­ac­ters who help or harm a “d­if­fer­ent” oth­er. 

The 9- and 14-month-old in­fants were first assessed to see wheth­er they pre­ferred gra­ham crack­ers or green beans.

The ba­bies, more than 200, were then shown lit­tle skits fea­tur­ing a rab­bit pup­pet that voiced food pre­ferences ei­ther si­m­i­lar to the child’s, or op­posite—by re­act­ing to the foods with “mmm, yum!” or “eww, yuck!” ac­cord­ing­ly. A dog pup­pet would lat­er ei­ther “help,” or “har­m,” a rab­bit by ei­ther re­triev­ing a dropped ball for the bunny or run­ning off with it.

The ba­bies seemed to usu­ally like a dog who had harmed a rab­bit ex­press­ing op­po­site food pre­ferences to the ba­by, more than a dog who had helped that rab­bit, the re­search­ers re­ported: 81 per­cent of the young­er ba­bies, and all old­er ba­bies acted this way. The in­fants dis­played the op­po­site pat­tern of pre­ferences, with fair­ly simi­lar per­cent­ages, when the bun­ny in ques­tion agreed with their taste in food.

A child’s pre­ference for one pup­pet over the oth­er was meas­ured by pre­sent­ing the ba­by with both dogs af­ter the show and see­ing which one he or she reached for first.

A sec­ond ver­sion of the ex­pe­ri­ment al­so fea­tured a “neu­tral” pup­pet who ap­peared on­stage but nei­ther helped nor harmed the rab­bit. For the old­er ba­bies, even the neu­tral pup­pet was less ap­peal­ing on av­er­age than the one who harmed the “d­if­fer­ent” rab­bit, the re­search­ers re­ported.

“Both 9- and 14-month-olds pre­fer in­di­vid­u­als who harm dissi­m­i­lar oth­ers over those who help them, and by 14 months of age, these evalua­t­ions are suf­fi­ciently strong to al­low in­fants to dis­tin­guish help­ful and harm­ful in­di­vid­u­als from neu­tral ones,” the re­search­ers wrote.

“A de­vel­op­men­tal trend was ob­served, such that 14-month-olds’ re­sponses were more ro­bust than were 9-month-olds’. These find­ings sug­gest that the iden­ti­fica­t­ion of com­mon and con­trast­ing per­son­al at­tributes in­flu­ences so­cial at­ti­tudes and judg­ments in pow­er­ful ways, even very early in life,” they added.

“These re­sults are con­sist­ent with a grow­ing body of lit­er­a­ture show­ing that in­fants pre­fer in­di­vid­u­als from fa­mil­iar so­cial cat­e­gories, pre­ferentially at­tend­ing to adults who speak fa­mil­iar lan­guages or who are of the same sex or race as the in­di­vid­u­als in their en­vi­ron­ment.”

The re­search­ers, Ki­ley Ham­lin of the Uni­vers­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia and col­leagues, avoided draw­ing sim­ple, di­rect links be­tween in­fan­ti­le and adult be­hav­ior. “Of course, adults do not ex­plic­itly view those with dif­fer­ent food pre­ferences as de­serv­ing of mis­treat­ment,” they wrote. But studies show “both adults and chil­dren neg­a­tively judge even triv­i­ally dissi­m­i­lar in­di­vid­u­als and an­ti­cipate that these in­di­vid­u­als will be­have poorly in the fu­ture.”

Moreo­ver, the puppet-viewing in­fants were not “nec­es­sarily an­a­lyz­ing so­cial cat­e­gories,” as older people do, they added. “In­fants needed only to eval­u­ate sin­gle in­di­vid­u­als” to re­spond as they did, though it’s unclear whether their motivation was “scha­den­freude” (tak­ing pleasure in oth­ers’ mis­fortune); the fee­ling that “the ene­my of my ene­my is my friend”; or may­be both.

Still, in conclusion, they wrote, “giv­en the links be­tween adults’ and chil­dren’s si­m­i­lar­ity pre­ferences and group psy­chol­o­gy, it seems likely that in­fants’ ten­den­cy to no­tice and pre­fer si­m­i­lar­ity is re­lat­ed to emer­gent in­ter­group bi­as­es... These ten­den­cies are al­ready op­er­a­tive in the first year of hu­man life.”

* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend


Sign up for


On Home Page         


  • Meet­ing on­line may lead to hap­pier mar­riages

  • Pov­erty re­duction, environ­mental safe­guards go hand in hand: UN re­port


  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?

  • Diff­erent cul­tures’ mu­sic matches their spe­ech styles, study finds


  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

Babies seem to dislike those who are “different”—enough so that someone who mistreats a “different” other becomes more appealing to them, researchers have found using experiments with puppets. The findings suggest that human prejudices for or against different groups “are based in part on an inborn or early-developing propensity,” scientists wrote, reporting the findings in the March 4 early online issue of the journal Psychological Science. Past research has already indicated that infants’ prefer people of a familiar race, sex or language usage. The new study added the twist of testing how children reacted to characters who help or harm a “different” other. The 9- and 14-month-old infants were queried about whether they preferred graham crackers or green beans. The babies, more than 200, were then shown little skits featuring a rabbit puppet that voiced food preferences either similar to the child’s own, or opposite—by reacting to the foods with “mmm, yum!” or “eww, yuck!” accordingly. A dog puppet would later either “help,” or “harm,” a rabbit by either bringing a dropped ball back to the rabbit or running off with with ball. The babies seemed to usually like a dog who had harmed a rabbit expressing opposite food preferences to the baby, more than a dog who had helped that rabbit, the researchers reported: 81 percent of the younger babies, and all older babies acted this way. The infants displayed the nearly opposite pattern of preferences when the bunny in question agreed with their taste in food. A child’s preference for one puppet over the other was measured by presenting the baby with both dogs after the show and seeing which one he or she grabbed first. A second version of the experiment also featured a “neutral” puppet who appeared onstage but neither helped nor harmed the rabbit. For the older babies, even the neutral puppet was less appealing on average than the one who harmed the “different” rabbit, the researchers reported. “Both 9- and 14-month-olds prefer individuals who harm dissimilar others over those who help them, and by 14 months of age, these evaluations are sufficiently strong to allow infants to distinguish helpful and harmful individuals from neutral ones,” the researchers wrote. “A developmental trend was observed, such that 14-month-olds’ responses were more robust than were 9-month-olds’. These findings suggest that the identification of common and contrasting personal attributes influences social attitudes and judgments in powerful ways, even very early in life,” they added. “These results are consistent with a growing body of literature showing that infants prefer individuals from familiar social categories, preferentially attending to adults who speak familiar languages or who are of the same sex or race as the individuals in their environment.” The researchers, Kiley Hamlin of the University of British Columbia and colleagues, avoided drawing simple, direct links between infantile and adult behavior. “Of course, adults do not explicitly view those with different food preferences as deserving of mistreatment. However, both adults and children negatively judge even trivially dissimilar individuals and anticipate that these individuals will behave poorly in the future,” they wrote. Moreover, the infants in the study were not “necessarily analyzing social categories,” they added. “Infants needed only to evaluate single individuals (not groups) to respond as they did.” “However, given the links between adults’ and children’s similarity preferences and group psychology, it seems likely that infants’ tendency to notice and prefer similarity is related to emergent intergroup biases,” they added. “These tendencies are already operative in the first year of human life.”