For some getting picked for the team is an affirmation of where they sit in the group. Never mind being the person picked to picked the other people. What about those who are picked last, sometimes with a grumble? Is it because they wear the same my little pony shirt? Is it because they keep repeating Sgt. Slaughter’s words from that one G.I. Joe episode, calling people scuzzbuckets?
Is it because they are fat, have braces, wear glasses, or any other such oddity? The short answer is no. The long answer is that kids can be naturally cruel, sort of. It appears it all depends on what is normal to them, and that these norms may begin to develop at a very early age.
In our social lives, we tend to gravitate toward people who have things in common with us, whether it’s growing up in the same town, disliking the same foods, or even sharing the same birthday. And research suggests that babies evaluate people in much the same way, preferring people who like the same foods, clothes, and toys that they like.
This preference helps us to form social bonds, but it can also have a dark side. Disliking people who are different than us may lead us to mistreat them, and excuse — or even applaud — cases in which others mistreat people who are different than us.
Are the roots of such tendencies present in infancy?
To find out, psychological scientist Kiley Hamlin, now a professor at the University of British Columbia, conducted two studies as a graduate student at Yale University with her advisor Karen Wynn and colleagues.
The researchers had 9- and 14-month-old infants choose which food they preferred: graham crackers or green beans. The infants then watched a puppet show in which one puppet preferred graham crackers, while another preferred green beans. That is, one puppet demonstrated that its food preference was the same as the infant’s, while the other demonstrated that its food preference was different from the infant’s.
After the puppets chose their foods, infants then watched another puppet show, in which either the similar puppet or the dissimilar puppet dropped its ball and wanted it back. On alternating events, infants saw that one character always helped the ball-less puppet by returning the ball to him, while another character always harmed the ball-less puppet by stealing the ball away.
Finally, infants were given the chance to choose between the helper (giving) and harmer (stealing) puppets (see videos of the procedure) .
Unsurprisingly, infants’ choices revealed that almost all the infants in both the 9- and 14-month-old groups preferred the character who helped the similar puppet over the character who harmed the similar puppet. Previous research has shown that infants like people who are nice to totally unknown individuals, so it makes sense that they would also like people who are nice to individuals who are similar to them.
Far more surprising was that almost all the infants at both ages preferred the character who harmed the dissimilar puppet over the character who helped him. Infants’ preference for those who harmed dissimilar others was just as strong as their preference for those who helped similar ones.
According to Hamlin, these findings suggest that “like adults, infants incorporate information about not only what people do (e.g., acting nicely or meanly) but also whom they do it to (e.g., a person who is liked or disliked) when they make social evaluations.”