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Can smart babies spot a bully?

by on 2015/03/10

So the news has been doing the rounds that “smart babies can spot a bully at one year old” and the study is reported as showing that “at just 13 months, babies can comprehend what constitutes bullying, friendship and what it means to be a bystander”. Wow and I thought my 14 month old was clever…I want to meet these babies! But what does the study actually show?

In the reporting of this study which was published in the journal Psychological Science, the conclusion “babies can follow complex social situations” has been interpreted as “babies can spot a bully”. But what did the researchers actually measure? The study involved 48 infants who were 13 months old. The study took part in a psychology lab at the University of Missouri. The babies sat in front of a stage where two puppets, A and B, appeared, and initially interacted in a friendly manner. The researchers then used the puppets to play out various scenarios. A third puppet, C, was introduced and was deliberately knocked down by B as A looked on. In the next scenario, B knocked down C, but A was absent. A third scenario involved C being accidentally knocked down as A looked on.

The researchers observed how long the babies looked at the stage to gauge their interest and engagement. They found that babies looked longer at things that were not expected. The study authors reported that the babies stared longer when A acted friendly after seeing B hit C than they did when A shunned B after witnessing the bullying. In other words, the babies seemed to realize that A had seen something bad happen and expected A to respond accordingly. The babies also stared longer when A shunned B after not seeing the hit. The authors interpreted the findings as showing that the babies know what A does and doesn’t know. They conclude that the babies don’t expect A to shun B, because they realize that A didn’t see B do anything wrong.

This looking method is a standard approach within developmental psychology for assessing attention and other cognitive abilities…the problem here is with the inference from these longer looking times to the conclusion that the babies understand the complex concept of bullying. The reporting here goes well beyond what this study shows. This is a clear example of the need to be careful what you read if you don’t understand or have the evidence available to assess whether the conclusion is accurate.

Choi, Y. & Luo, Y. (2015). 13-Month-Olds’ Understanding of Social Interactions. Psychological Science. DOI:10.1177/0956797614562452

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