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Babies Aren’t So Moral After All, Unless We Engineer Them That Way

The latest research on the "Do babies have an innate moral compass?" question indicates that no, they do not

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Sorry, baby lovers. The latest research on the “Do babies have an innate moral compass?” question indicates that no, they do not. Rather, like a puppy or young chimp, babies enjoy watching bright objects bounce up and down. Right and wrong, good and evil, do not seem to enter the picture.

This new research from New Zealand’s University of Otago responds to a landmark study published in 2007 claiming the opposite finding: that babies are, indeed, born with an innate sense of morality. From a New York Times op-ed, one of the original study authors, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, writes:

A sympathetic parent might see the spark of consciousness in a baby’s large eyes and eagerly accept the popular claim that babies are wonderful learners, but it is hard to avoid the impression that they begin as ignorant as bread loaves.

I am admittedly biased, but I think one of the great discoveries in modern psychology is that this view of babies is mistaken.

The new study authors weren’t so biased. They noticed a glitch in Bloom and his colleagues’ original work, which they decided to explore.

In the original study, Bloom and his co-authors presented 6 and 10-month-old infants with  two scenarios in which a wooden toy tried to climb a hill. In the first scenario, another toy tried to help the climber toy up. In the second, the helper toy turned malicious and instead pushed the climber down the hill. After viewing the interactions, they presented the infants with the option of picking up either the helping toy or the hindering toy. Most chose the helper, which Bloom and his colleagues interpreted as indicative of the babies’ preference for morality.

However, the skeptical researchers in this new study noticed that there were some other obvious differences going on besides just the social interactions. The hinderer toy collided with the climber toy, for example, whereas the helper toy engaged in a fun bouncing action to get its friend up the hill.

To see if the babies actually just like bouncy objects, the New Zealand researchers switched up the game, associating the hinderer toy with bouncing rather than colliding. If babies are so moral, they reasoned, the little guys should see past the bouncing and still pick the helper. Not so. The babies went for the bouncer regardless of the adult world’s perceptions of right or wrong.

Some may be disappointed by this discovery, but there is a way around it: Genetically screen and engineer your children to be moral, as this Oxford professor suggested to The Telegraph. It’s just “responsible parenting,” he says.

More from Smithsonian.com:

In the Long History of Creepy Robot Babies, This One Takes the Cake  

When Robots Get Morals 

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