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The Nature of Things: Babies: Born to be Good

The Nature of Things: Babies: Born to be Good?

Where does our moral compass come from? Where do our notions of good and bad, our sense of justice and fairness originate? Do we come into the world as amoral creatures without any sense of right and wrong, without any conscience and only learn to be good?

In laboratories around the world psychologists are grappling with the age-old problem of morality.  And strange as it may seem, they are posing these large philosophical questions to babies.  As the answers emerge, the findings about babies’ moral notions tell us much about human nature.

The last 30 years have brought about a revolution in our understanding of babies.  New techniques have allowed psychologists to decipher what babies think and they’ve discovered more and more about the complexity of what is going on in even the youngest baby’s mind. The results of their research are startling. The evidence suggests that there are glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of a baby’s life.

And so we witness 3-month olds demonstrating preference for “good guys” over “bad guys”.  We see 6 month-olds proving they understand concepts of reward and punishment. And 9-month-olds -- justice and fairness?

We look at the influence of culture on lying and truthfulness,-- (and what is an acceptable white lie) -- as children try to navigate the fine line between the two, learning how to solve one of the big moral questions that adults  face everyday.

Morality is absolutely fundamental to our life, it covers just about every span of human endeavour, every aspect of day to day interaction. And if we want to see where our moral instinct comes from studying babies gives us insight into human nature before it gets tainted & corrupted by culture.

Research on Infant Morality

The latest studies on the minds of infants reveal new information about how humans shape their moral views – and this research is being done by Canadians.

Studies by a group of Canadian-born or based psychologists have provided the first evidence that babies are hardwired with an innate sense of good and bad.

A 2007 study by Yale University’s Paul Bloom of Montreal and Karen Wynn of Regina, as well as J. Kiley Hamlin from the University of British Columbia, shows that six- and ten-month old babies can assess individuals based on their behaviour towards others.  The trio presented babies with scenes involving shapes that represented both “helper” and “hinderer” characters. When asked to point at or touch the character they liked best, in an overwhelming number of scenarios, the babies almost always chose the “good guy.”

In 2010, Bloom’s research also proved that babies as young as three months old can make moral judgements about right and wrong. The next year, Hamlin published another study that suggests babies as young as eight months old embrace the punishment of “bad” characters.

Although volumes of work have been done on babies’ cognitive development and even their understanding of other higher-order processes, such as empathy, it’s hard to find any previous studies on the moral life of infants. Hamlin says she’s not surprised.

“The reason you can’t find any work on this before our paper is because there just wasn’t any,” Hamlin said. “The assumption was that there was no way that babies did any of this stuff.”

Hamlin adds that psychologists were satisfied with the more common belief that a baby’s mind was a tabula rasa or a blank slate, waiting to learn the difference between right and wrong, at about three to ten years of age.

Jean Piaget is most famous for his research during the 1920s, but the Swiss psychologist drew his theories on moral development from young children, not preverbal infants. Piaget, like Sigmund Freud and Lawrence Kohlberg, believed that children were born as amoral agents and eventually form their own moral reasoning through socialization. But over the last thirty years, scientists have overturned this view.

In the 1970s and ‘80s psychologists started to make use of babies’ eye movements as an experimental tool. “Looking time” – the theory that babies tend to linger on what captures their attention – helped psychologists like Elizabeth Spelke and Renee Baillargeon understand a baby’s “naive physics.” Their experiments involved showing babies magic tricks, such as floating boxes and disappearing objects. They determined that babies have expectations about the behaviour of objects, especially when they violate laws of the universe.

Then Baillargeon, Stephanie Sloane and David Premack took their queries a step further earlier this year. If infants have expectations of the behaviour of objects, they must have some kind of innate, general understanding of fairness, the psychologists hypothesized.  In their experiments, they engaged 19 to 21-month-old children in scenarios in which puppets earned rewards or gifts. Baillergeon and her team found that babies spent more time focusing on the scenes in which “slacker” characters were rewarded more or the same number of treats than the “hard-working” puppets.

“These studies, like earlier studies, show that children have expectations that individuals will distribute resources and rewards fairly,” Baillargeon said. “It could affect the way we teach what is appropriate behaviour.”

Jennifer Jenkins, the Atkinson Chair of early child development and education at the University of Toronto, has also done research in young children and what influences their early development. She says that although babies are born with a multitude of expectancies, they are constantly taking in information, even before birth.

“I think children are learning from their environment when they are in utero,” Jenkins said, “and as they come out, they are also learning from their environment – all of those are experiences that children learn from.”

Jenkins emphasizes that this breakthrough research shows it’s possible to delve into the minds of infants younger than we thought possible, which can help adults understand how to interact with young children. 

“What’s happening in the research is that people are showing that children are making these discriminations earlier and earlier,” she said. “What that tells us is that the environment is important from very early on in children’s lives, so it makes a difference what we’re doing in child care settings and in families.”

In other areas of cognitive development, scientists have studied the minds of infants younger than three months old. This research, Hamlin says, is ‘easier’ to design and conduct than those involving moral cognition, but she believes they have yet to reach the frontiers of studying innate knowledge.

“My tests necessarily involve watching an interaction unfold over time, and newborns are notoriously poor lookers and visual-attenders. So I am not sure how much younger we will be able to go with the kinds of morality play studies that I do.

“That said, I definitely do not believe, in general, that three months is the youngest we can study innate knowledge,” Hamlin added. “Additional methodologies are coming around every day, especially with the use of infant EEG (electroencephalogram) and NIRS (near-infrared spectroscopy), which allow us to probe the brain activity of even newborn brains, or even prenatal brains.”

However, Hamlin and her peers, including Bloom, acknowledge that the morality babies start off with is primitive and limited, and is not complete without cultural influence.

“The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at – its generality and universality – is the product of culture, not biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention,” he said. “A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development.”

Bloom adds that studying moral development is not just about feeding the fascination people have with how a baby’s mind works. He says there are larger social implications that can be drawn from these studies.

“It helps to know how the mind works,” Bloom said. “Take the example of prejudice. If we want to eradicate prejudice, it’s important to ask questions like ‘are we naturally prejudiced?'  When we try to instil kindness, are we nurturing impulse? It helps to know what our natural biases are.”

Meet the Experts 

PAUL BLOOM is a professor of psychology at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching. He is past-president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and co-editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, one of the major journals in the field. 

Professor Bloom has written for scientific journals such as Nature and Science, and for popular outlets such as The New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic. He is the author or editor of four books, including How Children Learn the Meanings of Words, and Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human

ALISON GOPNIK is a professor of Psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She received her BA from McGill University and her Phd. from Oxford. She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue the children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She is the author of over 100 journals and books including The Philosophical Baby: What children’s minds tell us about love, truth and the meaning of life

J. KILEY HAMLIN is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Her work with babies focuses on how they evaluate the behavior of others in everyday life. In particular, she looks at children’s tendency to judge actions as good or bad, as deserving of reward or punishment, and as morally praiseworthy or blameworthy. She studies whether children’s moral evaluation of the behavior of others enables them to predict how someone might behave in the future. She has designed studies which illicit information from infants who can’t yet speak in the hope that she will uncover foundational origins of these processes before complex cognitive abilities (such as language and inhibitory control) fully develop, and prior to the influences of cultural norms and values. 

FELIX WARNEKEN is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His work explores children’s understanding of social situations with a special focus on the evolution of cooperation. One striking finding of this research is that even very young children spontaneously engage in various forms of altruistic behaviors such as helping others with their problems or sharing resources with them. These findings he says show that human infants have a biologically based predisposition for altruism. This work is complemented by collaborative projects examining our closest living primate relatives, the great apes. Studying the great apes is important to his work because it enables us to disentangle those aspects of human behaviors that are unique to humans from those aspects that have deeper evolutionary roots.  

VALERIE KUHLMEIER is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Queen's University. She studies infants’ ability to interpret the behavior and mental states of others and to respond with “pro-social” or helping behavior. One very interesting question she and her colleagues ask is: do infants and toddlers display helping behavior in general or do they help others selectively and how do they decide who is worthy of help? She has found that kids, given the choice were more likely to help the people who had helped them and as well to help those who had tried and failed to help them. What this means is “It’s the thought that counts”. Which Kuhlmeier says is “kind of sweet “– that kids were considering the intentions of others at such a young age. So that even if you tried but failed to help them, that is better than if you didn’t help them at all. The outcome is the same – the toddler didn’t get helped - but when the intention to help is there, very small children take this into account.

KANG LEE is a Professor at the Institute of Child Study, University of Toronto. The first focus of Professor Lee’s research is on the development of lying in young children. He uses experimental methods to investigate how children come to grips with the concept and moral implication of lying, whether children are gullible or they are able to detect others' lies, and whether children can tell convincing lies in various social situations. He also examines the cognitive-social-cultural factors that affect children's acquisition of conceptual and moral knowledge about lying and their ability to detect/tell lies successfully. 

CHRIS MOORE is a Professor of Psychology at Dalhousie University. Professor Moore is interested the development of fairness which he believes to be very fundamentally related to morality because morality is about treating everybody equally in a sense. He is trying to determine when it is the babies and children start to appreciate the idea of sharing things equally. What is interesting about kids is that they will use the words “fair” “no fair” a lot, but it is typically used when they see someone else has got more than they do. They won’t typically say ‘that’s not fair” if they have more than the other person. So there are these early asymmetries. And we are interested in how the notion of fairness becomes consolidated. 

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