Some scientific research is carried out on animals, usually where the procedures would be illegal or potentially dangerous if applied to humans.  Obviously this raises very serious ethical issues, but there are also questions as to how far animal studies can be applied to human beings.  However, some animal studies – particularly when based just on careful observation – can generate valuable insights.  One such study (Anderson, 2017) at Kyoto University in Japan looked at whether animals make any sort of social evaluations in their reactions to people.  It has been known for some time that babies, by the age of one at least, are beginning to judge others by how they relate to each other.   Could this sort of behaviour be innate?  The researchers started by studying capuchin monkeys.  The monkeys watched various scenarios where an actor struggled to open a can with a toy in.  Other actors were either helpful or unhelpful and later the monkeys showed a clear preference for the helpful ones.  Dogs behaved similarly.  In a later series the animals watched actors sharing their toys, or not, and similarly showed a preference for the more generous actors.  Obviously the dogs have evolved to live in human society and are sensitive to it, but the monkeys were wild so it suggests this proto-ethical behaviour is innate.

This observation my help to explain a series of studies (Döring, 2017) undertaken with 418 Swiss and German families to see how far a child’s upbringing influenced their values.  They found that parents whose behaviour was more generous, positive, supporting, altruistic and less selfish had children who were also more generous and less selfish.  In other words, parents who teach their children to be kind are more likely to pass their values on to their children.  However, a positive note, selfish parents were less likely to pass on their values so selfish parents do not necessarily breed selfish children.

Altruistic behaviour has been studied extensively and a consensus has been reached amongst psychologists that adults gain more satisfaction from sharing than they do, in general, in possessing.  Wu (2017) and his colleagues found, at least in China, that whilst children who were pressurised to share did so more often than if they were left to choose, those who voluntarily shared showed much greater happiness.  This represents the first evidence that sharing under social norms is less emotionally rewarding than sharing voluntarily.  However it does support Montessori’s advice that children should wait to use a piece of material that was not free and that adults should not pressurise another child to share it.

Returning to the subject of animal studies, it has long been known that animals like other mammals, birds, some fish and even some invertebrates share our ability to intuitively perceive some mathematical relationships. Everyone can tell at a glance what the difference is between 8 and 10 apples without needing to count them.  Even babies can tell immediately the difference between 10 and 20 dots.  Cognitive neuroscience researcher Joonkoo Park (Collins, 2017) has used dot recognition experiments to locate this ability in the subcortex (a relatively ancient part of the brain.)   Using this insight as a jumping-off point, he hopes to be able to develop this work further to try and elucidate why some children do not develop their innate abilities into more abstract concepts to learn.

We do tend to think of learning as something that just happens from an early age, but studies have shown that the interaction between innate behaviours and experience starts pre-natally.  Young babies show a very early preference for looking at human faces.  But Reid (2017) has now shown that even in the womb there is the same preference.  Using patterns of coloured lights shone onto a mother’s abdomen, he showed that babies tracked the lights as they moved and showed a marked preference for the pattern of dots that more closely resembled a face.  Pre-natal learning has, in fact, been observed in a wide range of contexts (Lewy, 2017).  Human babies are more tolerant of spicy food if their mothers ate it in pregnancy and this has been shown with lambs whose mothers were fed oregano.  New-born babies cry in cadences that are characteristic of the mother’s language.  In Australia Diane Colombelli-Negrel showed that fairy wrens teach their eggs a particular song before cuckoos invade their nests, and then only hatchlings using that song patter get fed – thus thwarting the cuckoos.  Cuttlefish eggs have been shown to recognise prey species nearby and even pea seedling have been shown to exhibit reflexes not unlike those shown by Pavlov’ dogs.  Clearly we have a lot to learn about learning.

One aspect of learning which has been enthusiastically taken up in many (mainstream) schools is Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets.  In a sentence, children who believe that their abilities are more-or-less fixed tend to do a lot less well than those who believe that they can improve their learning.  It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it has been well demonstrated experimentally.  Now a new study (Nowicki, 2017) has shown that a parent’s outlook on life can have a profound effect on the behaviour of their child.  A team organised by Professor Jean Golding of Bristol University, using follow-up data from over 10,000 children surveyed in the ALSPAC study in the UK, studied the effect on parents of externality (the belief that our behaviours have little effect on our infants) and internality (the belief that what happens to us is closely linked to what we do).  Initially they found that externality was linked to a lower attendance at pre-natal classes, less breast-feeding and less conscientiousness about immunization.  They then went on to look at features in the infants like poor sleeping, temper tantrums and ‘picky’ eating and found that these were also linked to parents with externality attitudes.  Interestingly, a father with internality attitudes would compensate for an externality-orientated mother.  This is obviously a vital area for parents to understand and Professor Stephen Nowicki, emeritus professor of psychology at Emory University, Atlanta USA, and a member of Golding’s team, has written a book Choice or Chance on the topic, which gives much more detail on the topic of centres of control.


Anderson, J. et al. (2017). Third-party social evaluation of humans by monkeys and dogs.  Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews,

Döring, A.K. et al. (2017).  Parent-child value similarity in families with young children: The predictive power of prosocial educational goalsBritish Journal of Psychology,  doi: 10.1111/bjop.12238

Collins, E. et al. (2017). Numerosity representation is encoded in human subcortex. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sc.:  201613982 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1613982114

Lewy, G. (2017). Early learners. New Scientist 28.1.17; 39-41.

Nowicki, S. (2016). Choice or Chance: understand your locus of control and why it matters. New York: Penguin Random House.

Nowicki, S. et al. (2017). The impact of prenatal parental locus of control on children’s psychological outcomes in infancy and early childhood: a prospective 5 year study.  Frontiers in Psychology 8 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00546

Wu, Z. et al. (2017). Motivation Counts: autonomous but not obligated sharing promotes happiness in pre-schoolers.  Frontiers in Psychology 8 doi: 10.3389 /fpsyg.2017.00867

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