Early theorists in psychology mainly took the approach that babies are born without any sense of morality and have to learn it as they get older. We now know that although a fully developed sense of morality does not emerge until adolescence or later, babies already show signs of a rudimentary moral compass.
Consider a 2010 study by researchers at Yale University that involved babies as young as three months old watching a live ‘show’ of different shaped wooden blocks on a hill (the shapes corresponded to different characters, who either helped or hindered another character who was struggling to get up the hill). The researchers found that the babies preferred looking at the helpful characters, suggesting early preference for altruistic social behaviour.
Similar research with five-month-olds has shown that they have a sense of ‘justified retribution’: they prefer characters who hinder a previously obstructive individual rather than help them.
A sense of fairness also emerges early. In a study last year by researchers at the University of Washington, 13-month-old babies watched a researcher who distributed crackers fairly or unfairly among two other adults. When the infants were given a chance to interact with the researcher, they were more inclined to interact with a fair researcher than an unfair one, indicating that they had a preference for fairness.
Finally, a cute line of research has looked at babies’ inclination to respond to the needs of others, showing that already by age one they will offer comfort to a person who has hurt themselves, or try to help someone obtain an item that’s out of reach. The spontaneity of these behaviours has led scientists to believe that a sense of right and wrong is not entirely learned, but rather indicative of an evolved predisposition towards moral goodness.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.