There could be a good reason why we all love superhero movies — we may be born with a sense of justice and an admiration for heroic characters, suggests a new study from Japanese researchers.
Studying how infants react to scenes of a hero figure intervening during a confrontation, researchers from Kyoto University found that infants wield a fine-tuned sense of justice and can recognize acts of heroism as early as six months of age.
The infants appear to be “drawn to figures who protect the weak,” according to the researchers, whose study was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior. That innate attraction may explain why people of all ages show an affinity toward superhero movies and other heroic stories that abound in popular culture.
“In human society, selflessly protecting the powerless is considered an act of heroic justice. But understanding this is complex,” said first author Yasuhiro Kanakogi. “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.”
In other words, that’s a lot of mental work for a six-month-old. But the study shows that even at a young age children can grasp the fundamental elements of a moral code and show a predisposition toward heroic behavior.
An Early Path to Justice
For the study, the researchers showed infants an animation of a confrontation involving a would-be heroic figure — one character chases and bumps into another, while the third character views the action from a distance. In one scenario, the third character leaves the scene without lending a hand; in another, the character intervenes.
The researchers then displayed the same scenes in front of the infants but used real-life objects as stand-ins for the animated characters. When given a choice to select the object that represented the third character, most infants opted for the one that was the intervener.
“Six-month-old infants are still in an early developmental stage, and most will not yet be able to talk. Nevertheless they can already understand the power dynamics between these different characters, suggesting that recognizing heroism is perhaps an innate ability,” said contributing author David Butler.
The researchers conducted similar studies on 10-month-olds and discovered that the heroic attraction not only remained but also expanded to encompass a greater understanding of the sense of justice at work.
In addition to showing a preference for the intervening character, researchers found that “subsequent experiments confirmed the psychological processes underlying such choices: six-month-olds regarded the interfering agent to be protecting the victim from the aggressor, but only older infants affirmed such an intervention after considering the intentions of the interfering agent.”
That is, “in this study, six-month-olds didn’t show a preference for intentional help over accidental help, whereas ten-month-olds did,” said Masako Myowa, a professor at the University of Kyoto.
The study gives a compelling reason behind the heroic stories that “have pervaded popular culture throughout recorded human history, in myths, books and movies,” report the researchers. But they also believe the new insight may provide “a possibility of contributing to solutions for serious social issues such as bullying,” said Myowa.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.