Bribing Baby With Cheerios

I’m going to take a little break today from talking about hearing and language to talk about something totally unrelated that caught my attention this past week.  The Washington Post had this article about a recently published study about babies’ innate sense of morality and using bribery to override that innate morality that fascinated me. (Tasimi, A. and Wynn, K. “Costly rejection of wrongdoers by infants and children.” Cognition, 151, pg. 76-79, 2016 – full study available here!)


In a nutshell, there have been previous studies that have shown that even 1-year old babies have an innate sense of morality – after watching a puppet show, babies are more drawn to a puppet that helps another puppet than to a puppet that hurts or hinders the other puppet. What this study found was that while this is true, you can override this innate preference for the “good” puppet by bribing the baby with graham crackers.

The Study

The researchers first established that babies are more likely to reach for a plate that has more than one graham cracker compared with just one graham cracker.  They did this by doing a “baseline puppet show” where they had 2 puppets each offer the baby a plate with graham crackers. One of the plates had just one graham cracker, and the other had more than 1 (either 2 or 8) – indeed, the babies robustly seemed to reach for the plate offered by the puppet that had more than 1 graham cracker.

They next conducted a little “morality puppet play” for the babies. There were two versions of the play. In both versions, a lamb puppet tried to open a box. In the first scenario (the “good puppet” scenario) – a helpful rabbit puppet helped the lamb puppet open the box. In the second scenario (the “bad puppet” scenario) – an unhelpful rabbit puppet (wearing a different colored shirt than the helpful rabbit puppet) slammed the box lid shut on the lamb puppet. After showing babies both versions, the researchers had the helpful rabbit puppet and the unhelpful rabbit puppet each offer the baby a plate of graham crackers, with the helpful rabbit puppet offering just one graham cracker and the unhelpful rabbit puppet offering more.

The researchers found that when the unhelpful rabbit puppet offered only 2 graham crackers (that is, more than the helpful rabbit, but not MUCH more), the babies took the helpful rabbit’s crackers – they were rejecting the unhelpful rabbit. However, when the unhelpful rabbit offered 8 graham crackers (MUCH more than the helpful rabbit), the babies took graham crackers from the unhelpful rabbit, suggesting that babies were unable to resist the lure of the bad puppet offering them more crackers.

Here’s the main figure from the study:


With the gray bars, you can see that babies preferred the plates with more than 1 graham crackers, regardless of whether the plate had 2 or 8 – they just cared that it was more than 1. Looking at the black bar on the left, though, you can see that the babies strongly rejected the plate with 2 graham crackers when it was offered by the bad puppet – but when the bad puppet offered 8 graham crackers, they reached for that plate almost as often as when the 8 graham cracker plate was offered by a puppet without behavior issues.

My Replication

Since T (11.5 months) is pretty much the exact age of the babies in the study now, I had to try and replicate this! (this is why people have children, yes? <– totally kidding). Luckily we had a set of puppets at home (that T LOVES), and I used cheerios instead of graham crackers (for crumb issues).

I set up a little curtain area and started my puppet show. I first tried to replicate the baseline finding, to see if T would prefer cheerios from a puppet offering more than 1 compared to from a puppet offering just 1 cheerio. I was very easily able to replicate this – regardless of which of my puppets was offering cheerios or how much more than 1, T robustly reached for the “more than 1” cup.

Then I had to replicate the morality plays. Rather than having my helpful puppet help open a box and my unhelpful puppet slam the box shut, I had my helpful puppet help carry a block and my unhelpful puppet drop a block on the other puppet’s head. (This was particularly disturbing since our puppets are part of a “happy helpers” set – so in this case, I had a doctor puppet dropping a block on a firefighter puppets head. oops.)

I then had my “good puppet” offer 1 cheerio and my “bad puppet” offer 2 cheerios – to my surprise, T reached for the cup with one cheerio! I ended up repeating this two more times – in the end, of the 3 times I tried this, he went for the good puppet (offering 1 cheerio) twice, and the bad puppet (offering 2 cheerios) once.

Finally, I had my good puppet offer 1 cheerio and my bad puppet offer 10 cheerios – I repeated this 3 times, and of those 3 times, T always reached for the bad puppet’s many cheerios.

Based on this, it seems like we might have replicated the results of the study! T did somewhat seem to reject the bad puppet when he only offered 2 cheerios (2/3 times), but reached for the bad puppet when he had lots of cheerios (3/3 times). On the other hand, I’m not convinced that he thought the “bad puppet” was all that bad, since he DID reach for the bad puppet several times to kiss him, and he clapped and laughed when the bad puppet dropped the block on the other puppet’s head. So it’s hard to say. Regardless, T and I both had fun 🙂






  1. Hi Arthi! This is Sweta! I’ve been following your blog and I love reading your posts and following baby T’s progress. In response to this post, we watched this fascinating video about inherent morality in infants and toddlers. I thought you would enjoy it!


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