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Are We Inherently Good or Evil? What Babies Teach us About Morality

Are we inherently good or evil? This question, and questions like it, have been asked for millennia and almost always to no avail. Philosophers argued over what it means for someone to be good (they still do) and theologians wondered if evil was the product of free will or determinism. All along, empirical evidence was nowhere to be seen.

The last few decades in psychology changed that. Now, psychologists have some idea (though there are still many unknowns to be sure) of whether or not we are inherently good or bad. The first finding is it is misleading to ask this question in the first place. The more accurate picture is that we possess both good and bad tendencies that are present at birth, and the interaction between genes and environment influences how they will be drawn out. Gary Marcus describes this interaction best, “Nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired—flexible and subject to change—rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable… Built-in does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.” A helpful analogy is a control board where the genes are like volume knobs and switches with the environment acting on them.

This brings me to a brand new paper out of the University of British Columbia by Kiley Hamlin and a team of researchers from Yale University and Temple University. Here’s what they did:

Researchers presented four scenarios to 100 babies using animal hand puppets. After watching puppets act negatively or positively towards other characters, the babies were shown puppets either giving or taking toys from these “good” or “bad” puppets. When prompted to choose their favorite characters, babies preferred puppets that mistreated the bad characters from the original scene, compared to those that treated them nicely. (You can watch the videos here)

Hamlin’s study suggests that babies as young as eight months old, “prefer it when people who commit or condone antisocial acts are mistreated.” The study also provides “insights into the protective mechanisms humans use to choose social alliances, which she [Hamlin] says are rooted in self-preservation” and it demonstrates “early forms of the complex behaviors and emotions that get expressed later in life.”

Hamlin’s work complements a similar study published this October by Marco Schmidt and Jessica Summerville. In their study Schmidt and Summervile presented 15 month year old babies two videos: one in which an experimenter distributes an equal share of crackers to two recipients and another in which the experimenter distributes an unequal share of crackers (they also did the same procedure with milk). They measured how the babies looked at the crackers and milk while they were distributed. They found that babies spent more time looking when one recipient got more food than the other. This means, according to “violation of expectancy,” which describes how babies pay more attention to something when it surprises them, that “the infants [expecting] an equal and fair distribution of food… were surprised to see one person given more crackers or milk than the other.”

It also complements a study Hamlin completed with Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn while she was still at Yale. Bloom summarizes in the New York Times:

In one of our first studies of moral evaluation, we decided… to use… a three-dimensional display in which real geometrical objects, manipulated like puppets, acted out the helping/hindering situations: a yellow square would help the circle up the hill; a red triangle would push it down. After showing the babies the scene, the experimenter placed the helper and the hinderer on a tray and brought them to the child. In this instance, we opted to record… which character they reached for, on the theory that what a baby reaches for is a reliable indicator of what a baby wants. In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual.

Similar to Hamlin’s latest study, this research suggests that babies (3-months) prefer characters that help others over characters that do not.

What does this say about us being good or evil? It suggests that babies are born with certain moral capacities and the potential to have a strong moral sense. This does not confirm nor deny that we are inherently… well, anything. As I mentioned earlier, the interaction between genes and environment influences our behaviors and personalities; we are not blank slates, in other words. Importantly, what Hamlin’s work is showing is that we are also not moral blank slates.


Hamlin, J., Wynn, K., Bloom, P., & Mahajan, N. (2011). How infants and toddlers react to antisocial others Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1110306108

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. I hold that we all have an innate sense of fairness, that unless taught to apply to ourselves, will exploit for our own gain. What kid shares his toys or expresses gratitude without being told to do so?

    December 1, 2011
  2. I’m not sure why we would characterise this as about being good or evil or morality. Clearly we are social animals and this result shows that we have the wiring to participate in social groups from birth. This can hardly be surprising. I suppose you could argue that we can be good group members or bad group members, but I don’t think this result tells you anything about morality per se. It says that we understand that being social means that certain types of social behaviour are conducive to survival of the group and others are less advantageous. Is this morality?

    What they need to do is put the babies in an fMRI scanner and see what parts of their brain they’re using to make these decisions.

    @Bobby. All kids share their toys at a certain age. Toddlers will often delight in offering you whatever they are eating or playing with. But it wears off, perhaps as the Theory of Mind begins to develop.

    December 1, 2011
    • Jayarava, the important phrase in my statement about children sharing their toys is “without being told to do so”. I don’t know if there are any data available on this but I think every parent would find it hard to believe that their children’s natural instinct is to share.

      December 1, 2011
      • Hi Bobby – the important phrase in my statement is “All kids share their toys at a certain age”. It’s just an observation.

        December 1, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Jayarava,

      The researches are not concerned about morality to be sure. But I am. I think these studies, which describe how babies react to scenarios having to do with fairness and justice, definitely contribute to a conversation about morality. I would also add that these findings are surprising, psychology throughout the 20th century was plagued with the notion that we are born as blank slates. The study adds to literature that is overturning this idea.

      December 1, 2011
      • sammcnerney #

        Bobby,

        I would say that these studies suggest that babies are hardwired with the ability to share. That is not to say that babies are hardwired to share always all the time. Important distinction.

        December 1, 2011
      • Hi Sam

        OK I see where you are coming from. I’ve never believed we were blank slates and despite a bit of an interest in psychology, especially developmental psychology I don’t recall ever seeing the idea ever seriously suggested – maybe I did but just switched off? Anyway I find it interesting but far from surprising.

        I wonder if in fact a lot of the fuss about morality is because religion (generally) has made it such a big issue, and caked it in metaphysical trimmings. I’m constantly thinking back to Jane Goodall’s book In The Shadow of Man, which seems to give many good examples of social primate behaviour without the obscurations of civilisation. We have fallen for our own hype to some extent. Rather like the Emo Phillips gag:

        I asked myself what’s the most important part of the body? And a little voice said ‘the brain’. But then I though ‘who’s telling me that’?

        Perhaps we should also be asking “what is morality”? Is it more than the way we behave? If not then shouldn’t we just study it as part of behaviour?

        December 1, 2011
        • sammcnerney #

          Morality is very diverse. Everyone has their own intuition about what it means or what it is about. This opens the door for a lot of debate. Some of the debate is useless, some very helpful. I think the question “what is morality” is good if it is asked in context to psychology (that is what I tried to do in this post) but fruitless if asked in the context of philosophy.

          We can use psychology to better understand morality, in other words.

          December 1, 2011
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          August 30, 2013
        • I’m imssepred you should think of something like that

          September 1, 2013
        • Ho ho, who woulda thunk it, right?

          October 17, 2013
        • Thank you so much for another usufel input. I sent the list to my parents, who are coming over here help me taking care the coming baby. This will help them so muck to catch up with the baby items in the modern days.Keep writing!

          October 21, 2013
  3. Anonymous #

    I’d be curious to know if the babies that did not select in favor of the helpful, are in later life found to be sociopaths.. if so, that test should be done on all babies as a method for early detection so parents would know they need to use a different approach in raising them to be considerate of others as adults for reasons obviously unrelated to empathy.

    December 19, 2012
  4. jack #

    did BBC not do the exact same experiment?

    January 23, 2014
  5. Anonymous #

    This seems to be a good aid for mentoring in schools. So teachers, coaches and all who are mentoring are children need to know the innocent children are well aware of fairness and justice. So let us not create any child to want revenge through are acts of partiality that we tell are selves is ok.
    We need to take responsibility for are actions that might shape a young persons negative attitude toward teachers, mentors or their classmates.

    May 9, 2014

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