Babies may not have a 'moral compass' after all: New research casts doubt on landmark 2007 study
New research from New Zealand's University of Otago is casting doubt on a landmark US study that suggested infants as young as six months old possess an innate moral compass that allows them to evaluate individuals as 'good' or 'bad'.
The 2007 study by Yale University researchers provided the first evidence that 6- and 10-month-old infants could assess individuals based on their behaviour towards others, showing a preference for those who helped rather than hindered another individual.
Based on a series of experiments, researchers in the Department of Psychology at Otago have shown that the earlier findings may simply be the result of infants' preferences for interesting and attention grabbing events, rather than an ability to evaluate individuals based on their social interactions with others.
The Otago study was recently published in PLOS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed, open-access, online journal.
Lead author Dr Damian Scarf says that the Yale study caused an international sensation when it was published in the leading journal Nature.
"The paper received a lot of attention when it was first published, including coverage in the New York Times. It has received well over 100 citations since 2007, a phenomenal number over such a short period. The paper was initially brought to our attention by one of the PhD students in our lab. The head of the lab, Professor Harlene Hayne, suggested that a group of us read the paper together and then meet to discuss it. Our original motivation for reading the paper was merely interest. Obviously, the idea that morality is innate is extremely interesting and, if true, would raise questions about which components of our moral system are innate and also have implications for the wider issue of the roles that nature and nurture play in development," says Dr Scarf.
In the original experiment, infants watched a wooden toy (i.e., the "climber") attempt to climb a hill. They viewed two social interactions; one in which a "helper" toy nudged the climber up the hill, and another in which a "hinderer" toy nudged the climber down the hill.
After viewing these two scenarios, the infants were presented with a tray; on one side of the tray was the helper and on the other side was the hinderer. Amazingly, the majority of infants picked the helper over the hinderer. To further elucidate infants' moral reasoning abilities, a "neutral" toy (i.e., a toy that neither helped nor hindered) was pitted against the helper or hinderer. When the neutral character was paired with the helper, the infants preferred the helper; when paired with the hinderer, they preferred the neutral character.
The paper concluded that the experiments show that infants can evaluate individuals based on how they interact with another individual, and that their ability to do this is 'universal and unlearned'.
After reviewing videos of the Yale experiments, the Otago researchers noticed that two obvious perceptual events could be driving infants' choices.
"On the help and hinder trials, the toys collided with one another, an event we thought infants may not like. Furthermore, only on the help trials, the climber bounced up and down at the top of hill, an event we thought infants may enjoy."
The researchers carried out a series experiments to test these assumptions and, by manipulating the collision and bouncing events, were able to show that these perceptual events were driving infants' choices of the helper over the hinderer, Dr Scarf says.
"For example, when we had the climber bounce at the bottom of the hill, but not at the top of the hill, infants preferred the hinderer, that is, the one that pushed the climber down the hill. If the social evaluation hypothesis was correct, we should have seen a clear preference for the helper, irrespective of the location of the bounce, because the helper always helped the climber achieve its goal of reaching the top of the hill."
Although the Yale researchers have followed up their original study with further research findings that appear to support the original study, these too could be explained under the simple association hypothesis, he says.
"Their newer studies employ different paradigms but can still be explained using our simple association hypothesis. While we accept it is not easy to develop paradigms that perfectly match up the perceptual attributes of the helper and hinderer events, we still think there is room for improvement. I look forward to future studies on the topic of moral nativism and hope our study stimulates some discussion."
More information: Scarf D, Imuta K, Colombo M, Hayne H (2012) Social Evaluation or Simple Association? Simple Associations May Explain Moral Reasoning in Infants. PLOS ONE 7(8): e42698. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042698
Provided by University of Otago
- It's the thought that counts: Helping behavior in infants may be determined by previous interactions Mar 23, 2010 | not rated yet | 0
- Human infants capable of advanced reasoning Jun 24, 2011 | not rated yet | 0
- Infants draw on past to interpret present, understand other people's behavior Jan 22, 2009 | not rated yet | 0
- Toddlers appreciate good intentions, study finds Apr 07, 2010 | not rated yet | 0
- Psychologists say babies know right from wrong even at six months May 10, 2010 | not rated yet | 0
- Motion perception revisited: High Phi effect challenges established motion perception assumptions Apr 23, 2013 | 3 / 5 (2) | 2
- Anything you can do I can do better: Neuromolecular foundations of the superiority illusion (Update) Apr 02, 2013 | 4.5 / 5 (11) | 5
- The visual system as economist: Neural resource allocation in visual adaptation Mar 30, 2013 | 5 / 5 (2) | 9
- Separate lives: Neuronal and organismal lifespans decoupled Mar 27, 2013 | 4.9 / 5 (8) | 0
- Sizing things up: The evolutionary neurobiology of scale invariance Feb 28, 2013 | 4.8 / 5 (10) | 14
Pressure-volume curve: Elastic Recoil Pressure don't make sense
May 18, 2013 From pressure-volume curve of the lung and chest wall (attached photo), I don't understand why would the elastic recoil pressure of the lung is...
If you became brain-dead, would you want them to pull the plug?
May 17, 2013 I'd want the rest of me to stay alive. Sure it's a lousy way to live but it beats being all-the-way dead. Maybe if I make it 20 years they'll...
MRI bill question
May 15, 2013 Dear PFers, The hospital gave us a $12k bill for one MRI (head with contrast). The people I talked to at the hospital tell me that they do not...
Ratio of Hydrogen of Oxygen in Dessicated Animal Protein
May 13, 2013 As an experiment, for the past few months I've been consuming at least one portion of Jell-O or unflavored Knox gelatin per day. I'm 64, in very...
Alcohol and acetaminophen
May 13, 2013 Edit: sorry for the typo in the title , can't edit I looked around on google quite a bit and it's very hard to find precise information on the...
Marie Curie's leukemia
May 13, 2013 Does anyone know what might be the cause of Marie Curie's cancer
- More from Physics Forums - Medical Sciences
More news stories
Patients with treatment-resistant major depression saw dramatic improvement in their illness after treatment with ketamine, an anesthetic, according to the largest ketamine clinical trial to-date led by researchers from the ...
Psychology & Psychiatry May 19, 2013 | 4.8 / 5 (5) | 1 |
The latest makeover to a massive psychiatric tome honored by some, reviled by others and even called the "Bible" of mental disorders is being released Saturday with a host of new changes.
Psychology & Psychiatry May 18, 2013 | not rated yet | 1
(HealthDay)—Most Medicare beneficiaries treated in inpatient psychiatric facilities (IPFs) exhibit characteristics associated with hospital readmission, according to a report prepared for the National Association ...
Psychology & Psychiatry May 17, 2013 | not rated yet | 0
Skydivers show the same level of physical stress before every jump whether a first-timer or experienced jumper, say Northumbria researchers.
Psychology & Psychiatry May 17, 2013 | not rated yet | 0 |
Children of depressed parents pick up on their parents' sadness—whether mom or dad realizes their mood or not.
Psychology & Psychiatry May 17, 2013 | 4.5 / 5 (2) | 1 |
(AP)—Former Navy Secretary Richard J. Danzig, who has served as a bio-warfare adviser to the president, the Pentagon, and the Department of Homeland Security, urged the government to stockpile an anti-anthrax drug while ...
12 minutes ago | not rated yet | 0
(AP)—Sunbathers this summer will find new sunscreen labels that are designed to make the products more effective and easier to use.
15 minutes ago | not rated yet | 0
Optimal treatment of sleep apnea in patients with prediabetes improves blood sugar (glucose) levels and thus can reduce cardiometabolic risk, according to a study to be presented at the ATS 2013 International Conference in ...
1 hour ago | not rated yet | 0 |
Whole-cell pertussis vaccines were more effective at protecting against pertussis than acellular pertussis vaccines during a large recent outbreak, according to a new Kaiser Permanente study published in Pediatrics.
2 hours ago | not rated yet | 0 |
A novel study reports that white men and women of European descent inherit common foot disorders, such as bunions (hallux valgus) and lesser toe deformities, including hammer or claw toe. Findings from the Framingham Foot ...
2 hours ago | not rated yet | 0 |
A new measure of the heterogeneity – the variety of genetic mutations – of cells within a tumor appears to predict treatment outcomes of patients with the most common type of head and neck cancer. In the May 20 issue ...
1 hour ago | not rated yet | 0