If you would like to better understand how to identify the main ideas in a reading passage before you practise here, go to the set of tasks online called ‘How to Locate the Main Ideas in a Text’ where you will learn strategies to identify ideas that are stated and ideas that are implied.

All the questions that follow require an understanding of the main idea in each paragraph. You are asked either to identify the main point or to answer a question that requires an implicit understanding of the main idea.

The text – Are we naturally good or bad? – has been divided into sections. Read each section and then answer the question that comes after it. Check your answer to receive feedback on your choice.


BBC Future
14 January 2013

Tom Stafford

1 It’s a question humanity has repeatedly asked itself, and one way to find out is to take a closer look at the behaviour of babies … and use puppets. Fundamentally speaking, are humans good or bad? It's a question that has repeatedly been asked throughout humanity. For thousands of years, philosophers have debated whether we have a basically good nature that is corrupted by society, or a basically bad nature that is kept in check by society. Psychology has uncovered some evidence which might give the old debate a twist.

What is the main point of the paragraph?

    a) Researching how babies behave is one way of determining the fundamental nature of   human beings. Incorrect
    b) The question about whether humans are basically good or bad has been debated for thousands of years. Incorrect
    c) New research has attempted to reveal whether humans are fundamentally good or evil. Correct
The answer is c).
The information in a) and c) is true, but the main purpose of this paragraph is to tell us that evidence has been uncovered which gives a new perspective to the ‘old debate’; the debate about whether humans are fundamentally good or evil. What follows is likely to be a description of this particular research.
2 One way of asking about our most fundamental characteristics is to look at babies. Babies' minds are a wonderful showcase for human nature. Babies are humans with the absolute minimum of cultural influence - they don't have many friends, have never been to school and haven't read any books. They can't even control their own bowels, let alone speak the language, so their minds are as close to innocent as a human mind can get. The only problem is that the lack of language makes it tricky to gauge their opinions. Normally we ask people to take part in experiments, giving them instructions or asking them to answer questions, both of which require language. Babies may be cuter to work with, but they are not known for their obedience. What's a curious psychologist to do? Fortunately, you don't necessarily have to speak to reveal your opinions. Babies will reach for things they want or like, and they will tend to look longer at things that surprise them. Ingenious experiments carried out at Yale University in the US used these measures to look at babies' minds. Their results suggest that even the youngest humans have a sense of right and wrong, and, furthermore, an instinct to prefer good over evil.

What is the main idea?

    a) Research at Yale University has shown that babies have a moral sense. Incorrect
    b) Using babies in research is difficult because they don’t communicate very easily. Incorrect
    c) Babies’ innocent minds make them ideal candidates for research into basic human nature. Correct
The answer is c).
a) is actually introducing the subject of the next paragraph, so it is not the main idea here.
b) is true, but much of the paragraph gives reasons why babies are ideal candidates for researching basic human nature.
3 How could the experiments tell this? Imagine you are a baby. Since you have a short attention span, the experiment will be shorter and loads more fun than most psychology experiments. It was basically a kind of puppet show; the stage a scene featuring a bright green hill, and the puppets were cut-out shapes with stick on wobbly eyes; a triangle, a square and a circle, each in their own bright colours. What happened next was a short play, as one of the shapes tried to climb the hill, struggling up and falling back down again. Next, the other two shapes got involved, with either one helping the climber up the hill, by pushing up from behind, or the other hindering the climber, by pushing back from above.

Paragraph 3

    a) describes the steps of the experiment Incorrect
    b) describes a story the babies are shown Correct
    c) answers the question at the beginning of the paragraph Incorrect
The answer is b).
Even though the paragraph includes the phrase ‘the experiment will be shorter and loads more fun than most psychology experiments’ the paragraph does not give a step-by-step description of the experiment. Therefore, the reference to experiments is a distractor and a) is not correct. The paragraph describes what the babies are shown - a simple story.
Let’s look at c). c) refers to the question, ‘How could the experiments tell this?’ ‘This’ refers to the following statement in the previous paragraph, ‘even the youngest humans have a sense of right and wrong, and, furthermore, an instinct to prefer good over evil’. Paragraph 3 does not give any reasons to explain this theory.
4 Already something amazing, psychologically, is going on here. All humans are able to interpret the events in the play in terms of the story I’ve described. The puppets are just shapes. They don't make human sounds or display human emotions. They just move about, and yet everyone reads these movements as purposeful, and revealing of their characters. You can argue that this “mind reading”, even in infants, shows that it is part of our human nature to believe in other minds.

Paragraph 4 presents

    a) a suggestion Incorrect
    b) an opinion Correct
    c) a surprising fact Incorrect
The answer is b).
If the babies believe that these shapes have human characteristics, it is indeed surprising, but it is not necessarily true and therefore not a fact. ‘You can argue that …’ tells us that this information is merely an opinion.

Great expectations

5 What happened next tells us even more about human nature. After the show, infants were given the choice of reaching for either the helping or the hindering shape, and it turned out they were much more likely to reach for the helper. This can be explained if they are reading the events of the show in terms of motivations - the shapes aren't just moving at random, but they showed to the infant that the shape pushing uphill "wants" to help out (and so is nice) and the shape pushing downhill "wants" to cause problems (and so is nasty).

Researchers claim the babies believe the shapes

    a) have different attitudes Correct
    b) are human Incorrect
    c) move by themselves Incorrect
The answer is a).
What do researchers claim? They provide no evidence to suggest that the babies believe the shapes are real human beings, so b) is not correct.
The babies may believe that the shapes move by themselves - answer c) - but the researchers do not claim this to be true.
What they do claim is that the babies may read the events of the show in terms of ‘motivations’; in other words, that the babies believe the shapes possess different attitudes, either wanting to cause problems or wanting to help out.
6 The researchers used an encore to confirm these results. Infants saw a second scene in which the climber shape made a choice to move towards either the helper shape or the hinderer shape. The time infants spent looking in each of the two cases revealed what they thought of the outcome. If the climber moved towards the hinderer the infants looked significantly longer than if the climber moved towards the helper. This makes sense if the infants were surprised when the climber approached the hinderer. Moving towards the helper shape would be the happy ending, and obviously it was what the infant expected. If the climber moved towards the hinderer it was a surprise, as much as you or I would be surprised if we saw someone give a hug to a man who had just knocked him over.

“The researchers used an encore to confirm the results” means

    a) the experiment was repeated. Incorrect
    b) a completely different experiment was carried out. Incorrect
    c) a further experiment was carried out based on the first. Correct
The answer is c).
The experiment was not completely different, so b) is incorrect. The same shapes are used, but the scene is different. The second experiment is therefore a development of the first.
7 The way to make sense of this result is if infants, with their pre-cultural brains had expectations about how people should act. Not only do they interpret the movement of the shapes as resulting from motivations, but they prefer helping motivations over hindering ones. This doesn't settle the debate over human nature. A cynic would say that it just shows that infants are self-interested and expect others to be the same way. At a minimum though, it shows that tightly bound into the nature of our developing minds is the ability to make sense of the world in terms of motivations, and a basic instinct to prefer friendly intentions over malicious ones. It is on this foundation that adult morality is built.

Which statement is correct?

    a) The experiment proves human beings are naturally good. Incorrect
    b) The experiment does not prove that human beings are naturally good. Incorrect
    c) The experiment may prove that human beings are naturally good. Correct
The correct answer is c).
Imagine X = ‘Babies have expectations about how people should act.’
Imagine Y = ‘The babies interpret the movement of the shapes as resulting from motivations.’
Imagine Z = ‘They prefer helping motivations over hindering ones.’
The writer explains that the results of this experiment, i.e. Z, only make sense if you believe that X and Y are true, but they may not be true. From a logical point of view, if X or Y, or both, are false, then Z cannot be true. Answer a) is therefore incorrect.
Answer b), however, may be true if X or Y, or both, are false, but we don’t know, so b) is also incorrect.

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