Psychologists say babies know right from wrong even at six months

May 10, 2010 by Lin Edwards report

(PhysOrg.com) -- The currently prevailing theory on human development is that human beings start their lives with a "moral blank state," but new research contradicts this view. The researchers have found babies as young as six months old already make moral judgments, and they think we may be born with a moral code hard-wired into our brains.

The research was carried out by a team led by Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University in Connecticut in the US, and used the ability to differentiate between unhelpful and helpful behavior as their indicator of moral judgement. The results contradict the theories of Sigmund Freud and others, who thought human beings start out as “amoral animals”, or a moral blank state. Bloom said there is mounting scientific evidence that this may not be true and that “some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.”

In one experiment babies between six and ten months old were repeatedly shown a puppet show featuring wooden shapes with eyes. A red ball attempts to climb a hill and is aided at times by a yellow triangle that helps it up the hill by getting behind it and pushing. At other times the red ball is forced back down the hill by a blue square. After watching the puppet show at least six times the babies were asked to choose a character. An overwhelming majority (over 80%) chose the helpful figure. Prof. Bloom said it was not a subtle statistical trend as “just about all the babies reached for the good guy.”

In another experiment the babies were shown a toy dog puppet attempting to open a box, with a friendly teddy bear helping the dog, and an unfriendly teddy thwarting his efforts by sitting on him. After watching at least half a dozen times the babies were given the opportunity to choose one of the teddy bears. The majority chose the helpful teddy.

A third experiment used a puppet cat playing with a ball with a helpful rabbit puppet on one side and an unhelpful rabbit on the other. The helpful rabbit returned the ball if the cat lost it, while the unhelpful rabbit stole the ball and ran off with it. In this test five-month-old babies were allowed to choose one of the rabbits, and most chose the helpful one. When the test was repeated with 21-month-old babies they were asked to take a treat from one of the rabbits. Most took the treat from the unhelpful rabbit, and one even gave the rabbit a smack on the head as well.

Lead author of the study, Kiley Hamlin, said people worry a lot about teaching children the difference between good guys and bad guys but “this might be something that come to the world with.” Other psychologists have cautioned that adult assumptions can affect how babies’ reactions are interpreted, and that begin to learn from the moment they are born.

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User comments : 48

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visual
not rated yet May 10, 2010
A smack on the head, lol!
I am curious to see this experiment repeated with monkeys and/or other animals, both adult and babies.

I have no doubt that this is learned and not pre-programmed. All that this test demonstrates is that it is learned quite early.
Ravenrant
2.8 / 5 (5) May 10, 2010
I would like to know if adults were present during these tests. If they were the tests are invalid. Babies may or may not know right from wrong but they CAN read facial expressions and if adults were present they could have been providing cues that babies can read.
DLuckyE
2.5 / 5 (2) May 10, 2010
Richard Dawkins wrote about this in 76, and it's news now?
freethinking
1 / 5 (3) May 10, 2010
Though I agree with visual and ravenrant that the tests maybe invalid and may not prove anything. I do believe that children know right from wrong a lot sooner than most physcologist believe. Kids learn what no means pretty fast, and they learn to ignore it just as quickly.
Skeptic_Heretic
4 / 5 (8) May 10, 2010
Richard Dawkins wrote about this in 76, and it's news now?

To creationists, it will always be news. To the rest of us who know altruism is a biological hardwiring granted by group evolution, it will always be old news and understood.
freethinking
1 / 5 (6) May 10, 2010
Skeptic your distain is blinding you again. I've noticed from my own kids that they know right from wrong at an extremely early age. Since you brought up creationists, creationist and Christians for over 2000 years and Jews for over 3000 years would have agreed that babies know right from wrong.... original sin and all that...

That said, does this study prove that? I'm not sure.
El_Nose
3.3 / 5 (3) May 10, 2010
why is this a test of morality -- seems like a test of self preservation -- if given the choice most chose the object that displayed kindness and support... I think the scientists are forcing a morality issue on babies that 1) don't want to be pushed down a hill and would rather have the ball returned... this isn't moral its just intelligent.

@freethinking

orignal sin is a concept that means man has to be taught right from wrong because he/man is inherently wicked and must struggle to be righteous. And both religions you mentioned assert that children are blameless because they lack knowledge and corruption is lower in them. They haven't been fully taught right and wrong so when they do wrong it is not they're fault -- this has translated over to most legal systems that find children faultless and prosecute parents for not teaching.
El_Nose
May 10, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (2) May 10, 2010
Skeptic your distain is blinding you again. I've noticed from my own kids that they know right from wrong at an extremely early age.

Where it's a revelation of the intrisic properties of a holy society in your opinion, and in mine it's simple chemical interaction and self-evident.

I can evidence why it works this way, you can't.
mysticshakra
1 / 5 (1) May 10, 2010
Trouble is, right and wrong are subjective concepts, not objective facts. In order to posit that morality is hardwired, one would have to demonstrate the existence of universal moral statutes. Morality is a myth created by culture to control people. Each culture and time has its own version and none of them agree. In order to begin to approach a definite statement about right and wrong you have become so specific in the details of the situation that you have lost the ability to make a rule in the first place.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (2) May 10, 2010
In order to posit that morality is hardwired, one would have to demonstrate the existence of universal moral statutes.

No, one would have to put objective reasoning into morality and evaluate it on a case by case basis.

We also can note that at differing frames of reference morality exists even in attrocious acts.
trekgeek1
5 / 5 (1) May 10, 2010
I've always assumed it was a combination of nature and nurture. Individuals who have a good moral compass have more successful societies and are more likely to pass on their genetics. For this reason, babies are born with a predisposition to certain actions and responses. Additionally, we have "social morality" that doesn't really effect survival, but comes from our culture and causes one society to differ from another, a so called culture shock.
JayK
3 / 5 (2) May 10, 2010
In order to posit that morality is hardwired, one would have to demonstrate the existence of universal moral statutes.

When you place those acts on a continuum of "helps society prosper" vs "hinders or retards the progress of society" then it becomes much less of an individual definition. What this study shows is that that the early impression of that continuum is defined by our biology. This shouldn't come as much of surprise to those that understand the differences between the conscious and the unconscious (reptilian) mind.
freethinking
1 / 5 (5) May 10, 2010
Anyone who has kids know that you train a child to be good and that they dont need to be taught to be bad. Parents know that infants are selfish and often times mean. (Ever watch super nanny, kids who are not taught to be good are terrors.) What this study is showing is (and again I dont know the quality of this study) that kids know good and evil from an early age. If infants know what is good/evil, then why must they be trained to be good?

Christians/Jews have believed for thousands of years that children need to be taught to be good. Only in the last 100 or so years have physcologists have told us different. Is science once again catching up to christian/jewish understanding of human nature?
x646d63
5 / 5 (3) May 10, 2010
Right and Wrong are only sensible when there is an anticipated outcome. It is entirely subjective.

But of course humans have a "hard wired" morality. We are social animals and in order to have an ordered society we must have behaviors conducive to it. Society is not an accident, nor is it a conscious choice by everyone to participate in it. It is part of our evolution.

Right/Wrong are usually based on the net effect of the behavior for society. "Wrong" behaviors have a perceived negative net value for society, and "Right" behaviors have a perceived positive net value for society.
pubwvj
May 10, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Skeptic_Heretic
4.5 / 5 (2) May 11, 2010
What this study is showing is (and again I dont know the quality of this study) that kids know good and evil from an early age. If infants know what is good/evil, then why must they be trained to be good?

Infants aren't trained to be good. Children must be taught to operate on a different frame of reference.

This is the problem that all you dogmatist nuts have. EVERYTHING is frame of reference.
Taking whatever I want whenever I want it is Good to me.

Taking only what I've earned and being thoughtful is good for my tribe/family/neighborhood.

Working hard and donating excess to those who cannot earn is good to society.

But working hard and donating things I have is bad to me. Parents have to teach their infants the benefits of society, not what is right and wrong. Frame of reference.
mysticfree
1 / 5 (1) May 11, 2010
"After watching the puppet show at least six times the babies were asked to choose a character."

What were these, baby Einsteins? How did they 'ask' the babies to choose and how did these 6 to 10 month olds understand the choices? At this age, I've noticed that they can't even answer a simple "did you poop your diaper?" question.
KnockWho
3 / 5 (2) May 11, 2010
Complete and utter BS. A 6 month old ...& I have one in my lap right now... cannot make a coherent decision about a situation. They don't know what a hill is, help is, or anything of that sort whatsoever. The babies cannot be asked "Which do you like better?" ...and even if 80% of babies "choose" a a particular shape, then it's because of the color or it's going to be easy to shove in their mouths.
El_Nose
5 / 5 (2) May 11, 2010
WOW you guys are really literal thinkers -- to ask the babies a question they merely gave them a choice -- the triangle or the square --- the bunny or the other toy --- quite easy , and as long as a control group was mostly 50/50 then you can say there is some corelation.
JayK
3 / 5 (2) May 11, 2010
If these latest pseudo-scientists in the forum had taken at least a moment to read the article, they may not have spouted off with such inane comments. It clearly explains that baby's "decisions" are based on eye and body movements that indicate desire for something. That relates back to previous scientific experiments that proved that they could track those kinds of things reliably.

Here is a helpful tip for those wishing to add to a discussion: Don't use personal anecdotal evidence to try to inject your ignorance into a discussion.
danman5000
5 / 5 (1) May 11, 2010
Complete and utter BS. A 6 month old ...& I have one in my lap right now... cannot make a coherent decision about a situation. They don't know what a hill is, help is, or anything of that sort whatsoever. The babies cannot be asked "Which do you like better?" ...and even if 80% of babies "choose" a a particular shape, then it's because of the color or it's going to be easy to shove in their mouths.

I wondered about color too. Maybe all this study shows is that babys prefer yellow? Or a particular type of animal?
0c4pnh4nk
5 / 5 (2) May 11, 2010
It makes me think that instead of calling it right and wrong we should call this - The Rudimentary of Empathy.
otto1923
5 / 5 (1) May 11, 2010
@freethinking
Since you brought up creationists, creationist and Christians for over 2000 years and Jews for over 3000 years would have agreed that babies know right from wrong.... original sin and all that...
I think you got that backward FT. If you believe original sin is a reality (its not) it would mean we were born corrupt and are in need of the salvation only the teachings of the church as delivered by jc his holyness amen can provide. Children arent capable of acting morally any more than the rest of us fallen and unrecovered, until indoctrination. So says the church.

@skeptic heretic
To the rest of us who know altruism is a biological hardwiring granted by group evolution, it will always be old news and understood.
And just how do you 'know' this SH, when most contemporary researchers would tell you they know something different, including Dawkins? Is this something you 'feel' must be right and so it is? Is this an aspect of your faith? Please clarify.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (2) May 11, 2010
Otto, you're grossly misreading Dawkins, and your sources are horridly out of date. Prevailing hypotheses and current understanding of evidence, both sociological and anthropological indicate human beings are keyed for social cooperation. This is easily evidenced by how unimpressive an animal we are individually. We really shine in groups, and so nature has selected for this trait.
otto1923
1 / 5 (1) May 12, 2010
You used the word cooperation which is not what is meant by the word altruism.
"Altruism is selfless concern for the welfare of others often incurring a loss for oneself...Pure altruism is giving without regard to reward or the benefits of recognition and need."
-Cooperation implies mutual benefit. Altruism does not.
"Altruism can be distinguished from feelings of loyalty and duty."
http://en.wikiped...Altruism
-Ive posted wiki links which Ive posted before. I know you discount wiki info (without reading it?) but Ive read Dawkins for instance and have faith that what I read in wiki about him is factual.
Prevailing hypotheses and current understanding of evidence
-says that this is an issue still currently under debate- people cant explain altruism in the context of genetics, although most accept the idea that genetics is the source of most behavior.
http://en.wikiped...genetics
http://en.wikiped...ychology
otto1923
1 / 5 (1) May 12, 2010
But you state unequivocally that
the rest of us... know altruism is a biological hardwiring granted by group evolution
I am only asking you how you arrive at this conclusion and, if possible, to back it up with links of your own. Can you do this? If not, I think it would be safe to assume that your unsubstantiated belief is equivalent to any other religionism.
otto1923
not rated yet May 12, 2010
Ive read this. Ever read this?
http://books.goog...;f=false
Skeptic_Heretic
4 / 5 (2) May 12, 2010
Ive read this. Ever read this?

Yes I have actually, back when it was first released in 92, almost 20 years ago.

I am only asking you how you arrive at this conclusion and, if possible, to back it up with links of your own.

I wrote it plainly above. You're here aren't you? If primary impulse is to act solo, and altruism doesn't have self benefit, then civilization wouldn't exist, tribes wouldn't have happened, and none of the great neolithic monuments would have been built. Use your common sense.
otto1923
not rated yet May 12, 2010
I wrote it plainly above. You're here aren't you?
I see opinions stated as fact with no admission of such and no corroboration.
ok I'll research for you.
http://en.wikiped...altruism
-So you believe altruism is a tit for tat mechanism? In that case it is cooperation with the anticipation of reward. Even in a neurobiological context reward centers in the brain are titillated during the act, which is a reward.

I think I can state as unequivocally as you that altruism toward strangers is a wholly artificial extension of 'inclusive fitness' (one vehicle helping other vehicles likely to contain the same genes) instilled in us by a sociopolitical System which seeks to maintain Order across ever greater numbers of people. This would explain how easy it seems to be to turn altruism and empathy on or off by merely reorienting the perception of 'group' or 'enemy' to promote conflict or cooperation for the Purpose of making war.
otto1923
not rated yet May 12, 2010
Your THEORY cant account for this, unless you denigrate the majority of us unimpressive animals as being deficient in this mechanism to some degree. I say the majority of us naturally feel the tendency to sacrifice for others in our perceived group, and this definition of group can be unnaturally extended through indoctrination in todays culture. Another example of Nurture modifying a tendency which is Natural to us.

I say that it can be impossible for us to tell the difference between learned and intrinsic behavior in ourselves, and that you are possibly confusing the 2.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet May 12, 2010
I say that it can be impossible for us to tell the difference between learned and intrinsic behavior in ourselves, and that you are possibly confusing the 2.

If you mean what you say above, then you toss your own theory into the trashbin as well and put it all up to exposure. Logically that makes my stance more correct rather than denigrating my point as one can't have a delineated group without external input, making the norm to be all inclusive.

You've logically defeated yourself, that's how powerfully self evident this is.
otto1923
not rated yet May 12, 2010
Naw, you think altruism toward strangers is hardwired because thats the way it FEELS to you. I say it is learned behavior, a modification of a natural tendency toward relatives. Further, you state it as FACT, self-evident, which is dogma not working theory. All because you cant stand rude people because you yourself always go out of your way to be a nice guy, as do I.

But I know that, if I were put in a different context I could, and have been, just as rude as the people I cant stand. For instance I cant stand tailgaters but I can be honest and admit I have often tailgated myself. I can extrapolate this to realize that, if placed in a desperate culture involved in total war and flooded with propaganda about the proper attitude toward 'enemies' both without and within, I could react as coldly as any villain in history. Learned people have also told me this in print and I believe them. It doesnt condone it and it doesnt mean Im like that at the moment, but nevertheless it is true.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet May 12, 2010
Further, you state it as FACT, self-evident, which is dogma not working theory. All because you cant stand rude people because you yourself always go out of your way to be a nice guy, as do I.

The last thing I would be referred to as is "nice to people".

An idea being self evident lends creedence to it's validity, but you're misrepresenting what I'm saying as though I'm assuming that insists validity, which it doesn't.

Gravity is self evident as when something "falls" it falls towards a center of greater mass. This doesn't mean gravity is valid, but it lends great creedence to the theory of gravitational interaction of massive bodies.

The human machine can be changed many ways but the initial programming appears at first recognition of sentience. As soon as a human being can open and use it's eyes it will key towards the faces of other human beings regardless of ttribe, race, creed, appearance (with the exception of deformity). All primates show this trait.
otto1923
3 / 5 (1) May 12, 2010
Do you believe altruism is naturally hardwired toward strangers or not?
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (1) May 12, 2010
Do you believe altruism is naturally hardwired toward strangers or not?

I believe the tendency towards altruism is hardwired. I also believe the tendency to cooperate rather than conflict is hardwired, and that these two things are self evident.
JayK
not rated yet May 12, 2010
Knowing that race (tribe) is most likely a learned trait -- http://www.ncbi.n...2566511/

it is very likely that some amount of cooperation is a learned behavior, especially in larger, more diverse societies. But there is equal evidence that there are levels of empathy and altruism in newborns that would probably help build future ideals of cooperation: http://arjournals...6.093625

I actually think there are reptilian level impulses that we are not consciously aware of that guide the foundations of altruism and empathy, which are basis for cooperative attitudes.

In short, you're both right and I think you're arguing over semantics.
otto1923
not rated yet May 12, 2010
I believe the tendency towards altruism is hardwired. I also believe the tendency to cooperate rather than conflict is hardwired.
These are true only toward kin- so youre wrong.
and that these two things are self evident.
As I have shown, researchers disagree, and so your perception is in error.
The last thing I would be referred to as is "nice to people".
And by your own admission you dont even see these traits in your own behavior. Ergo, youre full of crap.

@JayK
"There is mounting evidence in support of the proposal that the face processing system is shaped by the faces seen in the visual environment" -In other words there is a spontaneous, hardwired mechanism present in baby humans (and ducks) which can learn to recognize its primary care-giver. Says nothing about altruism or reciprocation, which is how this discussion got started. Altruism is not cooperation; it is a one-way action.
KnockWho
1 / 5 (1) May 13, 2010
WHAT IF A RABBIT STOPPED A BALL FROM HITTING ANOTHER RABBIT IN THE HEAD? WOULD THE BABY THINK THAT IT WASN'T ALLOWING THE BABY TO "HAVE" THE BALL?
BABIES DO NOT UNDERSTAND THESE SITUATIONS.

THEY JUST CHOOSE THE SHAPE OR BUNNY THAT THE PERSON WIGGLES THE MOST.

Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet May 13, 2010
These are true only toward kin- so youre wrong.

How exactly did tribal hunter gatherers determine kinship? Right, so you're talking out your ass again.
As I have shown, researchers disagree, and so your perception is in error.

But only the one research group from 20 years ago...
And by your own admission you dont even see these traits in your own behavior. Ergo, youre full of crap.

Negative, one can be altruistic without being cordial. Saying Fuck you doesn't mean you're a genocidal maniac, but your inability to see in anything other than black and white, just like marjon, is disheartening.
otto1923
not rated yet May 13, 2010
How exactly did tribal hunter gatherers determine kinship? Right, so you're talking out your ass again.
Memory, familiarity, sense of smell like most animals. You decide there's no way without the need for research or study- like a godder?
But only the one research group from 20 years ago...
Not true, no need to reference, these are cutting edge fields of study, you know it.
I believe the tendency towards altruism is hardwired. I also believe the tendency to cooperate rather than conflict is hardwired, and that these two things are self evident.
THIS is black and white. Why the serious lapse in reason SH? Nicotine withdrawal?
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet May 13, 2010
Not true, no need to reference, these are cutting edge fields of study, you know it.

Then perhaps you should stay up to date.

http://www.stanfo.../dol.pdf
http://peterleeso...Link.pdf
http://www.wou.edu/~smithr/311 HUMAN EVOLUTION/not_all_sex_and_violence.pdf
http://mudfirst.n...ive2.htm
http://www.tcpnow...nce.html

You say your mind is free, but you're a slave to victorian principles and illuminati conspiracy theories.
otto1923
not rated yet May 13, 2010
I dont understand:
-The Stanford study is about cooperationin families, evolutionary anthropology.
-Leeson is a political economist commenting on what most would now agree is biology-based behavior, in a 10yo paper.
-The wou-edu is a broken link -?
-"We Muddites come from all walks of life and all corners of Gaia." -Gaia; really? And anthros havent carried much validity since Casteneda.
-"Archaeologists have found little evidence of organized violence during the first ninety-nine percent of human history." -is Patently untrue. The opposite is the case- the Pleistocene engendered intermittent, frequent, intensive tribal warfare in the struggle over resources. Maybe this gentleman wouldnt regard the standard tactic of ambush as organized, but most would.

None of your links address alrtuism, which is NOT cooperation. Your links do cite evolution-based diciplines rather than behavioral ones, which just counters your statement- 'one 20yo study.'
otto1923
not rated yet May 13, 2010
Try this link:
http://en.citizen...ychology
"Inclusive fitness theory resolved the issue of how "altruism" evolved. The dominant, pre-Hamiltonian view was that altruism evolved via group selection: the notion that altruism evolved for the benefit of the group." -and:
" altruism can evolve as long as the fitness cost of the altruistic act on the part of the actor is less than the degree of genetic relatedness of the recipient times the fitness benefit to that recipient."
-Genetic relatedness, as in relatives. Society has found artificial means of extending this perception over states, nations, cultures, and even the species as a whole; which is the only reason we might feel compassion toward strangers who might otherwise be potential enemies.

Humans have no reason to waste their time in conflict and have every reason to gleen info and ally to fight common foes; but when cornered, or if their children are starving, can be expected to fight like hell.
otto1923
1 / 5 (1) May 13, 2010
You say your mind is free, but you're a slave to victorian principles and illuminati conspiracy theories.
Naw, youre a slave to buzzwords like 'victorian' and 'conspiracy' and 'nazi', and the irresistable drug bombast. Feels good dont it? Otto admits it when he is wrong- can SH do the same?
Thrasymachus
not rated yet May 15, 2010
I think it's likely that the moral sensibility purportedly displayed by the babies and toddlers in these studies are not largely biased by the sorts of familial bias you guys are arguing about, and at any rate, it seems to me that it would take some time for the familial bias to develop in the individual. I also fear that such a narrow definition of the possibility of the evolution of altruism might understate its biological possibility, especially when cultural feedback mechanisms come into play over long periods.
NonRational
not rated yet May 15, 2010
Such an important study! This is one of those articles that ends up being the subject of a TIME magazine cover...
neiorah
not rated yet May 17, 2010
I do think that we have a form of morals hard wired into us. It is called our nature. It defies national boundaries and cultures. We are all the same at that age ruled by instinct or hard wiring, you pick. How much a child displays this morality or hard wiring is minimal at best.
jpl10380
not rated yet May 18, 2010
1) This doesn't prove Freud wrong, he never claimed that communal behavior wasn't innate. 2) All that these tests show is that communal behavior is innate (preference for socially helpful agents is technically self-interested). 3) While this says nothing about babies being "moral," it does show that there are instinctual preferences for socially cooperative behavior. You would expect to find this in a social animal.

One can make the argument that morality is a development and refinement of this innate social behavior, but at its basic, as Dawkins says, this is still the activity of the "Selfish gene." It is neither moral nor immoral in an absolute sense. The babies are ONLY responding to the instinct to cooperate and support cooperation. Moral judgments require that the agents presented to the babies have a history and a moral background which the babies understand and can judge. The "unhelpful" square might have a good reason for hindering the circles assent.
jpl10380
not rated yet May 18, 2010
... In any case the title of this article is incredibly misleading.