What Trying to Bribe Babies Teaches Us About Human Nature

At what price-point can our instinctive morality be overcome?

Oh, Joan …

The Washington Post reports on a fun new piece of social science involving children and babies. You will be pleased to learn that these small versions of ourselves do seem to exhibit strong signs of morality, even in the face of real temptation. However, it does also turn out that most people have a price.

Researchers have long believed that children, and the adults they grow up to be, have an inherent sense of fairness that leads them to shun people who don’t play by the rules. A 2001 write-up on the subject put it this way: “human beings possess cognitive adaptations designed to cause them to avoid poor social exchange partners.”

For this recent study, published in Cognition, researchers experimented on two sets of children, some aged 5–8 and some aged only 1 year. Would the kids be willing to forego greater reward (a larger number of treats) if that greater reward were offered to them by someone disreputable? The answer, they discovered, was yes, up to a point.

According to their abstract:

children and even infants, although motivated by material rewards, are nonetheless willing to incur costs to avoid ‘‘doing business” with a wrongdoer. When given the choice to accept a smaller offering from a do-gooder or a larger offering from a wrongdoer, children and infants chose to accept the smaller offering. It was only when the difference between the offerings was very large that their aversion to the wrongdoer was overcome by personal incentives. These findings show that a willingness to forgo self-interests when faced with wrongdoers is a fundamental aspect of human nature.

The older kids virtuously chose to get one sticker from a “good guy” rather than two, four, or eight stickers from a “bad guy.” Only once the kids were offered a choice of either getting one sticker from a good guy or sixteen stickers from a bad guy did a majority go with the villain.

The babies, with graham crackers on the line, reacted in mostly the same way as the older kids, according to the Post.

When choosing between one cracker from a good puppet or two crackers from a bad puppet, the infants “robustly” went with the do-gooder, the researchers say. But again, the results were somewhat different when the bad puppet offered a much bigger reward. When the bad puppet offered eight graham crackers, infants tended to choose the larger number.

In other words:

when the winnings are modest, children will avoid “doing business” with a wrongdoer, the researchers say. “However, when the stakes are high, children show more willingness to ‘deal with the devil.’”
Don’t we all.

This may go a long way toward explaining the appeal of a person like Donald Trump.