The Nov. 22 issue of the journal Nature has an article that discusses how babies can recognize helping behaviors. Here is an excerpt about this article from

To test if babies could tell a helper from a hinderer, Hamlin had groups of 6-month-olds and 10-month-olds watch a “puppet” show with neutral, anthropomorphized wooden shapes, where one shape, the climber, was trying to get up a hill. In one scenario, one of the other shapes helped the climber get up the hill, but in the other scenario a third shaped pushed the climber down.

“One way we thought that [ability] might come out with babies is just being able to tell the difference between someone who might harm you and someone who might help you,” Hamlin told LiveScience.

Babies were then presented with the helper and hinderer shapes so they could pick which one they preferred, and 14 out of 16 10-month-olds and all 12 6-month-olds picked the helper.

While this clear preference doesn’t necessarily indicate that this is an innate ability, it shows language isn’t necessary for it to develop (since the babies had not yet begun to meaningfully speak) and is also unlikely to be something that is explicitly taught.

“It’s highly unlikely that any parent is going to sort of set up these situations for their babies and teach them about it,” Hamlin said.

So what role natural ability and experience play in acquiring these skills is uncertain.

“It might be that this is something that babies come to the table with from the beginning, or it might be that they’re just set up to learn it incredibly quickly,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin and her colleagues also think the ability to tell helpers from hinderers could be the first step in the formation of morals.