From the Minds of Babes Come the Beginnings of Morals

Are we born with the ability to interpret positive or negative actions?

infant

A 6-month-old reaches for the "good guy" in an experiment, indicating a preference for positive behavior in others.

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It's often said that kids and dogs are the best judges of a person's character. Using a sixth sense, plain instinct, or something else, they have the uncanny ability to instantly sniff out the best and worst of us. The knack for quickly sizing up a person is in fact a survival skill, says Yale psychologist Karen Wynn, but little is known about how we develop it. Are we born knowing how to sort friend from foe, or do we learn it from those around us?

Wynn heads Yale's Infant Cognition Laboratory, where she and a cadre of graduate students probe little minds to understand the origins of some of our most basic social and psychological processes, such as the foundation of moral thought and action. Many of their subjects can't even talk yet—an advantage, Wynn says, when studying inborn thought processes before they become complicated by language, culture, education, and experience.

Wynn's laboratory looks like a typical daycare center. Infants and toddlers play with puppets or red circles, blue squares and yellow triangles with little glued-on eyes. The researchers use the differently colored shapes to explore how 6-month- or 10-month-old infants interpret certain actions between the shapes—whether they're helpful or unhelpful.

"It's one thing to form an opinion about a person you interact directly with," said Wynn. "But we learn something different from studying how infants judge the actions of third parties."

In the experiment, infants look at a couple of scenarios played out on a computer screen. In one, a red circle tries to roll up a hill but repeatedly slides back down, unable to reach its goal. A yellow triangle comes along and helps by pushing the red circle to the top of the hill. In the second scenario, a blue square hinders the climber by pushing it back down the hill. To rule out selections based on preference for merely shape or color, the researchers reversed the roles of the shapes for another set of kids.

When the shapes were later placed in front of the children, all of the 6-month-olds and 14 of 16 of the 10-month-olds reached for the three-sided helper, indicating a preference for that behavior through a process the researchers call "social evaluation."

Indeed, such early evaluation by preverbal infants may be the bud of moral conscience.

"The social evaluations we have observed in our young subjects have at least one crucial component of genuine moral judgments: they do not stem from an infant's own experience with the actors involved," said Wynn.

The trait may lead back to the beginnings of human society. Such cooperative behavior as group hunting, sharing of food and warfare may have developed as a survival advantage for the individual. But it could only evolve, Wynn said, if one can size up the actions of others and determine if they will help survival or not.

In a scientific report on the study, Wynn and her coworkers concluded we are in fact born with the ability to interpret positive or negative actions. "The capacity to evaluate individuals on the basis of their social interactions is universal and unlearned," the report says.

—By Leslie Fink, NSF

This report is provided by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, in partnership with U.S. News and World Report.