Newly published research from Harvard shows that babies as young as 11 months can work out who’s who in the family pecking order (or the social hierarchy as researchers put it).
In this case the babies are using size as a clue to who is the boss.
Using a well-tried technique which measures how long a baby looks at something (the longer they look the more interested they are assumed to be and the same if it’s something unusual or surprising) they used a video showing different-sized blocks bumping in to each other as they tried to cross a path. Sometimes the small block bowed down to the big one and sometimes the big block gave way.
When the big block won the average time the babies watched the screen was 12 seconds. When the big block gave way to the small one, clearly a surprising event, the babies watched for an average of 20 seconds.
The researchers think that this shows that babies have an innate understanding of social relationships; the big blocks are like parents who don’t normally get out of the way of small blocks like other children.
Perhaps even more surprising is research that shows babies as young as 6 months can make moral judgements and tell good from bad. Some one-year olds asked to take sweets away from a “naughty” puppet were also observed smacking the puppet on the head.
Researchers at Yale University found that one-year olds were clearly able to indicate which cuddly toys they liked the best by pressing buttons and levers. Typically they stare for longer at things that please them.
Then they showed groups of 6-12 month-olds a video showing a round shaped red object with eyes climbing up a hill. At different times a yellow square object helps to push it up the hill or a green triangular object pushes it back down again. The babies watched it several times until their concentration waned.
They were then asked to choose between the bad triangle and the good square. 80% of them chose the good guy.
In a similar experiment involving a toy dog trying to get into a box and a helpful and a hindering teddy bear, the babies again chose the helpful teddy bear.
Professor Paul Bloom believes this shows that Freud and Joyce were wrong and that babies are not a blank slate but are born with a sense of good and evil.
Other researchers are not so sure and one from Durham University suggested that the child might just prefer to see objects go up rather than down or that the bear stopping the dog getting into the box might be protecting it from getting hurt as a mother would do.
I wondered if the children might be attracted to shapes and colours so I would want to see the experiment with every combination of shape and colour (27 combinations) to see if that made any difference.
What is certain is that we now know that babies from 6 months onward are learning faster than experts believed they could.