Study Suggests Babies Understand Moral Behaviors

In many schools of thought within the greater scope of psychology and psychotherapy, it is believed that humans are born with a kind of “moral blank slate” which prevents them from distinguishing between right and wrong. Attempting to establish evidence to the contrary, a study carried out recently at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University has tested sixteen and twenty one month old babies for the ability to discern between right and wrong, as represented by helpful and unhelpful behaviors. Results suggest that even at this young age, humans can identify moral attributes, though criticism of the study’s conclusions exists.

The researchers performed a series of three puppet shows, which were repeated numerous times, as babies at both age groups looked on. In each, a central character attempting to perform a task was accompanied by both a helpful character and one that was unhelpful in terms of the task that was being attempted. After observing the individual puppet shows, babies were asked to choose a character, and a strong majority of the young participants chose the helpful characters. In one of the experiments, babies were asked to take a treat from either the helpful or unhelpful character, and again, most babies exhibited what the researchers characterized as moral judgment by taking the treat from the unhelpful character. In fact, one baby even smacked the unhelpful puppet in this experiment.

While those involved with the project suggest that the findings point to a potentially innate ability to discern between right and wrong, critics point out that adults may experience bias when interpreting the actions of babies, and they also note that learning about morality can be powerful –allowing for the idea that while a “blank slate” is present at birth, it is quickly enhanced with information about morality, leading to the ability of the very young to make accurate judgments.

© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Tyrone

    Tyrone

    May 11th, 2010 at 1:35 PM

    “In fact, one baby even smacked the unhelpful puppet in this experiment.” LOL! Maybe the baby just didn’t like the puppet’s face or was grumpy because it needed a nap. Aren’t the researchers over analyzing the babies’ actions here?

  • harriet M

    harriet M

    May 11th, 2010 at 2:02 PM

    i read bout this study in d newspaper jus today n i hav to say tht although we may hav a ‘clean slate’ at birth,we pick up things very quickly n easily…babies do nt need to be taught to talk…they jus see us n learn…it has to b d sam in this kind f judgement!

  • Lizzie

    Lizzie

    May 11th, 2010 at 7:42 PM

    I think babies pick up on right and wrong faster than we give them credit for. Just because they may not be able to vocalize it, doesn’t mean they don’t understand the concept.

  • Yeardley

    Yeardley

    May 12th, 2010 at 3:00 AM

    This is great- I agree with the one poster who said that maybe the faces of the puppets influenced the babies reactions. Usually when someone is being portrayed as being unhelpful they are shown as grumpy in the face or even not as attractive as others. Perhaps these faciual images are what the babies are picking up on and not the actual behaviors. I do not think that this can be discounted completely but I do think that someone could be reading just a little too much into this here. We do begin to teach our children the differences between right and wrong from a very early age but it is a pretty big stretch to me that children this young are going to be able to go out and discern right from wrong when that behavior does not apply directly to the things that they are doing in their own lives. Sure they know they may get disciplined when they do something that the parents do not want them doing, but do they recognize this as wrong for others too> I’m not sure that they are able to make those kinds of judgements yet.

  • Dylan

    Dylan

    May 12th, 2010 at 1:48 PM

    It would be great to see that puppet show. Assuming it’s a Punch and Judy type show with professional puppeteers, they’ll use voices appropriate to the puppet’s actions. Tone of voice alone could convey the message to the babies.

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