Jump directly to the content

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
Support our work. Subscribe to CT and get one year free.

Comments

To add a comment you need to be a registered user or Christianity Today subscriber.

orSubscribeor
More from Her.menutics
After Childhood Abuse, How Can I Trust Others with My Kids?

After Childhood Abuse, How Can I Trust Others with My Kids?

I equip my daughters to protect themselves and their bodies in ways I didn’t learn to.
Too Many Transitions Can Traumatize Our Kids

Too Many Transitions Can Traumatize Our Kids

I know from experience what happens when children face moving, divorce, or other stressful life change—and how we can help them.
The 5 Truths Stay-at-Home and Working Moms Can Agree On

The 5 Truths Stay-at-Home and Working Moms Can Agree On

After interviewing 120 women, I saw glimmers of a truce in the Mommy Wars.
The Truth About Living with an Invisible Illness

The Truth About Living with an Invisible Illness

God sees me and my pain even when others cannot.
Include results from Christianity Today
Browse Archives:

So Hot Right Now

The Truth About Living with an Invisible Illness

God sees me and my pain even when others cannot.

Follow Us

Twitter

  • RT @RealPeopleAct: The more we learn about porn, the more we discover how bad it is for our brains, our bodies, and our relationships. http2026
  • RT @mfarrellgarcia: After Childhood Abuse, How Can I Trust Others with My Kids? https://t.co/yVTZOmLKNc via @CT_Women
  • Researcher @hgscott talks about the widespread effects of Internet porn https://t.co/OkRrIc78rG
  • Protecting our kids and loving our neighbors @JustinHolcomb @drmoore @mfarrellgarcia https://t.co/708pIr3j79
  • RT @denverseminary: Super proud of Katie Jo, a current student, sharing about living with w/ an autoimmune disease over on @CTmagazine htt2026


What We're Reading

CT eBooks and Bible Studies

Christianity Today
The Secret (Moral) Life of Babies