x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Learning right and wrong

Despite popular opinion that children learn right from wrong, a recent study says babies may be born with a sense of morality.

It turns out she knows right from wrong after all. I was going to give Astrid a few years to get to know the rules. I was prepared to cut her some slack during infancy and early childhood, but the results of a new study by researchers at Yale University point to the tantalising notion that babies are, in fact, moral beings. I'd always figured these cute and burbling creatures were blank canvases as far as good and evil were concerned. I bowed to the opinions of psychologists, including renowned names such as Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, on this matter. Babies are born without morals, I believed, but as they grow up, they learn principles of right or wrong behaviour from all sorts of places. Parents play the most important role in this process, but relatives and peers also have an influence. That's the consensus, until now at least. The new study seems to counter prevailing thought by suggesting that babies could have an innate, perhaps even instinctive, sense of right and wrong.

When you think about it, the lack of language seems an almost insurmountable problem in experiments with babies. I find Astrid veers between being as inscrutable as a card shark to being as open as 24-hour grocery shop. One moment I think I get an inkling of what she is thinking, while the next I cannot even hope to speculate. Without the aid of language, how did the researchers reach their remarkable conclusions?

Since the 1980s, scientists have been using "looking time" experiments to gain insights into the workings of the infant brain. According to this methodology, you can discern what a baby is thinking by watching how his or her eyes move in response to particular stimuli. Show a baby something that they expect to see and his or her gaze will wander. Show a baby something that surprises them and he or she will peer more intently. This basic test has been adapted in various ways to tease out what babies know about the world from physics and psychology. Now it has been adapted to questions of morality.

In a series of experiments involving role-play scenes with different coloured shapes playing good and bad characters, babies between six months and 10 months old consistently favoured the good characters and shunned the bad characters. Similar experiments involving good and bad characters played by puppets confirmed these conclusions. They point to some kind of primitive morality being present in babies from birth. It may only be a kernel of the complex system that develops through cultural influence over a lifetime. Perhaps kernel is the wrong word. After all, there's no reason to assume that this primitive morality always conforms to the codes of a particular society or culture. Nevertheless, babies have some concept of good and bad.

The nuanced and complex moral codes that have come to define us as human beings seem impossible without language. We only become creatures capable of remarkable generosity and inflicting profound suffering when we can define those actions and realise that we are actually doing something that is right or wrong. The lack of language does not alter the actual event - of course the outcomes and consequences of a good or bad act remain unchanged - but it does change our judgement of those actions.

As John Berger writes: "Evil begins ... with the human capacity to talk oneself into [inhuman acts]." Discovering some kind of naive morality in babies is a surprising - deserving if you will of some extra "looking time" - but it does not necessarily contradict establish views of how morality develops.