Forget judges, parents, superheroes, and villains – the best arbiters of justice may actually be babies.
As reported in a new paper in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, kids as young as 6 months old are able to comprehend who is a bully and who is a victim in certain situations, suggesting that unfairness is something fairly innate. So don’t you even think about taking candy from a baby, you hear? They’ll know of your evil.
“Stories involving such third-party interventions have pervaded popular culture throughout recorded human history, in myths, books, and movies,” the study notes. Where, the researchers asked, does that originally come from?
In order to find out, these rather clever academics from Kyoto University showed children between 6 and 10 months of age examples of mean-spirited aggressive behavior. Don’t worry, they didn’t show them Reservoir Dogs or anything like that – they used simple videogame characters that resembled rejects from a Pac-Man saga.
One of the characters played the role of douchebag, who was generally being a nasty piece of work to the victim. There was also a third character who, on occasion, intervened – sometimes protecting the victim intentionally, and sometimes by accident.
The science babies were shown a variety of situations, and their responses were documented. Of course, you can’t really ask a child that small to eloquently explain how they felt about something they saw, so instead, their eye movements and gaze were carefully tracked as they watched events unfold.
A situation where an intervention takes place. WIRED UK via YouTube
After each clip ended, they were shown all three of the protagonists of the digitized tale and were then politely requested to “pick” one.
Children that young have no understanding of the appeal of the villain or the nuances of character development. House of Cards would be totally lost on them. No – at that age, all they want to know is if something is shiny, edible, or unthreatening. With this in mind, all babies preferred characters from clips where the victims were shielded from harm.
The younger babies liked characters in the situations where there was a helpful intervention, whether accidental or intentional. The older kidlings also preferred these situations, but their favorite clips were ones where the intervention was deliberate.
This suggests that the 10-month-olds had a better understanding of why the intervening third party was getting involved – to protect the vulnerable – but even the younger humans liked to see the downtrodden rescued. Importantly, though, this study implies that a sense of “justice” emerges and develops between these two ages.
So by this measure, it’s easier to raise a heroic baby over a tiny little supervillain. Damn it.