Knowing Right From Wrong

Some intriguing new research suggests that by six months, a baby can distinguish between right and wrong. The study, which was conducted at Yale University's Infant Cognition Center, posits that brains may be hard-wired at birth to be conscious of moral norms.

Little Psychopaths

"A lot of philosophers and psychologists used to believe that babies start off knowing nothing, and in the domain of morality many people believe babies start off as little psychopaths—indifferent to the suffering of others, not knowing right from wrong," said Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom. "But in our own lab—and in other labs—we are finding a surprising rich understanding in morality, even in the youngest babies we could test."

During one experiment, babies aged six months to one year viewed an animated film depicting a red ball attempting to climb a hill. Along comes a yellow square to offer helpful assistance, and then a green triangle tries to push the ball back down the hill. The researchers measured the length of time the babies then spent viewing pictures of each shape. Eighty percent of the time, the babies preferred the helpful shape over one that was deemed unhelpful.

Another experiment involved the use of "one-act morality plays." The skits were acted out by puppets that took on the roles of "good" or "bad" animals. When given the opportunity, the babies chose the good animals every time. The researchers introduced another element: reward and punishment. The babies rewarded the "good" animal with a treat, but took the treat away from the "bad" animal puppet.

Basic Sense

Bloom says these studies suggest that infants possess a basic sense of justice. When they see another character come into play and he punishes the bad character and rewards the good character, the babies will show an affinity for the new character. However, if they see the new character rewarding the bad guy and punishing the good guy, they won't choose or prefer the new guy on the block. This is suggestive of a very early sense of what constitutes moral bearing in interpersonal relationships.

Still, Bloom cautions parents not to read too much into this work. He says that the conclusions of the study don't suggest any steps to take with a child to make him prefer good over evil. However, the study does suggest that a baby's mind is richer and more moral than we might have supposed.