Do babies have an innate moral compass? In recent years, scientists have presented evidence that tykes have an inborn sense of justice, but a new study calls these results into question.
The new study addresses 2007 research from the Yale University Infant Cognition Center, which concluded that 6 to 10-month-old babies could determine "good" from "bad" within the confines of the experiment.
In the Yale study, infants watched a wooden toy (called the "climber) move up a hill, and witnessed two social interactions. In the first, infants watched a "helper" toy prompt the climber up the hill. When the climber reached the top, it would bounce up and down. In the second scenario, a "hinderer" toy pushed the climber back down.
When the babies were then offered a choice between the two toys, they overwhelmingly went with the "helper" toy.
However, a new paper from New Zealand's University of Otago suggests that the babies' choices could reflect other factors, not just their ability to determine "good" from "bad."
"On the help and hinder trials, the toys collided with one another, an event we thought infants may not like," Lead author Dr Damian Scarf said in a written statement. Furthermore, only on the help trials, the climber bounced up and down at the top of hill, an event we thought infants may enjoy."
So the team carried out their own research. They eliminated the toy's bouncing at the top of the hill in helper scenarios, but randomly interspersed the bouncing activity in helper and hinderer cases. The team also eliminated collisions between toys, and this did change which toy infants selected.
"...when we had the climber bounce at the bottom of the hill, but not at the top of the hill, infants preferred the hinderer, that is, the one that pushed the climber down the hill. If the social evaluation hypothesis was correct, we should have seen a clear preference for the helper, irrespective of the location of the bounce, because the helper always helped the climber achieve its goal of reaching the top of the hill."
The Huffington Post reached out to Paul Bloom, lead researcher from the Yale study, about this new data. Bloom said that although he appreciated the Otago team’s work, the research just wasn’t convincing.
"Their experiment is flawed, as they did not test the babies using the same socially-laden situations that we used in our original paper…In fact, we've now found that babies are sensitive to good and bad acts of quite different types, such as helping someone open a box (good) or stealing a ball from someone (bad). These replications and extensions reinforce the claim that babies really do have some sort of rudimentary moral compass."
This research is now being backed by other university research centers, Bloom added.
“There are now exciting findings from labs in Harvard, University of Illinois, University of Washington, and University of Trento that show rich moral understanding and rich moral feelings in babies and toddlers.”
Scarf stressed that his team's research will not be the final word on the topic:
“This is science and, therefore, we cannot prove whether babies do or do not have an innate moral compass. What our study does show is that what appears to be moral behavior on the surface may be the result of a simpler underlying mechanisms. Hypothetically, if properly controlled studies were conducted with live actors, and the infants tested displayed evidence that they were making moral judgments, that still does not mean morality is 'universal and unlearned' (i.e., innate).”
Scarf says the results of such experiments cannot be extrapolated to form a universal conclusion on the innateness of morality, however, Bloom still believes that babies have far greater capacities than we might know of today.
"I think, though, that in the long run, all of this research will validate and reinforce the conclusion that babies are born with astonishingly rich capacities — that their minds are far from simple...