Friday, August 17, 2012

New-Zealand - Do Babies Have A Built-In Moral Compass

Is morality an innate human trait or are morals learned and acquired after birth?

In 2007, researchers from Yale University published a landmark paper in Nature that suggested infants have a moral compass to guide them in evaluating human actions.

However, new results released last week by researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand cast doubt on the previous findings.

In the Yale study, researchers tested the ability of six- and ten-month old infants to assess the behavior of individuals towards others. They found the babies had a preference for those who helped instead of hindered another individual.

The infants were shown two scenarios that involved a wooden toy “climber” attempting to climb a hill.

In one scenario, a “helper” toy nudged the climber up the hill, while in the second, a “hinderer” toy nudged the climber down the hill. The infants were then presented with the “helper” and the “hinderer” on a tray.

The majority of infants chose the helper over the hinderer.

The infants were also shown a “neutral” toy that neither helped nor hindered. When presented with the choice again, the infants preferred a helping individual to a neutral one, and preferred a neutral to a hindering individual.

The researchers concluded that infants assess individuals based on their behavior towards others. This capacity could serve as the foundation for moral thought and action, and is ‘universal and unlearned’.

2007 Yale study design flawed, researchers say

In the new study, the Otago researchers began by reviewing videos of the Yale experiments and noticed that two perceptual events could be driving infants’ choices.

According to Dr. Damian Scarf who led the Otago study:

“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 of 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.

“For example, 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,” Scarf said.

“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,” he said.

Scarf believes that the “simple association” hypothesis can also explain further findings by the Yale researchers.

“Their newer studies employ different paradigms but can still be explained using our simple association hypothesis. While we accept it is not easy to develop paradigms that perfectly match up the perceptual attributes of the helper and hinderer events, we still think there is room for improvement. I look forward to future studies on the topic of moral nativism and hope our study stimulates some discussion,” he said.

The publication of the Otago study has already prompted debate on the PLoS ONE website, where the results were published.

Dr. Kiley Hamlin, the lead researcher of the Yale study, raised concerns about how the differences between the toys used by the two teams could influence the outcome. Moreover, Hamlin said that subsequent studies where infants were found to prefer actors who are pro-social add weight to the “social evaluation” hypothesis and cannot be explained by Scarf’s simple association theory.


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