How much do Psychologists really know about infants?
The mental life of infants has always been mysterious. But for the past century, Psychologists felt certain about at least a few fundamental truths about the infant mind: 1. That infant cognitive schemas pass through several developmental stages before reaching maturity, 2. that early-childhood schemas involved wildly different cognitive frameworks from those found in adults, and 3. that these frame works involved a world view that is entirely self-centered and solipsistic.
Do infants have morals?
But today, these long accepted claims are being turned on their head by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale who contends that infants are born with an innate moral understanding. His controversial argument is based upon a number of experiments in which infants, usually around six months old, are presented with rudimentary “morality plays.” One play featured three puppets. One puppet was struggling to climb up a steep hill, another decided to help him, and started walking him up, while a malicious third one, ran up to the first puppet and gave him a shove, tumbling him down the hill. After witching these plays, the baby is issued a series of tests designed to determine if the baby is partial towards the helping puppet, and/or turned off by the sadistic one. In all these cases, babies showed a tendency to desire to be with and to reward the “good guy,” as well as a desire to be away from and to punish the “bad guy.”
Are these Studies Truly Groundbreaking?
Of course, it would be presumptive to assume that these plays point towards some sort of innate, objective moral hardwiring. We know that nature does play a role in individual preferences, but preferences alone do not equate to morality. A baby bonds with a mother because of his preference for intimate social contact and needed resources. At this stage in development, a baby’s love is still wholly selfish. But the ability to detect the fact that this individual provides positive interactions and tends to basic needs is surely innate, as it is an evolutionary necessity for a mother’s young to recognize her as such. It seems to me that this innate “morality” is simply an extension of the capacity to differentiate individuals who might offer good things to the baby from individuals who may threaten the baby.
What makes these experiments interesting is not that they prove the existence of inborn morality, but that they show the sophistication of babies cognitive schema: babies, once thought to be entirely solipsistic, are in fact able to see the connection between how one stranger treats another and how said stranger might treat them. Of course, as time goes on, such perceptions develop into an intellectual understanding of justice and fairness, but at this stage in child development, it is fascinating enough to see that infants are so sophisticated at interpersonal perception.
1. Bloom, Paul. “The Moral Life of Babies”. New York Times Magazine May 2010: 44-65.