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Babies And Learning

3 minutes

(male narrator) Babies know when their diaper is dirty or when their tummy is empty. Just ask any sleep-deprived parent. Can babies tell when someone is acting good or bad?

[crying]

(woman) Babies are oriented towards pro-social individuals. They prefer interacting with a pro-social individual over an antisocial individual.

(narrator) Psychologist Karen Wynn runs the Yale Infant Cognition Lab. With help from the National Science Foundation, she's studying the roots of morality.

(woman) Wanna see some toys?

(narrator) This experiment demonstrates how 19-month-old Sarah can distinguish a good puppet from bad.

(Wynn) A puppet is opening a box. He sees a toy inside. It's a Plexiglas box that he's trying to open, and he can't lift that lid. Another puppet helps him open the lid so he can get the toy. That's the helpful puppet. He's again trying to open it, and a different puppet jumps atop the box lid, slamming it shut, and dashing his hopes.

(narrator) Sarah watches the show several times. She'll choose which puppet to take a treat away from, and to give to a new stuffed animal.

(Wynn) Toddlers are clear in their choice. They'll take the treat from the cad, who slammed the lid shut on the puppet. That one? Good job.

(narrator) Addison is just three months old. In another experiment, she watches Striped Puppet play ball with Green Shirt Puppet. When they're done, Green Shirt returns the ball. But when Striped Puppet plays with Red Shirt, Red just takes the ball. After the show, Addison spends more time paying attention to the good puppet. We weren't expecting to find as strong of responses as we have found at such young ages.

(narrator) Wynn says there are benefits to understanding moral development.

(Wynn) Maybe we'll gain a better understanding of sociopathy or psychopathy. The more we understand about normal development, the better position we are to address problems where it goes awry.

(narrator) Understanding the human mind, one baby step at a time. For Science Nation, I'm Miles O' Brien.

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Are humans pre-wired to know right from wrong or are they blank slates who learn solely by exposure to the environment? The question isn’t new, but by studying the behavior of newborns, psychologist Karen Wynn of Yale University believes she can get closer to the answer. With support from the National Science Foundation, she is investigating the role an infant’s social preferences play in how they learn from other people. Wynn and her team put on puppet shows for infants, with characters that display both pro-social and anti-social behavior. So far, the babies almost always prefer the nicer puppets to the mean ones, indicating humans may be born with an innate preference for pro-social behavior.

Media Details

Runtime: 3 minutes

Science Nation
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