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Editorial | Infants have moral compass | Rich Elfers
Are children born with an innate sense of right and wrong? That was the question a 60 Minutes segment explored on Nov. 18. The Yale study used hand puppets to test whether children as young as 3 months knew right from wrong. This study gives us a more complete picture of moral development with deep implications for us all.
Three-month-old children can’t speak, nor can they reach with their arms, but studies show they can gesture with their eyes. They were shown three hand puppets acting out a scene. The middle of three puppets was unsuccessfully trying to open a clear plastic box with a toy in it. A second puppet came to its rescue and helped it open the box. The third puppet later prevented the middle puppet from opening the box by jumping on it and closing it.
Afterwards, a child was shown the “good” and “bad” puppets. The child stared at the good puppet for a longer time than the bad puppet. Tested on different children, 75 percent of them did the same thing. When using 5 month-old children, the same results were found, except that the children could then reach out for the “good” puppets.
These experiments seemed to indicate that children are born with an innate sense of right and wrong. Morality seems to be hardwired into our brains. This tells us baby children are not just cute blobs of flesh; they actually have a high level (for children) of morality.
Yale researchers also did another test for prejudice on 5-month-old children. This time, children were given choices between Cheerios and graham crackers. Then different puppets also chose their preferences. It was found to a very high percentage that children tend to prefer puppets that liked what they liked.
The opening-the-box experiment described above was then tried on these children. This time the children favored the “bad” puppet that closed the plastic box (if it liked the food they liked) rather than the one helping to open it. This experiment showed that children form biases at a very early age and they tend to favor behavior of those who are most like them.
Children do seem to have a sense of right and wrong at birth, but they also tend to show biases and favoritism toward those who are like them.
Older children were also tested for sharing and were found to be more generous as they got older, showing that the environment shapes a human’s morality toward sharing, although, under stress, these children reverted back to more selfish, self-centered behavior.
What lessons can be gained from these Yale children’s studies? It seems clear that humans are wired for morality at birth. Children are also wired for favoritism and bias. Societal training can alter those natural tendencies and make humans more generous and thoughtful, but that generosity is very shallow and easily forgotten due to stress and pressure.
These tests have implications for understanding human behavior: Bias is a genetic trait as is a moral sense of right and wrong. This means all of us humans are in a constant battle between these two conflicting values. It gives us a better understanding of why we humans act so contradictory. We seem to be wired both for good and for evil.
It explains our tendency for racism and bullying, both in the religious and political spheres. What seems to be necessary for us humans is to “thicken” the veneer of acting upon our sense of right and wrong, while becoming more aware of our inclination toward favoritism and discrimination. We humans are really complex creatures!
You can watch the experiments by going to CBS 60 Minutes for Nov. 18. The segment is entititled, “Babies Help Unlock the Origins of Morality.” They are certainly thought-provoking and hold larger implications for understanding our human behavior.