Who Knew Choosing a Snack Could Have Such Consequences? Toddlers Prefer Puppets Mean To “Others”

It might not be too surprising to think that something as simple as a shared love of graham crackers could lead a toddler to like you. But if you like green beans instead, that toddler might just like someone who’s mean to you instead. It’s the latest in the ever-astonishing line of research by Kiley Hamlin.

First, infants (9 months old) and toddlers (14 months old) were offered a snack, and asked to choose between graham crackers and green beans. Let’s assume the child chose graham crackers. (Although yes, some of them actually chose the green beans – almost half of the infants and a third of the toddlers. The health food revolution is working!). Then they were shown two rabbit puppets, in different colored shirts; one also liked graham crackers (the “similar” puppet) and the other liked green beans (the “dissimilar” puppet):

With similarity established, new characters were introduced: puppet dogs, also in different colored shirts. These dogs sat on either side of one rabbit, who was playing with a ball. The clumsy rabbit would toss the ball in the air, and catch it, toss the ball in the air…and away it would roll. If it rolled to the “helper” dog, that puppet would cheerfully return the ball (as cheerfully as a puppet with no facial expressions could, anyway). If it rolled to the “harmer” dog, though, the rabbit was just S.O.L., because away ran the harmer dog with the ball. It’s a scene that should be very familiar to kids at this age, who might see toys returned or snatched away by siblings and playdates.

And finally, we’ve reached the big moment: the researchers offers both dogs, the helper and the harmer, and we get to see which one they want to play with:

As we’ve seen before, even 3-month-old infants usually prefer a helpful puppet (even when it’s just a triangle with googly eyes), and this was still true…if the infants and toddlers had watched the dogs be nice or mean to the similar rabbit. If the dogs had been interacting with the dissimilar rabbit though – if this was a rabbit that liked green beans, instead of graham crackers – then all (yep, 100%) 14-month-olds preferred the mean dog, and so did 81% of the 9-month-olds.

A second study pitted the helpful dog against a neutral dog – who never caught the ball, so couldn’t give it back or run off with it – and gives us some reason to relax around infants, who didn’t show strong preferences for helpful over neutral or mean over neutral;  they seem to need a helper and harmer side-by-side to make strong moral judgments about them. The toddlers, though, even though they were only just past their first birthday, were quite clear: 81% preferred the dog they knew nothing about (the neutral dog) over one that helped the dissimilar rabbit, and 94% preferred the dog that was mean to the dissimilar rabbit over the neutral dog.

It would be too much to say that toddlers have already reasoned out “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – or worse, that they think it’s ok to hurt people who are different than you are, and bad to help them. They don’t have the language skills to reason out rules the way that we do, so whatever’s driving their decisions might be another good example of the unconscious mind at work. But somehow, in just 14 months of life, an attitude toward people (and puppets) “like me” and “not like me” has started to set in.

This isn’t to say that children will develop a deep dislike of you because you aren’t as fond of marshmallows as they are. In the real world, we can assume that toddlers have plenty of other things in common with us so that one or two differences won’t be the end of the world. But I may never look at a toddler eating a snack the same way again….and if I like that snack too, I’ll make sure they know it.

Hamlin, J. K., Mahajan, N., Liberman, Z., & Wynn, K. (2013). Not like me = bad: Infants prefer those who harm dissimilar others. Psychological Science


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