How moral is your baby?

Most people think of infants as pretty simple little beings.  They mainly eat, sleep and soil their nappies.  Sometimes they smile and coo at us, but we don’t imagine that there is a lot of complex social thinking going on behind their cute, round faces. However, research from the Yale University Infant Cognition Center suggests babies are more sophisticated than we believed. The ability to effectively evaluate other people is essential for success in human society.  We must be able to assess both the intentions and actions of the people around us. The more quickly and accurately we do this, the better off we are.  Basically, we need to be able to quickly determine who is likely to be friend or enemy, and who would make a good social partner, or not.  This involves making dozens of micro-assessments of the behavior and physical characteristics of other people and their intentions in rapid order in a huge variety of social contexts; something you might imagine is well beyond the ability of an infant.  Then enters the question of “nature versus nurture”.  Do humans develop these skills through interaction with parents and religion teachers, or are they innately capable of making these judgments themselves?


Dr. Hamlin and Dr. Wynn (husband and wife) at Yale University and their colleagues  have conducted a variety of very clever experiments to get at the answer to this and other important questions. Drs. Hamlin and Wynn apply two simple but effective principles when exploring the capacity for social thinking in preverbal infants.  First is the infant’s reaching behavior. Babies reliably express preference by reaching for items and people they prefer. Second is what is called an expectation paradigm. This means that babies look longer at events that they do not expect.  Then, using some ingenious scenarios with puppet actors with human-like (animate) features like faces and eyes, they expose infants to different scenarios where the babies are bystanders witnessing interactions between puppets.  I encourage you to watch an excellent video to understand more clearly what these researchers are doing.

Some of these puppets display helping (pro-social) behavior, and others act in anti-social ways.  After viewing these puppet plays, the researchers have found that infants as young as 6 months of age from various ethnic backgrounds consistently express a clear preference for the “helper” puppets.  This indicates that the babies develop distinct impressions of the puppet characters on the basis of their actions towards of a third puppet. Going one step further, the researchers created scenarios where antisocial puppets were “punished” for their antisocial behavior by another puppet. In these experiments, babies consistently demonstrated preference for helper (punishing) and neutral (victim) puppets and aversion to hindering or antisocial puppets, indicating they were capable of both positive and negative social evaluations.

cute infant photo

The presence of these social skills in young infants suggests that these essential skills have evolutionary origins in our genetics. The ability to perform these kinds of complex social evaluations at such an early age is essentially a biological adaptation that is the basis for later cooperative social behaviors (morality) that promote survival such as food sharing, group hunting and gathering food. The Yale researchers have published other fascinating studies on infant cognition that I will share in future posts. Until then, I encourage you to reconsider your perceptions of what is going on in the minds of your young babies!

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