Yale Study Says Babies Have Built-In Developing Sense of Morality

By Peter J. Smith

LONDON, May 10, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Researchers in baby psychology at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut say that they have gathered evidence that suggests babies demonstrate a “rudimentary” moral sense very soon after they are born, indicating that morality may be hardwired into human beings from the very beginning.

The UK Daily Mail reports that researchers at Yale University devised several tests that they say showed that babies under a year old had an innate sense of “naëve morality,” as opposed to a blank mental slate that would be formed by their interactions with older members and their experiences.

Yale researchers at the Infant Cognition Center said that the babies in their study showed a preference for “helpful” actors versus “hindering” actors, thus showing a “rudimentary” sense of morality. One experiment involved a “one-act morality play” in which a toy dog is attempting to open up a box. The researchers found that the babies preferred to select the teddy bear who helps the dog open the box, over the bear who sat on the box frustrating the dog’s efforts.

Another scenario involved the babies watching a puppet cat roll a ball to two puppet rabbits. When the cat rolled the ball to the first rabbit, it rolled the ball straight back. But the second rabbit ran off with the ball that the cat had rolled to it. The babies also preferred the first rabbit, who rolled the ball back to the cat.

'With the help of well designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life,” said Professor Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University in Connecticut, who has devoted years of study to observing how moral sense can develop in babies. “A growing body of evidence suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life.”

Bloom in a recent essay for the New York Times, explained more insights from the experiments that he and his colleagues had conducted at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center.

“The results were striking. When the target of the action was itself a good guy, babies preferred the puppet who was nice to it,” wrote Bloom. But he added that he saw this intuitive moral hardwiring in babies when it came to the administration of baby justice.

“What was more interesting was what happened when they watched the bad guy being rewarded or punished. Here they chose the punisher,” said Bloom. “Despite their overall preference for good actors over bad, then, babies are drawn to bad actors when those actors are punishing bad behavior.”

“In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual. This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend; just about all the babies reached for the good guy,” he continued. Bloom speculated that this rudimentary sense of morality was “not for action, but for learning”– a sort of baseline for developing moral faculty. He said that it was similar to how all human beings are born with sexual faculties that, while they are there, are still immature, and do not develop until well after birth.

Bloom clarified that his research does not show that babies “believe” that the helpful character is in fact “good” and the hindering one is actually “bad,” but that they showed a “preference” for the object behaving in a way that adults would characterize as “good” and an “aversion” to the one behaving as “bad.”


But Dr. Nadja Reissland of Durham University told the Mail that while she believed that babies begin to learn the difference between right and wrong from birth, she said the Yale psychologists work does not conclusively show that a moral sense is hardwired into the body.

“By saying pushing the ball up the hill is helpful, the researchers are making a moral judgment. The babies might just prefer to see things go up rather than down,” she said. She added that babies also do not show an understanding as to whether the actors in certain scenarios may be actually doing something beneficial, and therefore good, when they are frustrating some goal which would be harmful, and therefore bad.

“In the other test, perhaps the bear closes the box to prevent the dog from getting in there because there is something dangerous inside,” said Reissland. “It is like a mother keeping children out of an area where there is something harmful.”

Read Dr. Paul Bloom’s Essay “The Moral Life of Babies”in the New York Times.