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The Secret (Moral) Life of Babies


May 17 2010
Does the fact that infants seem to have an innate morality suggest divine intervention?

When my baby was about nine months old, he started giving out hugs with his own unique twist: He'd wrap his chubby arms around whomever he was hugging, and then gently pat their back. It made sense; his bedtime routine usually consists of Daddy holding him in his arms and gently patting his back until he falls asleep. The logic behind the behavior didn't diminish my gut-level reaction, however, at the sight of my son snuggled up in Daddy's arms, his small hand barely reaching around the curve of Daddy's broad shoulders, patting away.

Now 14 months old, my son says "Pat-pat" as he hugs and pats, and what we've dubbed "baby hugs with pat-pats" are a big part of family life. Along with the cuteness factor, my curiosity has been piqued: is my son just mimicking the behavior he's observed? Or does he possess some rudimentary understanding of the meaning of a hug, a pat on the back? In the middle of a difficult day recently, I sat down on the couch and put my head in my hands, trying not to cry in front of my children. Seconds later my 14-month-old was in my lap, his arms around my neck, patting my back. "Pat-pat," he breathed as he hugged me.

I've written elsewhere about watching my children develop empathy and a sense of morality, so it was with great interest that I read Yale psychologist Paul Bloom's lengthy article in The New York Times on the moral capacities of babies. In graduate school, one of my professors was renowned for telling his students that the more studies we do on babies, the more we discover they are much smarter than we think—and Bloom would apparently agree. His article details a set of increasingly complicated experiments that he and his wife, also a Yale psychology professor, designed to measure babies' morality.

In the first experiment, six- and ten-month-old babies were shown three puppets acting out a basic morality play: one puppet is trying to climb a hill while a second puppet helps the first and a third puppet pushes the first back down. At the end of the play, babies are offered the "helping" and "hindering" puppets to play with, and the experimenters tracked which puppet the babies reached for. (The basic assumption, of course, is that what an infant reaches for is what the infant desires; Bloom actually delves at some depth into the presuppositions behind the experiments, and the controls taken, in the NYT article.)

The result? Babies overwhelmingly preferred the "helping" puppet. Further experiments introduced a neutral character, and those results showed that babies prefer a helping character to a neutral one, and a neutral character to a hindering character. "To have a genuinely moral system," Bloom writes, "some things first have to matter, and what we see in babies is the development of mattering." In other words, actions carry a moral weight: it matters that one puppet is helping another, and vice-versa.

Related Topics:Children; Evolution
From: May 2010
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