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Babies Less Than 1 Year Old Can Recognize Heroism

Whether we're scrambling to see the latest Avengers movie or trying to decide which comic book legend to be for Halloween, superheroes have been a cultural fascination for decades. Kids are especially entertained by the quests of Batman, Supergirl, the Power Rangers, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A new study from Japan says that our love of superheroes might be with us from birth. Babies can recognize acts of heroism, and pick out the "good guys," at as young as 6 months old, according to a new, adorable study.

A team of researchers at Kyoto University of Japan did an experiment with several babies who were 6 to 10 months old. They were interested in trying to determine at what age we begin to have a sense of justice, or are able to perceive acts of wrongdoing in our environment. Previous studies have shown that toddlers and preschool-aged children certainly have a sense of justice and can tell right from wrong. In one such study, 3-year-olds were shown a puppet show depicting a theft. They consistently expressed concern and a desire to return the stolen item to the puppet who had been the victim of the theft, according to research by Keith Jensen, a psychologist at the University of Manchester in England, Live Science reported.

Keeping in mind the sense of right-and-wrong that toddlers seem to have, the team of researchers at Kyoto University set out to see if children at younger ages — babies, in fact — would demonstrate a similar sense of awareness. They showed several babies animations featuring a pair of geometric characters that were chasing and physically bumping into one another. There were two versions of the animation: one in which a third character watched the interaction from a distance and did not intervene, and another where the third character appeared and "helped" the victim character.

When this same scenario was replicated in front of the babies in real life, they showed a preference for the "helping" character over the character who did nothing. The study's first author Yasuhiro Kanakogi explained in the research's press release why this is such a remarkable observation:

In human society, selflessly protecting the powerless is considered an act of heroic justice. But understanding this is complex. You first have to grasp the power relationship between the actors, then that the hero's actions are favorable for the victim but not for the villain, and finally, that the hero acted deliberately.

The fact that babies as young as 6 months old were able to not only understand the concept of justice, but recognize it, made researchers wonder if the pull we feel toward superheroes is something we're born with. The older infants in the study, who were 10 months old, showed similar responses — though researchers noticed that they seemed to consider the motives of those involved in the act. Researchers took this observation to mean that even before we can walk and talk, our sense of justice is evolving. More so, that humans are likely born with an innate sense of justice that becomes more refined as we grow up.

The researchers also noted in their study that previous research has shown by the time babies are 1 to 2 years old, their responses to social interactions (perceiving them as positive or negative) become more heavily influenced by their parents. So, even if we're born with a thirst for justice, developing even our superhero social skills has a lot to do with how we're raised, too. No surprise, because everyone knows a superhero (or villain's) backstory is a crucial part of the mythology.