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Fascinating research on babies' moral life!!

 
 
dlowan
 
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 01:56 am
This is an article from the New York Times so you'd need to register (for free) to be able to read it in full.

I find this sort of infant research utterly fascinating and exciting!

Here's a teaser:



Quote:
The Moral Life of Babies

Nicholas Nixon for The New York Times

Published: May 3, 2010


Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough " he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.


This incident occurred in one of several psychology studies that I have been involved with at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University in collaboration with my colleague (and wife), Karen Wynn, who runs the lab, and a graduate student, Kiley Hamlin, who is the lead author of the studies. We are one of a handful of research teams around the world exploring the moral life of babies.

Like many scientists and humanists, I have long been fascinated by the capacities and inclinations of babies and children. 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. In graduate school, I studied early language development and later moved on to fairly traditional topics in cognitive development, like how we come to understand the minds of other people " what they know, want and experience.

But the current work I’m involved in, on baby morality, might seem like a perverse and misguided next step. Why would anyone even entertain the thought of babies as moral beings? From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals. One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings " social creatures who can experience empathy, guilt and shame; who can override selfish impulses in the name of higher principles; and who will respond with outrage to unfairness and injustice. Many parents and educators would endorse a view of infants and toddlers close to that of a recent Onion headline: “New Study Reveals Most Children Unrepentant Sociopaths.” If children enter the world already equipped with moral notions, why is it that we have to work so hard to humanize them?

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. 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. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.

Smart Babies
Babies seem spastic in their actions, undisciplined in their attention. In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau called the baby “a perfect idiot,” and in 1890 William James famously described a baby’s mental life as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” A sympathetic parent might see the spark of consciousness in a baby’s large eyes and eagerly accept the popular claim that babies are wonderful learners, but it is hard to avoid the impression that they begin as ignorant as bread loaves. Many developmental psychologists will tell you that the ignorance of human babies extends well into childhood. For many years the conventional view was that young humans take a surprisingly long time to learn basic facts about the physical world (like that objects continue to exist once they are out of sight) and basic facts about people (like that they have beliefs and desires and goals) " let alone how long it takes them to learn about morality.

I am admittedly biased, but I think one of the great discoveries in modern psychology is that this view of babies is mistaken.



The story continues here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html?src=twt&twt=nytimes


I do hope a few of you are interested enough to read it and want to discuss it!!
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Type: Discussion • Score: 16 • Views: 3,747 • Replies: 37
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OmSigDAVID
 
  -1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 02:53 am

For sure, children are selfish; that is the natural way to be.

I find it hard to believe that a 1 year old understands English.





David
djjd62
 
  2  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 05:29 am
@OmSigDAVID,
OmSigDAVID wrote:
I find it hard to believe that a 1 year old understands English.


why not, if they're raised in an english speaking home they've been hearing it for a year
fresco
 
  2  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 06:14 am
@dlowan,
I've skimmed most of the article and what comes to mind as a psychologist-turned-philosopher is much of such "research" is based on anthropocentric concerns such as " Is morality ( a human abstraction with religious connections) rooted in "nature" or "nurture"? Clearly Dawkins (et al) has made attempts to account for morality in terms of " an altruism gene", which is a direct challenge to religionists who see "morality" as the ultimate evidence for " a divinity". The academic psychologist, wearing blinkers , holds such controversial poles at arm's length and mistakenly assumes his data gathering is "an objective exercise". However, data gathering is never objective...witness the furore over correlations of "race" and "intelligence".
We need to bear such anthropocentric concerns in mind when reading such material.

0 Replies
 
plainoldme
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 06:51 am
@OmSigDAVID,
My daughter had a speaking vocabulary of 500 words by the time she was 1. I wrote down each word she said. She taught herself to read at 3.

My kids were saying distinct words at 6 or 7 months. The could produce 4 word sentences between 13 and 15 months.

While they were precocious, babies understand many words before their first birthday. They understand no and yes and many words involving food and eating as well as words for personal care.
sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 07:03 am
@dlowan,
Isn't that wonderful? I read it online a few days ago, my actual paper-paper just arrived so I will be re-reading it.

Reminds me of "The Scientist in the Crib" too by Alison Gopnik, fabulous book.

I love babies.
dlowan
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 07:35 am
@sozobe,
Yes! Going to bed be bavk later.
sullyfish6
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 07:38 am
I don't think the incident with the puppets exhibits "moral" behavior.
More like self preservation or fear of something being taken away - quite basic animal behavior.

I love babies, too, But teaching children to share is one of the most difficult things a parent can do. I do think it has to be taught or set by example.
Mame
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 07:44 am
Wonderful read, thank you, dlowan. I want to read more.
0 Replies
 
saab
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 08:05 am
@djjd62,
A child 18 months old can as an average say 8-10 words. They understand much more of course but one can hardly talk about understanding English or whatever language is spoken at home.
0 Replies
 
edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 08:33 am
The article reflects my own view in the matter.
0 Replies
 
sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 09:05 am
@dlowan,
Sozlet read it and loved it too. (She asked with some anxiety whether she was one of the babies that would soothe others, was relieved when I said yes.)

She knew about 250 signs at 18 months btw. (ASL.) Wasn't talking that much though.
sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 09:13 am
@sullyfish6,
I dunno, this part is pretty subtle:

Quote:
[T]here are still-more-elaborate moral calculations that adults, at least, can easily make. For example: Which individual would you prefer " someone who rewarded good guys and punished bad guys or someone who punished good guys and rewarded bad guys? The same amount of rewarding and punishing is going on in both cases, but by adult lights, one individual is acting justly and the other isn’t. Can babies see this, too?

To find out, we tested 8-month-olds by first showing them a character who acted as a helper (for instance, helping a puppet trying to open a box) and then presenting a scene in which this helper was the target of a good action by one puppet and a bad action by another puppet. Then we got the babies to choose between these two puppets. That is, they had to choose between a puppet who rewarded a good guy versus a puppet who punished a good guy. Likewise, we showed them a character who acted as a hinderer (for example, keeping a puppet from opening a box) and then had them choose between a puppet who rewarded the bad guy versus one who punished the bad guy.

The results were striking. When the target of the action was itself a good guy, babies preferred the puppet who was nice to it. This alone wasn’t very surprising, given that the other studies found an overall preference among babies for those who act nicely. What was more interesting was what happened when they watched the bad guy being rewarded or punished. Here they chose the punisher. Despite their overall preference for good actors over bad, then, babies are drawn to bad actors when those actors are punishing bad behavior.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 10:35 am
@sozobe,
sozobe wrote:
Sozlet read it and loved it too. (She asked with some anxiety whether she was one of the babies that would soothe others, was relieved when I said yes.)

I find it kind of weird that Sozlet is old enough to ask this kind of questions already. You could have pointed her to the Abuzz threads where you discussed her with Noddy just yesterday. That would have told her exactly what kind of baby she was.
0 Replies
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 10:40 am
@sullyfish6,
sullyfish6 wrote:
I don't think the incident with the puppets exhibits "moral" behavior.
More like self preservation or fear of something being taken away - quite basic animal behavior.

One might argue that morality itself is, at its root, quite basic animal behavior. I'm pretty sure* a dog you kick will treat you differently than a dog you happen to run over, other things being equal. That's "quite basic animal behavior". It's also quite basic morality.

-----
* I haven't yet kicked my mother's dog, or run over her, often enough to compile solid statistics. Maybe I should get working on it.
ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 11:06 am
This interesting question is what a true morality, that is a morality that grows outside of any subjective cultural beliefs, would be like.

The experiment I would like to try is to raise a group of humans with no cultural biases or preconceptions (other then what they have themselves). For this experiment we would have to keep them, from infancy, away from any cultural impact.

The moral beliefs that these humans developed would be as close as you could get to an objective morality.

The problem with these baby experiments is that they don't answer any of the real interesting questions.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 11:15 am
@ebrown p,
ebrown p wrote:
The problem with these baby experiments is that they don't answer any of the real interesting questions.

Well, you do the interesting experiments then, and report back when you have the result. Smile
ehBeth
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 11:15 am
@dlowan,
I don't see any analysis of the parents in there. Did they strip out the parents behaviours before reviewing the children's responses?
0 Replies
 
aidan
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 11:18 am
@Thomas,
Quote:
One might argue that morality itself is, at its root, quite basic animal behavior. I'm pretty sure* a dog you kick will treat you differently than a dog you happen to run over, other things being equal. That's "quite basic animal behavior". It's also quite basic morality.

Yeah, that's pretty much what I was thinking. A child from age 0-5 is primed for learning to a greater extent and more rapidly than s/he will at any other life-stage. They learn what they see/hear/ experience.
Is this a novel concept?
Not if you've ever watched/seen a child grow/develop from 0-5.
0 Replies
 
ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Sun 9 May, 2010 11:33 am
@Thomas,
Quote:
ebrown p wrote:

The problem with these baby experiments is that they don't answer any of the real interesting questions.


Well, you do the interesting experiments then, and report back when you have the result. Smile


My subject is 5 years old now.... I figure it will take another 13-15 years before I will have any meaningful results.

0 Replies
 
 

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