The moral intuitions of babies

Photo by Flickr user gabi_menashe. Click for sourceThe New York Times has a fascinating article by psychologist Paul Bloom on how babies may have a far more developed sense of justice and moral behaviour than we assume.

The piece starts by discussing the difficulties of doing psychology experiments on babies and goes on to explain how these problems have been overcome in the lab.

It then focuses on some of the work arising from Bloom’s own lab where they’ve sought to understand whether very young children, even those who are only a few months old, can make moral distinctions based on behaviour. Surprisingly, it seems they can.

To increase our confidence that the babies we studied were really responding to niceness and naughtiness, Karen Wynn and Kiley Hamlin, in a separate series of studies, created different sets of one-act morality plays to show the babies. In one, an individual struggled to open a box; the lid would be partly opened but then fall back down. Then, on alternating trials, one puppet would grab the lid and open it all the way, and another puppet would jump on the box and slam it shut. In another study (the one I mentioned at the beginning of this article), a puppet would play with a ball. The puppet would roll the ball to another puppet, who would roll it back, and the first puppet would roll the ball to a different puppet who would run away with it. In both studies, 5-month-olds preferred the good guy — the one who helped to open the box; the one who rolled the ball back — to the bad guy. This all suggests that the babies we studied have a general appreciation of good and bad behavior, one that spans a range of actions.

Link to NYT piece ‘The Moral Life of Babies’.

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