The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Infants Get It Right

Infants like nice guys.

Nice guys finish last.
- Leo Durocher

A colleague just directed my attention to a fascinating line of research at the Yale University Infant Cognition Lab.

Researchers there have developed a paradigm that allowed them to show that infants prefer "nice" guys. Very young children - so young they needed to be held on the lap of a parent during the experiment - viewed puppet shows in which one character in the show assists another character (by helping it climb a steep passage, open a box, retrieve a bouncing ball, and so on) versus another character who impedes these actions. The infants were then allowed to choose the character - the one who helped or the one who hindered - and some 80% of the time, they were oriented to the good guy, touching it first or grasping it first.

A video has been posted on the Internet describing these studies, and I was struck that the babies touching or grasping the helpful character seemed always to be smiling when they did so.

 

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So, infants like nice guys, and this preference may be wired into them, or at least is present before language. Children are obviously not blank slates, and maybe they get it from the very get-go. It is obviously advantageous to prefer those who help as opposed to those who hinder.

This research has been discussed in the scientific and popular media under the rubric of "the moral life of babies," meaning that the results are taken to reflect an inherent preference among infants for moral goodness, to which I say: yes and no. What is morally right is not always what benefits us, and niceness - helpfulness - should not be confused with moral goodness. All things being equal, niceness characterizes many acts of moral behavior, but not necessarily.

Among my sins are some that result precisely from my attempts to be nice, by not setting the bar high enough for my students, by not telling someone a difficult truth, by doing something for others that they should be doing for themselves, and so on.

But the results of this research program are remarkable enough even if rendered more modestly, as showing that infants are oriented toward those who help rather than those who hinder - a behavioral style that I have chosen to call niceness.

As we mature (so to speak), some of us seem to forget our early preference for niceness. Leo Durocher's famous quote about nice guys as losers is paraphrased and applied in many domains of life. I even did this myself a few weeks ago, when I repeated a cynical quote I had heard to the effect that no one with an open door policy was ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an assertion which may or may not be true. We rationalize our own departures from niceness and excuse those on the part of others if they seem to contribute to a competitive edge (what an ugly phrase upon reflection). And many of us are romantically attracted to bad boys and mean girls, or their adult equivalents, despite the heartaches that will necessarily follow.

Most us accept small acts of kindness from others - niceness - but maybe we think these are our just due. Do we thank nice people? Do we take obvious delight in them? Do we prefer the nice guys in the world? Infants get it right. What about the rest of us?

A great deal of contemporary character education tries to teach children what they do not know about morality ... or niceness. I suggest that another goal of character education should be to leave intact what the young already know.

It's not true that nice guys finish last. Nice guys are winners before the game even starts.
- Addison Walker


References

Bloom, P. (2010, May 3). The moral life of babies. New York Times Magazine. Document available on the Worldwide Web at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html.

Hamlin, J. K., Wynn, K., Bloom, P. (2007). Social evaluation in preverbal infants. Nature, 450, 557-559.

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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