Can babies tell right from wrong?

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Can babies tell who is helpful and who is not? I don't know, but I dig these shades. Photo by Hunny.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a fan of videos. Though written (and typed!) word is my favorite, I think a well-made video can tell a story in a way that five pages of typing never can.

A friend of mine posted this video on Facebook a few days ago, and I thought the OBM community would be interested. Unfortunately, I can’t embed the video (boo!), but here’s the breakdown:

The Infant Cognition Center at Yale University is attempting to uncover whether or not babies can tell who is helpful and who is not. They devised a simple study (which is very straight-forward and demonstrated in the video, hence the lack of details), conducted it, and came to a conclusion: yes.

There are a few visible problems with the study–one of which, as my husband pointed out, babies usually go for brightly-colored objects. However, I like to believe that CNN just edited the study in a wonky way, because I think this idea is intriguing.

I, for one, definitely believe babies have a strong sense of what is cool, emotionally speaking, and what is not–and not because they are born as benevolent, untouched creatures. My own son has demonstrated this capability too many times to count. One instance that really stands out is when Sean and I were stressing about something before bath time, going back and forth trying to resolve whatever the issue was, and Jasper was sitting between us. Jasper finally let out an incredibly emotional yelp, and we both got quiet and looked at him. He looked back and forth between us, waited a few minutes, and then smiled in response to our smiles.

Does he know right from wrong? I’m not sure. But he does know what good feelings and bad feelings are, and I think he prefers the good. What about you, OBMers? What do you think?

See also: more studies from the ICC at Yale.

Comments on Can babies tell right from wrong?

  1. Just btw, here is a link to the NYT article rather than the video:

    And their comments:

    I 100% agree that babies know right from wrong, that they are moral beings. Just b/c they are small and can’t always express themselves clearly (to us), doesn’t mean that they are “perfect idiots” as Rousseau called them. Maybe WE’RE the idiots who can’t always understand them, hmm?

    Now this (obviously) doesn’t mean that babies *themselves* will behave perfectly, just because they are aware of right from wrong. See this slightly humorous article, . (Just a heads-up that it uses some adult language).

    I’m just saying, if our pet rabbits, who are…not the brightest bulbs in the box, can tell “fair” from “unfair” (and they totally can!), then certainly human babies would be able to do so as well.

  2. I definitely think the little folks can get a pretty strong read on emotions. I think that so strongly, in fact, that when we had to put our Husky to sleep I asked a friend to stay with our little fella so he wouldn’t be in a room with us having such negative emotions in such a strong way. He was 4 months old at the time and obviously wouldn’t have realized that the dog was going to be gone but I knew he’d realize how sad we were and I felt it would be bad for him.

  3. babies can defiantly tell what’s right and wrong. babies are very observant and can tell the changes and tone in your voice so when you say HEY STOP THAT they usually freeze in their tracks

    my son is just about 10 months old now and he definitely knows that if i say stop it or no in a forceful way he better stop what he’d doing. 90% of time he’ll stop and turn the other way. and if i say stop it or no in a cute kind of way he things we’re playing and keeps going on doing whatever he’s doing while laughing

    so i defiantly agree with the study

  4. Hmmm… I am tempted to write a whole essay here, but I’ll spare everyone and just say that, on the one hand, the babies in this study have had months of experience in life… think about all your baby has learned how to do in a few months and you can see why testing an inherent vs. learned aspect of any behavior is difficult with babies: by the time you can really judge their reactions, they have had a lot of life experience and soak it up. That said, there is proof of a sort of universality of “fairness” understood across not only multiple species but almost the universe in general. I will try to find the article I read on it recently…

  5. I remember reading a more in-depth review of this study, and yes, the researchers did switch out whether it was the yellow triangle or the blue square that was the “good guy”. So it’s not just reaction to color. However, I do remember one quote from the researcher saying something like, “The science of babies is the science of alert, cheerful babies.” Basically, the only babies they included in this study (or any study of babies) were the ones who were engaged with the world around them before the experiment. So… yeah, that does raise some questions too, I think.

    I also agree with Rodrigues–this study doesn’t necessarily test whether the concept of “helpful is good” is inherant, but it show that concept can be (and usually is) learned in less than two years. I would be very interested to see this study done with babies from multiple cultures.

  6. I remember being told once by a friend that when you’re pregnant and you fight with your spouse, your baby curls tighter into the fetal position. I don’t know if that’s true — I never did any research on it, I trust my friend’s judgement — but I do know that when my husband and I are stressed/fighting, Miles reacts.

    It’s a hard thing to do, keeping your kids out of your adult problems. (And deciding when to do so and when not to do so.)

    Edited to add, I wouldn’t be surprised that babies can tell the difference between helpful and unhelpful.

  7. Even if they can tell the difference, it’s not necessarily that they are choosing the “good” one purely because it’s “good”. It could be a lot more self-serving. Like, “I’m not gonna choose that guy! He’ll push me down the hill!”

  8. I definately agree that even practically newborn babies can pick up on any negative emotions floating around, mine certainly could, and still can (although she’s more likely to hug and kiss me now if she thinks theres something wrong than cry in response!)

  9. I’ve just been reading about mirror neurons, which cause babies to sense and mirror the emotions around them. Babies definitely do this!

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