Babies May Know Right From Wrong From the Beginning

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Babies may have an instinctive reaction against immorality and injustice, according to research at Yale University. Credit: Getty Images

H.L. Mencken famously said conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.

Careful. That somebody might be your baby.

Parents spend a lot of time teaching their children to know the difference between right and wrong. The truth is, Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom writes in The New York Times Magazine, babies may have already figured it out.

His research suggests human beings might have an inherent sense of morality.

"Humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life," he writes. "With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone."

Sigmund Freud -- were he alive to do so -- would argue that point.

Generations of psychologists back to Freud believed (or assumed) we start life as amoral blank slates. It's up to our parents and the rest of society to teach us right from wrong. A newborn baby could be Hitler or Gandhi, depending on how he is raised.

It's the old Nature vs. Nurture argument. But Bloom says nature is underrated.

He points to an incident in his research where a 1-year-old boy took vigilante justice on a puppet. Bloom writes that he and other researchers showed the boy a puppet show, in which the puppets were playing ball and one of them was a ball hog. The boy was asked to take a treat away from the misbehaving puppet. He did more than that. He smacked the puppet upside the head.

That's very telling, Bloom writes in the magazine.

"I have long been fascinated by the capacities and inclinations of babies and children," he writes. "The mental life of young humans not only is an interesting topic in its own right; it also raises -- and can help answer -- fundamental questions of philosophy and psychology, including how biological evolution and cultural experience conspire to shape human nature."

Researchers showed babies between 6 months and 1 year old another puppet show where a colorful wooden shape with eyes tried to climb a hill. Sometimes the shape was helped by a second toy. Other times a third character pushed it down.

"Just about all the babies reached for the good guy," Bloom writes.

Another moral scenario -- involving a toy dog, box, rabbit puppet and ball -- yielded similar reactions.

"In both studies, 5-month-olds preferred the good guy," Bloom writes.

"Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented," he concludes in The Times.

"Babies possess certain moral foundations -- the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness," he writes.

Related: Babies Pick Up Mothers' Accents In The Womb

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.