Hats off once again to the gang over at ScienceDaily.com for blowing the lid off of this story.
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.
In the original Yale 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’.
Lead Otago author Dr Damian Scarf says that the Yale study caused an international sensation when it was published in the leading journal Nature.
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.
In other words, the infants couldn’t care less who was helping and who was hindering. They chose the one who was bouncing around more because it amused them.
“For example,” continues Dr Scarf, “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.”
So there you have it, boys and girls.
A generation of cold, heartless infants. They will be the ones who will eventually choose the nursing homes in which we end up.
Better start bouncing around now, folks!
Be sure to check out my sister blog, Vampyre Fangs!