The DIfference Between Right And Wrong

Babies Know What’s Fair For years, people have always assumed that babies were inherently selfish, the center of their universe, and had to learn concepts like fairness and equality. A new study published in Psychological Science suggests that even very young children can recognize injustice, and it bothers them even when they aren’t affected by it. So perhaps a sense of fairness is part of our natural human state. To find out, the researchers conducted the following investigation. The study consisted of two sets of experiments. In one set of experiments, 48 babies aged 19 months were individually shown a live scenario in which two giraffe puppets played together while an experimenter gave them toys. In some experiments, each giraffe got a toy, but in other experiments the toys were given to only one of the giraffes. The experimenters then measured how long the babies paid attention to the scene before looking away. Previous studies have shown that babies pay closer attention to things that surprise them or go against their expectations. In nearly every instance of this experiment, the toddlers stared at the scene much longer when one of the giraffes didn’t get any toys. In the second set of experiments, 21-month-old babies were shown scenes of two adults sitting with a pile of toys. The adults were told that they would be given stickers if they put all the toys away. In some experiments, both adults worked together to put the toys away, while other experiments had only one adult put the toys away. The two adults were rewarded the same number of stickers no matter who did the work in all the scenarios. Interestingly enough, the babies seemed surprised when the slackers were rewarded for not doing any work.

For years, people have always assumed that babies were inherently selfish, the center of their universe, and had to learn concepts like fairness and equality. A new study published in Psychological Science suggests that even very young children can recognize injustice, and it bothers them even when they aren’t affected by it. So perhaps a sense of fairness is part of our natural human state. To find out, the researchers conducted the following investigation.

The study consisted of two sets of experiments. In one set of experiments, 48 babies aged 19 months were individually shown a live scenario in which two giraffe puppets played together while an experimenter gave them toys. In some experiments, each giraffe got a toy, but in other experiments the toys were given to only one of the giraffes. The experimenters then measured how long the babies paid attention to the scene before looking away. Previous studies have shown that babies pay closer attention to things that surprise them or go against their expectations. In nearly every instance of this experiment, the toddlers stared at the scene much longer when one of the giraffes didn’t get any toys.

In the second set of experiments, 21-month-old babies were shown scenes of two adults sitting with a pile of toys. The adults were told that they would be given stickers if they put all the toys away. In some experiments, both adults worked together to put the toys away, while other experiments had only one adult put the toys away. The two adults were rewarded the same number of stickers no matter who did the work in all the scenarios. Interestingly enough, the babies seemed surprised when the slackers were rewarded for not doing any work.

The study showed that infants between the ages of 19 and 21 months actually have a general expectation of fairness that can be applied to different situations, and events that go against their expectations actually bother them. In other words, even babies don’t like to see people treated unfairly. This is fascinating news, especially since for years people assumed that young children were essentially blank slates who cared only about their own needs and had to be taught about the importance of sharing and fair play.

So, what does this mean for parents and educators? If children are inherently fair, why do so many of them act selfishly? It turns out that even though children do seem to want fairness, they also often lack the self-control needed to follow through with what they think is fair when it applies to them. Still, parents, teachers and other caregivers should think twice before labeling children as “selfish.” Children are still learning about the world, and nurture is just as important as nature in many cases.

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On a related note, this author has long been concerned with the confusion among many between the idea of “selfishness” and the normal, developmentally appropriate self-centeredness of childhood. The baby experiences the world from a purely subjective point of view; there is no other option for her/him. This is normal; the baby knows only the sensations of its own body and its own needs. As the baby grows and the young child begins to experience the world outside of her/himself, things can get tricky.

The challenge to the healthy development of the baby is often the psychological and developmental health of her caregivers. Immature and needy parents may (even outside of their own awareness) place demands on their child to gratify them in a ways that make the parent feel love and valued which may create a compromised, uncertain, “codependent” self in their child. Strongly other-directed, this child is anything but self-centered or selfish. Alternatively, over-indulgent parents who are quick to gratify and slow to set limits with their children are likely to create entitled, expectant children who are unable to deal with frustration and may not appreciate the give and take required to develop and maintain relationships. To get love, we must be lovable.

The emotionally healthy, self-centered individual realizes that he/she is not the center of the universe but lives from his/her own center: this individual recognizes the needs of others, is fair in his/her dealings with them but does not routinely sacrifice his own needs for those of others.i

Copyright 2013 James Stanfield Company. All Rights Reserved.

i This article was inspired by: “The Moral Life of Babies”, New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html?pagewanted=all


Categories: Developmental Disabilities , Social Skills & Fitting In
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