Are female infants more caring?

As the NY Times and CNN are reporting, important new research is telling us that infants can distinguish between helpers and hinderers and they prefer the helpers; from the NYTimes:

Babies as young as 6 to 10 months old showed crucial social judging skills before they could talk, according to a study by researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center published in Thursday’s journal Nature.

The infants watched a googly-eyed wooden toy trying to climb roller-coaster hills and then another googly-eyed toy come by and either help it over the mountain or push it backward. They then were presented with the toys to see which they would play with.

Nearly every baby picked the helpful toy over the bad one.

The babies also chose neutral toys — ones that didn’t help or hinder — over the naughty ones. And the babies chose the helping toys over the neutral ones.

Further, there were no differences in reactions between boy and girl babies.

The lead author, Kilely Hamlin, presented related research to the Society for Philosophy and Psychology in June, 2007; this newer research indicates comparable skills in 3 month olds.

So how about the male  brain that is naturally absorbed by a mechanical world and not attuned to the social world that Baron-Cohen has written about:

In my work I have summarized these differences by saying that males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one’s own.

For Baron-Cohen, autism is a form of an extreme male brain. Autism very rarely is diagnosed at 9 months, and so it is on the cards that the difference between girls and boys shows up later, as boys might might lose a capacity for empathy just as, it is conjectured, some children start out with synaesthesia and lose it. But given the most recent research, people who assume that the baby girls are sweeter and more empathetic than the boys may well be teaching this difference rather than discovering it from observation.

3 thoughts on “Are female infants more caring?

  1. I believe the current thinking is that although there may be less girls with autism, it is generally assumed that since they don’t fall into the ‘typical symptoms’ that they’re either mis-diagnosed or undiagnosed.
    Best wishes

  2. I don’t have any expertise myself on autism, mcewen, but my sense is that at least a lot of experts hold that autism is considerably more prevalent in males, though they agree that those girls who are disagnosed also are different from the male autists.

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