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Yale Study: Everyone Has Their Price, Even Babies

Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

Everyone has a price. The phrase dates back to ancient Rome, but a new Yale University study tried to find out if that extends to babies.

Arber Tasimi,a graduate student at Yale’s infant cognition lab, spends a lot of time around that one group of people who should be pure and innocent, if anyone is. He and his colleagues showed a group of 64 babies two puppet shows. One starred a nice puppet who helped the other puppets get toys from a box. The other starred a mean puppet who slammed the box lid closed.

“Even babies as young as 3 months show very strong preferences for the nice character,” Tasimi says. “But the question that I was interested in is, what are babies willing to sacrifice in order to interact with nice characters over mean characters?”

Both puppets offer the baby some crackers. But here’s the twist: he nice puppet’s offering you one cracker. The mean puppet is offering you more. Like two, or four, or eight -- they changed the number up each time. If you’re a baby, what do you do?

“Remarkably, when the mean puppet offers eight crackers and the nice puppet offers one cracker, two thirds of babies will sell out or deal with the devil as we like to call this study,” Tasimi says.

In the past, researchers showed babies preferred the nice puppet over the mean puppets if both offered the same number of crackers. But this is the first experiment to show that the more we’re getting out of the deal, the more we’re willing to, well, "forgive" the misdeeds of the giver.

We see people presented with this dilemma all the time. Tasimi gives an example from the HBO show The Sopranos, where mobster Tony Soprano’s wife Carmela loves the expensive gifts he gives her, while ignoring some of the bad things he does to be able to afford them.

"A common theme in this series is this conflict, this angst that she’s experiencing. Because really, on one hand, she wants to do good," Tasimi says. "She wants to punish Tony for the bad things that he does. But on the other hand, she also wants to do well."

Carmela Soprano is a fictional character, but Tasimi says this comes up in our real lives, too.

"We’re often put in situations where we’re sort of conflicted," he says. "Because on the one hand, we care about our self-interest, oftentimes in the context of material goods. We want more. But on the other hand, we have these moral considerations."

Tasimi and his colleagues did a similar experiment with children between the ages of five and eight, and found similar results: most of those children also held out before they’d take the offer from the "devil."

He says there’s good news in these studies. Most of the babies needed a lot of crackers before they’d go with the mean puppet over the nice one, about eight times as many, and 16 in the case of the older kids. So maybe we are born with a price, but at least it’s a high price.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.