Even Babies Can Be Bribed to Abandon Their Morals

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Photo: Constance Bannister

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you and I are hanging out somewhere and I pull out a Kit Kat bar. It’s one of those jumbo-size bars; there’s clearly more than enough Kit Kat to go around, and I offer you half of it. You’ve met me before, so this isn’t a strangers-with-candy situation. You like me well enough. You definitely like candy. You take it.

But wait. Now let’s say that everything else in this hypothetical is the same, except that I’m a real jerk. Maybe I threw the wrapper on the ground under a “no littering” sign. Maybe I looked at the sign and laughed, and then took some more garbage out of my pockets and dropped that, too, just for good measure. Do you take the bar when I offer it? Or do you say “no, thanks,” and decline the candy I’m offering in my outstretched, morally repugnant hands?

Even early in life, people show distaste for rule-breakers and wrongdoers. Past research has shown that kids will refuse to help or will even shun someone who’s behaved badly. “As young as three months, babies are showing these preferences for prosocial over antisocial characters,” says Arber Tasimi, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. But a recent study by Tasimi, published in the journal Cognition, found that kids — even babies! — will abandon those principles if the payoff’s good enough. Kids don’t just parallel adults in their recognition of moral and amoral behavior — they’re also like us, it seems, in their willingness to become more morally flexible for the right price. And it starts at a young age.

In the first experiment, Tasimi and his co-author took a group of kids between the ages of 5 and 8 and showed them photos of two characters named Max and Craig. In some cases, all the kids knew about the characters was that Craig had more stickers to give away than Max did. (These kids tended to choose Craig’s stickers over Max’s.) In other cases, the researchers gave them a bit more background on their personalities: ‘‘Craig is always mean. The other day, he hit someone on the playground … Max is always nice. The other day, he hugged someone on the playground.”

Across all ages, when the choice was one sticker versus two, the kids in the second group tended to go with the one from Max — seemingly out of a desire not to take stickers from the morally sullied Craig. When the choice was one versus four or one versus eight, they were pretty evenly split. But when it came to one versus 16, the majority went with the bigger haul, even if it came from the jerk.

The caveat: The study authors weren’t sure if the kids were truly acting according to their own desires, or if they were trying to please the experimenters by making the seemingly right choice — an infant version of the so-called social desirability bias. (As the study notes, kids start thinking about how other people perceive them sometime between age 3 and age 5.)

You know what type of person doesn’t care about protecting their rep, though? A baby. Surely babies, innocent creatures that they are, would stay on the side of good over evil?

Nope. When Tasimi and his colleagues ran a similar experiment on babies, the babies sold out, too.

In the second experiment, 64 infants between 12 and 13 months old were assigned to one of two conditions. Members of the control group were introduced to two puppets offering different amounts of crackers, and they reliably opted for the bigger serving (there were no indications that one puppet was “better” than the other). In the second group, the puppets put on a show: While one puppet struggled to open a box, another either lent a hand or made things harder by slamming the box shut.

In the subsequent cracker test, the babies who had seen the show followed roughly the same pattern as the older kids. They’d accept crackers from the nice puppet over the mean one if the choice was one versus two. “They’re going against their baseline desire for more,” Tasimi says. “I take it as evidence of, ‘I’m rejecting your offer because I don’t like what you did, even though it’s a costly choice on my part.’” But if it was one versus eight, they tended to accept the bigger bounty of the mean puppet.

“When the stakes are modest, children show a strong tendency to go against their baseline desire to optimize gain to avoid ‘doing business’ with a wrongdoer,” the study reads. “However, when the stakes are high, children show more willingness to ‘deal with the devil.’”

Today’s lesson in cynicism, kids: If they try, the bad guys can usually win you over. Stay strong, and maybe carry your own crackers, just to be safe.