Have you ever felt judged by a baby staring at you or wondered what that baby was thinking about? Most people would simply shrug their shoulders and assume babies’ minds are about as blank as their vacant expressions. But that is not the case for researchers like Dr. Kiley Hamlin, Director of the UBC Centre for Infant Cognition, whose entire career is founded on discovering and investigating the thinking capabilities of infants, particularly those related to thinking about the moral world.
Our June Lab of the Month looks at how infants view those who are prosocial versus antisocial and how well infants understand moral intentions. This recognition of moral cues by infants can allow parents to encourage and model prosocial and moral behavior for their children, and allow us to gain a deeper understanding of how children develop a moral sense.
Lectures and labs
Sitting down with Dr. Hamlin, Psychology Professor and Canada Research Chair, we were able to discuss in detail the various studies in moral development she conducts in her Lab, and how they relate to topics from her class lectures on moral development. In studies Hamlin conducted as a graduate student, she discovered that infants as young as three months of age show significant preferences for those who help others to achieve their goals over those who prevent others’ goals. She has shown that this is the case using a variety of different types of prosocial and antisocial behaviours and at a variety of age groups, suggesting the tendency is robust.
In a related line of work, Dr. Hamlin has explored infants’ sense of who deserves reward and punishment. “Right now we’ve found babies seem to like rewarding good guys and punishing bad guys” says Hamlin. Her studies extend to include all kinds of moral issues. “We have studies on [babies] disliking and liking those who are fair versus unfair, nice versus mean, rewarders versus punishers.” A more recent question that she and her team are asking are “Whether babies think that if you are forced to do something bad, if you are still bad. So we are trying to understand the rule of having good and bad intentions in their judgment” says Hamlin.
Upon hearing these hypotheses, many would probably begin to wonder if this may be a bit much to ask of a 3 or 6 month old infant. “A lot of these questions we ask, we go in thinking there is a very slim chance babies will be sensitive to this,” says Hamlin. “But we’ve been surprised in the past, so we just keep asking the hard questions.” Despite the risk of conducting studies addressing difficult, seemingly long shot questions, the process was rewarded by these incredible results indicating the capabilities of infants to exercise a form of moral judgment.
Perhaps among the most unique aspects of Developmental Psychology research are the lengths to which researchers go to fabricate creative and engaging studies for children and infants. Dr. Hamlin’s studies involve elaborate puppet shows with stages, curtains, backdrops, as well as cute, plushy animal puppets which infants can’t help but adore. The puppets effectively serve as agents and can perform various tasks as well as exemplify different emotions and characteristics of people through their behaviours. “They really like puppets and really engage with them.” These puppet shows typically show an exchange between two puppets that involves a helper or hinderer. An example of this would be a penguin playing with a ball and passing it to a rabbit who would either pass the ball back or run away with the ball. The helping rabbit and hindering rabbit can be identified by different color shirts. After watching both types of shows multiple times, the babies are shown the different puppets and reach for the one they prefer. It is through this fun method that babies have shown preference for the helper over the hinderer.
Why puppets and not people?
When asked why experimenters would choose inanimate puppets rather than people for the experiment, Dr. Hamlin outlined the benefits and potential confounds introduced if using people. “Interestingly enough, other replication studies that involve real people sometimes have weaker effects. This could be for a variety of reasons. Babies tend to think of all adults as authority figures and so may think adults can do whatever they want to do, and also babies are often more inhibited around adults than around fun puppets.” The use of puppets also serves to control for a variety of variables such as facial expressions and attractiveness, which are tough to control with humans. Infants may also see puppets as more representative of themselves.
With great knowledge of babies’ moral development comes greater responsibility for caregivers to encourage this growth. “I think the question of whether infants have any complex social and/or moral opinions is something to keep in mind when interacting with them” says Hamlin. As many parents can attest to, children are very impressionable, as are infants. Perhaps modeling good moral and social behavior can benefit the development of these skills in children. “Another thing we study in my Lab is the development of prosocial behaviour and how being prosocial might make babies happy.” This may give clues to parents as to how to encourage prosocial behaviour in their children.
Coming soon to a lab near you
Some exciting plans for the Lab this summer involve an upgrade in technology. “In the last month we got an EEG system so we can start recording babies’ brain activity when watching nice and mean events.” The use of neuroimaging technology opens up a whole new area of research for the Lab. With this additional resource, Dr. Hamlin hopes to gain further insight into the mechanisms behind it all. For those interested in being a part of this new research, the Centre for Infant Cognition is looking for volunteer research assistants this summer. For my fellow psychology students out there, I would recommend jumping on this opportunity.
See Dr. Kiley Hamlin’s research in this video: