Babies Know Right From Wrong


If you have children, you have probably observed that your baby is an immoral little savage who would cheerfully beat his sister to death over a bowl of cheerios.

A century of research on human development backs this obvious premise: that babies are born a moral tabula rasa, who must be socialized by their parents to know right from wrong.

A major article coming up in this Sunday’s New York Times reveals research that turns shows babies have moral judgement. Even babes as young as five months.

Using sophisticated techniques like tracking how long babies look at a colored ball and which puppet they prefer to steal a cookie from after watching a morality play, researchers at Yale and elsewhere have been able to see even very small infants showing a definite preference for actions and characters we perceive as “good” and avoiding those we see as “bad”.

Not only do babies prefer toys that help other toys, and they also prefer to punish toys that they see hurting other toys in the researcher’s little plays. They’ll take a cookie from the Bad Puppet, and want to hug the good one. Almost every time.

This is a complicated and fascinating finding that basically doesn’t affect my parenting plans at all. My kids still weaponize their toys with abandon and also tenderly help each other when one is hurt by an outsider (like the vicious porch steps that attack without warning).  I still have to teach them to play nice and observe rules.

As the authors make clear, they’re treading on thin ice trying to scientifically quantify a child’s moral development. Morality can vary widely across cultures and time periods. But there are some basics like fairness and kindness that transcend culture, and these appear to be at least a little but hard-wired.

Photo: Normality Relief