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Because they have barely been exposed to the world, children are some of psychology's most powerful muses. (JIll Greenberg)

Are Babies Born Good?

New research offers surprising answers to the age-old question of where morality comes from

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The study of babies and young toddlers is a perplexing business. Even the most perceptive observers can be tempted to see what isn’t there. “When our infant was only four months old I thought that he tried to imitate sounds; but I may have deceived myself,” Charles Darwin wrote in “A Biographical Sketch of an Infant,” his classic study of his own son. Babies don’t reliably control their bodies or communicate well, if at all, so their opinions can’t be solicited through ordinary means. Instead, researchers outfit them with miniature wire skullcaps to monitor their brain waves, scrutinize them like shoplifters through video cameras and two-way mirrors, and conduct exceedingly clever and tightly controlled experiments, which a good portion of their subjects will refuse to sit through anyway. Even well-behaved babies are notoriously tough to read: Their most meditative expressions are often the sign of an impending bowel movement.

But tiny children are also some of psychology’s most powerful muses. Because they have barely been exposed to the world, with its convoluted cultures and social norms, they represent the raw materials of humanity: who we are when we’re born, rather than who we become. Benjamin Spock’s famous book, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, “starts out with the sentence ‘You know more than you think you do,’” says Melvin Konner, an Emory University anthropologist and physician and the author of The Evolution of Childhood. “There’s another point that needs to be made to parents: Your baby knows more than you think she knows. That’s what’s coming out of this kind of research.”

The 1980s and ’90s brought a series of revelations about very young babies’ sophisticated perceptions of the physical world, suggesting that we come to life equipped with quite an extensive tool kit. (Can 5-month-olds count? Absolutely. Do they understand simple physics? Yes.) Recently, some labs have turned to studying infants’ inborn social skills, and how babies perceive and assess other people’s goals and intentions. Scrutinizing these functions, scientists hope, will reveal some innate features of our minds—“the nutshell of our nature,” says Karen Wynn, director of the Yale lab.

“People who’ve spent their whole careers studying perception are now turning toward social life, because that’s where the bio-behavioral rubber meets the evolutionary road,” Konner says. “Natural selection has operated as much or more on social behavior as on more basic things like perception. In our evolution, survival and reproduction depended more and more on social competence as you went from basic mammals to primates to human ancestors to humans.”

The Yale Infant Cognition Center is particularly interested in one of the most exalted social functions: ethical judgments, and whether babies are hard-wired to make them. The lab’s initial study along these lines, published in 2007 in the journal Nature, startled the scientific world by showing that in a series of simple morality plays, 6- and 10-month-olds overwhelmingly preferred “good guys” to “bad guys.” “This capacity may serve as the foundation for moral thought and action,” the authors wrote. It “may form an essential basis for...more abstract concepts of right and wrong.”

The last few years produced a spate of related studies hinting that, far from being born a “perfect idiot,” as Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, or a selfish brute, as Thomas Hobbes feared, a child arrives in the world provisioned with rich, broadly pro-social tendencies and seems predisposed to care about other people. Children can tell, to an extent, what is good and bad, and often act in an altruistic fashion. “Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children,” a study of under-2-year-olds concluded. “Babies Know What’s Fair” was the upshot of another study, of 19- and 21-month-olds. Toddlers, the new literature suggests, are particularly equitable. They are natural helpers, aiding distressed others at a cost to themselves, growing concerned if someone shreds another person’s artwork and divvying up earnings after a shared task, whether the spoils take the form of detested rye bread or precious Gummy Bears.

This all sounds like cheering news for humanity, especially parents who nervously chant “share, share, share” as their children navigate the communal toy box. Indeed, some of these studies suggest that children’s positive social inclinations are so deeply ingrained that it doesn’t matter what parents say or do: A Harvard experiment, nicknamed “The Big Mother Study” (as in Big Mother Is Watching You), showed that small children helped others whether or not a parent commanded them to help or was even present.

These findings may seem counterintuitive to anyone who has seen toddlers pull hair in a playground tunnel or pistol-whip one another with a plastic triceratops. Day to day, babies can seem unfeeling and primitive, or at the very least unfathomably bizarre, afraid of donkeys one minute and the moon the next, their prismatic minds beaming nonsense and non sequiturs instead of the secrets of our higher nature. No seasoned parent can believe that nurture doesn’t make a difference, or that nature trumps all. The question is where the balance lies.

“Where morality comes from is a really hard problem,” says Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. “There isn’t a moral module that is there innately. But the elements that underpin morality—altruism, sympathy for others, the understanding of other people’s goals—are in place much earlier than we thought, and clearly in place before children turn 2.”

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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