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.
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