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When Bad Things Are Noticed by Good Babies

New research suggests six-month-old infants display signs of a specific bias: The belief that bad outcomes are caused by someone, or something, as opposed to chance.
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(Photo: Andreas Altenburger/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Andreas Altenburger/Shutterstock)

A defining feature of human beings—and not an attractive one—is our tendency to place blame when something goes wrong.

We generally take good things for granted, but when problems occur, our inclination is to attribute our misfortune to the malice of some individual, group, or mechanical object. Neither your car nor your computer is out to get you, but you’re likely to curse at either if they stop working at critical moments.

While the basis of this bias isn’t clear, the consequences are: Accusing others of causing harm can spark everything from marital spats to civil wars. Newly published research, which observes this inclination in six-month-old babies, suggests it may be part of our fundamental make-up.

"While neutral, everyday events are regularly attributed to physical forces or random choice ... negative outcomes tend to be attributed to malevolent external agents."

“Negative agency bias” has been noticed in adults for a while now. A 2009 paper by psychologist Carey Morewedge provided evidence that people are more likely to cite “the influence of external agents” when explaining a negative outcome, as opposed to a positive or neutral one. If we’re displeased by something, we tend to assume something, or someone, is responsible.

University of British Columbia psychologists J. Kiley Hamlin and Andrew Baron set out to discover whether this tendency could be seen in the very young. For the first of two experiments, they recruited 40 six-month-old babies. (Another 19 were “excluded due to fussiness.”) While sitting on their parents’ laps, the infants watched two scenarios unfold on a puppet stage.

The first featured a toy horse who attempted to open a box. After a time, a mechanical claw intervened, either helping the animal by opening the lid, or hindering it by shutting it tightly.

The second scenario featured that same claw. At times, it acted as if it had free will, traveling a path leading to two toys and then grabbing either one or the other. At other times, its actions seemed predestined; it traveled different pathways, but always grabbed the same toy once it arrived. Researchers noted how long the infants’ attention was engaged during these activities.

The key result: Those infants who viewed a claw cause a negative outcome (that is, hinder the horse’s quest to open the box) spent more time looking at the claw that picked up different toys on different runs. Their interest in the mechanical object signaled to the researchers that they viewed the claw as an independent actor that could, and did, change its mind.

A second experiment produced marginal results, but they “generally support the significant findings from experiment one,” the researchers write. “Such findings are consistent with recent work with adults demonstrating that while neutral, everyday events are regularly attributed to physical forces or random choice ... negative outcomes tend to be attributed to malevolent external agents.”

For many of us, the thought of living in a random universe where bad things happen by chance is unacceptably frightening; pinpointing blame provides an odd sense of reassurance. If these researchers are correct, this understandable but unfortunate tendency is already starting to show itself soon after we emerge from the womb.