Babies have long been known to be freeloading, pants-shitting, boob-crazed whiners with an entitlement complex who refuse to get jobs or learn English, even though this is America. But for years, another aspect of their tiny, angry personalities was slightly less obvious: are they also jerks? Five years ago, a group of researchers claimed that a series of tests had concluded that babies do not actively wish fellow human beings harm, that from a very wee age, they're capable of telling the difference between right and wrong. But now, new evidence has thrown those findings into a playpen of doubt, again putting babies' morality (or lack thereof) in the hot (booster) seat.
According to the original "Babies Are Not Total Dicks After All" research, babies as young as 6 months old prefer interacting with prosocial individuals. Researchers determined this by showing the babies puppet shows involving a wooden doll that was trying to climb a hill and either helped up or pushed down the hill by another wooden doll. Following the show, the tiny, gurgling study subjects were offered a choice to play with either the helper puppet or the hinderer puppet. In almost all cases, the babies selected the helper puppet, which, to researchers, demonstrated that they recognized that the helper puppet was good, and that they preferred to hang around good people (the wanting to hang around bad people phase doesn't start until the babies are teenagers and angry at their fathers). Case closed. Babies are good.
Not so fast.
Researchers who tried to stage the experiment again found that babies would react differently to the puppets depending on how the puppet attempting to climb the hill acted. One skeptical researcher explained to CBS News,
"For example, when we had the climber bounce at the bottom of the hill, but not at the top of the hill, infants preferred the hinderer, that is, the one that pushed the climber down the hill," Scarf explained. "If the social evaluation hypothesis was correct, we should have seen a clear preference for the helper, irrespective of the location of the bounce, because the helper always helped the climber achieve its goal of reaching the top of the hill."
The researchers on the original experiment countered that if the puppet bounced happily at the bottom of the hill, the babies might be confused into believing that the puppet was trying to fall all along, and the "hinderer" was actually a helper. The direction the ascending puppet was looking also influenced the babies' picks — if the puppet was looking down as it climbed, the babies would often choose the hinderer under the mistaken assumption that the climbing puppet wanted to be pushed. If the climbing puppet looked up, the babies assumed the climbing puppet wanted to go up. And if the climbing puppet had dark circles under its eyes and is trying to just get one goddamn full night's rest, the baby would respond by screaming very loudly every 90 minutes.
So the endless debate over whether the itty bitty puke machines we call human infants have a moral compass rages on. I'll be waiting for a definitive answer with bated breath — even though I may have been too hard on babies in the past (I'd apologize in writing, if I wasn't 95% sure that babies can't be bothered to learn to read), I hope to have a few of my own someday ... that I'll steal from Maclaren strollers left unattended by Angry Birds-playing mothers in the Whole Foods produce section.