Mothers and fathers might think they have few higher duties than teaching a sense of right and wrong to their children. But research suggests that their offspring may already be a step ahead of them.
Scientists have discovered that babies can start to make moral judgments by the age of six months and may be born with the ability to tell good from bad hard-wired into their brains.
Infants can even act as judge and jury in the nursery. Researchers who asked one-year-old babies to take away treats from a “naughty” puppet found they were sometimes also leaning over and smacking the figure on the head.
The research is being pioneered by a team of psychologists at the infant cognition centre at Yale University in Connecticut. Their findings go against the received wisdom that humans begin life with a moral “blank slate” and are shaped by their parents and social environment.
In their research, the scientists used the ability to tell helpful from unhelpful behaviour as an indication of moral judgment. In one experiment, they tested infants less than a year old playing with cuddly animals and puppets. Babies are unable to press buttons or pull levers to show their preferences so the scientists measured the amount of time a child was gazing at one object. Typically they stare longer at things that please them.
In one test, groups of babies aged between six months and a year watched an animated film of simple geometric shapes. A red ball with eyes tries to climb a hill. At different times, a yellow square gets behind it to help push it up the hill and a green triangle forces it back down again.
The babies watched it between six and 14 times, depending on their powers of concentration. They were then asked to “choose” between the “good guy” square, and the “bad guy” triangle. In 80% of cases the infants chose the helpful character against the unhelpful one.
In a second study, a toy dog tries to open a box. One teddy bear helps him but another sits on it to stop him getting inside. After watching it at least six times, the babies were asked to choose which bear they liked. Most opted for the friendly bear.
Paul Bloom, professor of psychology who heads the study team, said the research flew in the face of psychologists such as Sigmund Freud who believed humans began life as “amoral animals” and William James who described a baby’s mental life as “one great, blooming, buzzing confusion”.
“There is a growing body of scientific evidence that supports the idea that perhaps some sense of good and evil is bred in the bone,” Bloom said.
To establish whether babies were really responding to niceness and naughtiness the scientists devised another test in which a toy cat plays with a ball while a cuddly rabbit puppet stands on either side. When the cat loses the ball, the rabbit on the right side returns it to him but if the ball rolls the other way the rabbit on the left side picks it up and runs away with it. This time, one-year-old babies were asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Most took it from the pile of the naughty rabbit, who also ended up with a smack on the head for his bad behaviour.
Kiley Hamlin, author of the team’s Infant Morality report, said: “We spend a lot of time worrying about teaching the difference between good guys and bad guys in the world but this might be something that infants come to the world with.”
However, Nadja Reissland, a behavioural psychologist at Durham University, cautioned that adult assumptions may have coloured how a child’s actions were interpreted by the researchers.
“Everything hinges on who decides what is moral,” said Reissland. “By saying pushing the ball up the hill is helpful, the researchers are making a moral judgment. The babies might just prefer to see things go up rather than down.
“In the other test, perhaps the bear closes the box to prevent the dog from getting in there because there is something dangerous inside. It is like a mother keeping children out of an area where there is something harmful.”
Reissland added that children started being socialised into knowing good from bad as soon as they were born.
Peter Willatts, a senior lecturer in psychology at Dundee University, said: “You cannot get inside the mind of the baby. You cannot ask them. You have to go on what most attracts their attention.
“We now know that in the first six months babies learn things much quicker than we thought possible. What they are born with and what they learn is difficult to divide.”