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Researchers: Babies prefer individuals who punish those who are not like them

Researchers from Yale University have discovered that babies prefer individuals who punish those who are not like them. This seemingly innate mean streak only gets worse in the next five months of life, according to researchers.

Babies prefer individuals who like the same things they do. A new study finds that they want individuals who share their tastes to be treated well by others, but want those whose tastes differ from their own to be treated poorly.

Researchers set out to determine when these attitudes arise.

“In this study, we examined the nature and development of attitudes toward similar and dissimilar others in human infancy. Across two experiments with combined samples of more than 200 infant participants, we found that 9- and 14-month-old infants prefer individuals who treat similar others well and treat dissimilar others poorly,” wrote the researchers in the study’s abstract.

Previously, Yale’s Karen Wynn demonstrated that prior to their first birthday, babies prefer individuals who share their own tastes in food or clothes. Wynn and her colleagues showed the babies two hand puppets that had expressed differing preferences in food. The babies were much more likely to select the puppet that shared their tastes in food.

Wynn’s findings made her and Kiley Hamlin, lead author of the study, wonder if infants’ preference for similar individuals meant that they hold negative attitudes toward those who are unlike themselves. They introduced the babies to puppets that expressed contrasting food preferences. They then introduced two new puppets: One puppet was nice and retrieved a dropped rubber ball, the other puppet was mean and took the ball away.

The babies preferred the helper over the meany when the puppet being helped shared the same tastes in food. However, when the puppet that dropped the ball did not share the babies’ tastes in food, the infants preferred the mean puppet to the helper.

“We were surprised — and more than a little chagrined — to find that babies actively prefer individuals who mistreat someone whose tastes differ from theirs,” Wynn said. “But while our findings show that we may be built to dislike differences, we are also built to like similarities — and humans all around the world are similar in a multitude of ways.”

The study’s findings are described in detail in the journal Psychological Science.