Babies are wonderful little beings that keep adults on their toes. But it’s difficult to imagine that our drooling, pooping and gaggling little bundles of joy are able tell good from bad, or even right from wrong.
A 2007 study by Yale University (U.S) researchers provided the first evidence that babies between 6 and 10 months could assess whether individuals were good or bad, based on their behaviour towards others. Needless to say, the Yale University study made a massive impression worldwide, mainly because this was the first ever study to suggest this. The study was widely accepted and has been referred to in hundreds of research documents, which signalled its success.
Recently a newly published study conducted in 2010 from New Zealand (Otago University) disproved the first study from Yale. Postdoctoral Researcher Dr Damian Scarf and his University colleagues were doubtful of the study, and found that other international academics elsewhere shared the same sentiments. So they decided to conduct their own experiment.
“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,” said Dr Scarf.
The First (Yale) Experiment: Here is How They Did It
The babies had to assess individuals based on their behaviour towards others. A group of 6 and 10 months old babies were shown a video of a puppet show with neutral wooden puppets, where one of the puppets was trying to get uphill. In one scenario one of the puppets (the helper) assisted the other by pushing it up to climb the hill. Once the puppet made it uphill, it would bounce as if dancing in excitement.
In the other scenario, a third puppet (the hinderer) pushed the puppet down the hill and it did not bounce in excitement. After the show, the babies were then presented with the helper and hinderer puppets so they could pick their first choice. According to the researchers, 14 out of 16 babies in the older group (10 months old) and all 12 of the 6 month-old picked the helper.
Researchers therefore concluded that the babies were good judges of character.
The Second Study by Otago University
The New Zealand research team tested these assumptions. They used identical resources used in the Yale study, except that the eyes of the puppets in their test moved, as compared to the fixed eyes used in the American study.
Researchers first conducted the study exactly like the Yale study and found that 12 out of 16 infants chose the helper over the hinderer. Then they changed things around and made the climber who was pushed to the bottom of the hill do a dance, while the climber who was pushed to the top remained still. In this case, 12 out of 16 infants chose the hinderer over the helper.
They came to the conclusion that the bouncing and attractiveness of the events in the show influenced their choices, and not the behaviour.
In the Yale research experiment (the help and hinder set ups) the puppets collided with one another at some point. Additionally it is only during the helper scenario that the climber bounced up and down at the top of the hill. Since babies were amused by the bouncing, they chose the bouncer that turned out to be the helper. “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,” Scarf said.
This has caused conflict as the Yale researchers stand by their claims gained from extensive results and experiments. They assert that the new study has some discrepancies and should not be considered. The Yale researchers were disturbed by the methods that Scarf and his team used. Lead Researcher J. Kiley from the Yale University said the study moved away from theirs in significant ways.
The Discrepancies Found in the Second Study
The fact that the moving eyes were pointed downwards interfered with the intended goal. Another difference is that the climber carries on long before being assisted by the helper, as if it’s climbing on its own, further confusing the babies – pointed out researchers from the initial study.
According to the team, these discrepancies would make it difficult for the babies to recognize that the climber needed help. Even so it’s not easy for the babies to notice that the helper was helping. It is therefore possible that the babies in the study looked to other elements to help them decide.
Even with the flaws mentioned by the Otago University team, the researchers assert that they have tested their findings in other social scenarios with no climbing, colliding or bouncing. They point out that they received the same results as in the puppet show scenarios.
This spat has lead Professor Scarf to encourage further research into whether infants possess a moral compass, and so the debate continues.