Babies are born with a sense of right and wrong, claims psychologist

Babies as young as three months old are able to make moral judgments

Jade Brookbank/Getty Images
  • A baby
    Babies as young as three months old are able to make moral judgments Jade Brookbank/Getty Images
Hannah Devlin Science Editor
Published 1 minute ago

Eating, gurgling and waking up at night are often regarded as a baby’s core skills. An American psychologist claims, however, that babies as young as three months old are also able to make moral judgments.

Studies show that babies have a sense of fairness and appear instinctively “drawn to the nice guy and repelled by the mean guy”. The theory challenges the notion that babies are born “blank slates” and are only taught right and wrong through social interactions.

Paul Bloom, of Yale University in Connecticut, believes that a child’s experiences can subsequently enhance or degrade their innate morality.

In his book Just Babies, Professor Bloom described a study in which one-year-olds watched a puppet show where a ball was passed to a “nice” puppet, who passed the ball back, or a “naughty” puppet, who stole it. When the babies were invited to reward or punish the puppets, they tended to take away treats from the “naughty” one.

In a second study, babies of six months watched a show in which a colourful wooden shape with eyes tried to climb a hill. On some occasions the shape was helped by a second toy, while on others a third toy pushed it back down.

After the puppet show, more than 80 per cent of the babies had a preference for the helpful toy when given the choice of which one to play with.

Professor Bloom said: “There is a universal urge to help those in needand there are universal emotional responses that revolve around morality — [for example] anger when we are wronged.”

He argued in an article for CNN that this sense of morality was “hard wired” and was evident before babies even learnt to speak, although he conceded that they might not always have the ability or inclination to act on it.

“Many people believe we are born selfish and amoral,” he said. “Others think that genes are destiny. Both these cynical views are mistaken.”

Previous research has shown that babies cry in response to the cries of other babies and spontaneously help people who are struggling, for instance passing them objects that are out of reach.

However, others are yet to be convinced. Simon BaronCohen, a psychologist, writes in The New York Times: “Proving innateness requires much harder evidence — that the behaviour has existed from day one, say, or that it has a clear genetic basis. Bloom presents no such evidence.

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