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Friday, May 30, 2008

Psychology: Babies know what is good for them: But is it nature or nurture?

A kind reader draws my attention to this story by AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein on the ability of infants of six to ten months to judge what is good for them:
Babies as young as 6 to 10 months old showed crucial social judging skills before they could talk, according to a study by researchers at Yale University's Infant Cognition Center published in Thursday's journal Nature. The infants watched a googly-eyed wooden toy trying to climb roller-coaster hills and then another googly-eyed toy come by and either help it over the mountain or push it backward. They then were presented with the toys to see which they would play with.

Nearly every baby picked the helpful toy over the bad one.

The babies also chose neutral toys — ones that didn't help or hinder — over the naughty ones. And the babies chose the helping toys over the neutral ones.

Apparently, the large eyes on the toys played a key role; babies' judgement declined when the eyes were removed.

Lead researcher Kiley Hamlin of Yale said that his research shows that humans have innate (= genetically programmed) social skills but psychology prof David Lewkowicz of Florida Atlantic says that the behavior is learned:
"Infants acquire a great deal of social experience between birth and 6 months of age and thus the assumption that this kind of capacity does not require experience is simply unwarranted,"

It's hard to know because you couldn't do the study much before six months of age and by then most tots know what's hot and what's not, so to speak. The most interesting part, to me at least, is that the researchers didn't seem to find any babies who were innately self-destructive (= chose the hurtful toy). That suggests that, whatever may be the case with wanting what is good for us, wanting what is bad for us is a behaviour learned later in life.

You can download the video here.

The Yale researchers now want to study animals, to see if the tendency to know what is good for oneself is as well developed. I suspect it is, but I am not at all sure that that will answer the nature or nurture question.

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