The moral life of babies

15

Research with very young babies suggests that the roots of compassion, empathy and moral reasoning might be in place from birth.

If you have any experience of babies you’d be forgiven for thinking of them as entirely selfish, self-oriented little beasts with scant regard for others. It has long been thought that children are born amoral and that it is the job of their culture to teach them the difference between good and bad. However, studies with very young babies suggest that they might be much nicer than we previously thought.

For instance, babies seem to empathize with the distress of others – crying in response to the cries of other babies and stroking or offering toys to those who seem to be upset. Babies also spontaneously help strangers who are struggling. When experimenters acted out a range of troublesome scenarios such as trying to open a cupboard with their hands full or straining to reach a dropped peg - 1-year-olds came rushing to their assistance, sometimes traversing extensive obstacles to do so. And it's not just that babies happen to like picking up dropped pegs. If the experimenter was straining to reach a peg that they had deliberately thrown down, rather than accidentally dropped, babies didn’t come to their rescue.

These findings suggest that young children may have natural inclinations to assess the intentions of those around them and to help them achieve their goals when they seem to be struggling. The experimenters were unfamiliar to the babies yet they tried to help them spontaneously and without any encouragement from their parents or any reward. If you watch the linked videos above, you’ll note the experimenter doesn’t even thank them. The authors of these studies interpret this behaviour as evidence that the rudiments of empathy, compassion and altruism may already be in place much earlier than expected, perhaps even from birth. But simply feeling for someone’s anguish isn’t necessarily as sophisticated as reasoning about good and bad.

Written By: Nathalia Gjersoe
continue to source article at theguardian.com

15 COMMENTS

  1. The same can be said for babies that bite or pull the hair of other babies, the parents didt teach their babies how to hit other babies they figured it out for themselves.the religious crowd would argue that morality comes from religion, they never tell us were lack of morality come’s from but the reality is neither boldness in children nor morality comes from religion.

      • In reply to #5 by phil rimmer:

        And how does this gel with the apparent decline in altruistic behaviour seen after this period and peaking in selfishness at age seven before reversing yet again, seemingly responding to cultural repair?

        I may have missed something but I didn’t see in the article you linked to that in general children’s altruism rates drop off after 7. What I read said that up until 7 children show the same levels of altruism across cultures but then start to diverge at 7. I.e., some kids continue to show greater altruism some not so much.

        In any case, and this applies to several comments, however altruism works it is no doubt a combination of many different genetic and cultural factors. It’s unlikely we are going to find simplistic linear models where altruism starts at some baseline and increases linearly over time.

        • In reply to #6 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #5 by phil rimmer:

          I may have missed something

          Perhaps this-

          progressively from age three to about seven or eight the children grew more selfish.

          After which time altruism increases in line with adult levels in the particular cultures.

          I think you have me back to front.

          This article says babies quite altruistic

          That article said they lose altruism progressively up to seven or eight after which it appears to reverse again, moving to a cultural norm.

          • In reply to #8 by phil rimmer:

            In reply to #6 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #5 by phil rimmer:

            I may have missed something

            Perhaps this-

            progressively from age three to about seven or eight the children grew more selfish.

            After which time altruism increases in line with adult levels in the particular cultures.

            I think you have me…

            Thanks for pointing out my error, the article definitely supported your point. However, I don’t see these two results as necessarily in conflict. For one thing all the baby study says is that some altruism is present in babies. We have no idea how much that is and whether it is less or more than in the older children. More importantly, I don’t think altruism can be meaningfully described as one simple variable that linearly gets larger or smaller. I think it’s a combination of behaviors and causes.

          • In reply to #9 by Red Dog:

            Because they cover different ages they are in no way mutually exclusive. Indeed they seem to agree on the altruistic state at their overlap say 2 to 3. But we might suspect that changes after three have a greater chance of being cultural. Genes expressed and meme/cultural inputs still going in. Is it-

            Baby mostly genetic behaviours but devoid of a sense of self. A thing needs doing so act to finish it. No sense that the act to be done is your own or any one elses. No self. no not self. No ownership. Not actually altruism.

            Toddler forms sense of self and starts to act to her benefit. Cultural input may only be effective in certain limited ways.

            Young child forms a sense of others like me. (This may still be just the appropriately timed expression of genes but may now facilitate more sophisticated cultural input.)

            The question is, would a feral child progress beyond toddler to seven mentality?

          • In reply to #13 by phil rimmer:

            Baby mostly genetic behaviours but devoid of a sense of self.

            “sense of self” is a vague term. I’ve read some fairly detailed discussion of what counts as a reasonable definition of “self” (some of that was even in a bit of text I pasted from an evo-psych book on the free will discussion). My point is that to just say “X has no sense of self” without defining what you mean by a sense of self is pretty meaningless. Also, whatever a sense of self is, it’s not clear to me that babies don’t necessarily have it. For example at very young ages human babies recognize that the thing in the mirror isn’t just another baby and seem to indicate they know it’s their own reflection, something some animals never get.

            A thing needs doing so act to finish it. No sense that the act to be done is your own or any one elses. No self. no not self. No ownership. Not actually altruism.

            So do Termites have a sense of self? I would say no but there are many paper written about altruism in Termites.

            The question is, would a feral child progress beyond toddler to seven mentality?

            Let’s see how that argument would work with language. Would a feral child learn language? No. Thus, we know that genes have nothing to do with language? No, most people think just the opposite, it’s well established that all human children go through a period when they are predisposed to learn a language and that predisposition is genetic. You can get various capabilities from your genes but they may still require social interaction to bring out.

        • In reply to #6 by Red Dog:

          I may have missed something but I didn’t see in the article you linked to that in general children’s altruism rates drop off after 7. What I read said that up until 7 children show the same levels of altruism across cultures but then start to diverge at 7.

          Is there something special about the age “7″? The Jesuits, at least, also seemed to think so. Coincidence?

          “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man” – Francis Xavier.

          Steve

          • In reply to #10 by Agrajag:

            In reply to #6 by Red Dog:

            I may have missed something but I didn’t see in the article you linked to that in general children’s altruism rates drop off after 7. What I read said that up until 7 children show the same levels of altruism across cultures but then start to diverge at 7.

            Is there somet…

            Well it’s a prime number, and prime numbers are of attributed with magical qualities. If you start thinking of the instances such as 3 wishes, 7 wonders of the world, 7 deadly sins(?),7 league boots, I think you’ll see what I mean.

          • In reply to #10 by Agrajag:

            Is there something special about the age “7″

            I think it’s that brain development that allows for greater empathy for the suffering of others starts to occur around that time. Theory of mind develops a few years earlier, but their brain (I think the frontal and prefrontal cortex specifically) is maturing enough around the age of 7 for a better understanding of what other people are experiencing. Longish paper

            Article about another paper on the topic – I couldn’t find an open access copy of the journal article itself

  2. This raises the old question of whether true altruism exists. Babies are uniquely vulnerable – reliant on others for everything – so currying favour with those around them (especially adults) is an excellent survival tactic.

Leave a Reply