Is Morality in Our DNA?

2014-07-29_2344Yesterday I watched a fascinating video from the NY Times about how infants apparently have an ingrained sense of morality. The video is definitely worth watching, but I’ll describe it here in brief.

The study involved a number of very young children (6-9 months old) who were individually shown a short puppet show with a “good” character and a “bad” character. For example, in Act 1, a puppet loses a ball, and Good Bunny returns it to him. In Act 2, a puppet loses a ball, and Bad Bunny keeps it and runs away.

The child is then shown both bunnies, and 80% of the time, the child selects the Good Bunny to hug or hold. 80%! Perhaps there’s a flaw in the study, but they seemed to address the variables well. 80% is significant.

Their conclusion was that infants have an ingrained sense of morality that they either pick up at a very young age or that they’re actually born with. I’m not sure if it’s possible to prove the latter, but that seemed to be their main claim.

So it made me wonder: What if it’s true? What if morality is built into our DNA? What does that mean?

The best theory I have is that survival of the fittest dictates that steering yourself towards morally “good” people (or bunnies) increases our chances of living longer. Over time, evolution eliminated the vast majority of people who were attracted to immorality.

But if that’s true, what does it say about the 20% of children who chose Bad Bunny? It would be fascinating for the study to check in with them over the next 20 years to see how they develop compared to the Good Bunny kids.

What do you think? If you have kids, did you see them making morally “correct” decisions from a very young age?

6 thoughts on “Is Morality in Our DNA?”

  1. Others who are much more familiar with the scientific method, especially with regards to implementing good research design will be better suited to comment than I, but I’ll try my best to throw in my two cents.

    The main issues I find is that we, as people inherently have a certain bias towards a result. These biases are why good research implement the doubled-blind procedure. The opportunity to skew the result while conducting the study is numerous. Note that I am not saying that the researchers themselves are malicious in their intent.

    When the researcher staff presents the two choices to the baby, you can see that the baby looks at the staff first; presumably to gauge the appropriate response to the situation. It’s easy to unintentionally give signals and influence the subject into picking the result the researchers are hoping to get; that’s why it’s important to do double-blinded tests.

    Furthermore, given that this is a behavioural study, how babies interpret the “scene” may be influenced by factors other than altruism. For example, when the triangle helped the circle up the hill, the circle did a little jump of joy. Also, when the puppet was having trouble opening the box, the other puppet jumped on the box and made the other one sad.

    The act itself may not be the queue for the baby to pick the “good” or “bad” puppet, but rather the resultant effect could be the reason. The baby has witnessed an act that either caused the another to be either happy or sad. For self preservation reasons, wouldn’t you naturally pick the scenario where the end result is a happy one?

    Lastly, I think there’s a leap of logic to say that, “picking the ‘good’ puppet equals a genetic predisposition to morality.” To me, picking the good puppet is beneficial to self preservation. As a baby, I may end up becoming a pretty terrible human being, but even as a terrible human being, I’d still choose the good puppet over the bad one.

    • Allen: Thanks for this analysis of their scientific method. It does seem that there are a number of ways that the results could be skewed. Perhaps the babies are targeting happiness more than they’re targeting “right” or “wrong”.

  2. Even though I know that it was just a video and does not contain the data from the study, there are tens to hundreds of different variables in those shows that could be affecting the babies besides their innate sense of morality. It seems like a pretty huge leap based on what was shown.

  3. I do think that young children have a very ingrained sense of what we would call morality, but it ultimately springs from empathy. Infants are very good at reading emotions. It’s their first survival mechanism. They pay an incredible amount of attention to the venues through which adults convey their feelings – the face, movement, tone of voice. Because an infant is learning all of these, he or she is particularly sensitive to them.

    The extension of this comes on with experience. Infants are little scientists – they test everything they touch (usually by trying to eat it, or throwing it) and they remember what is good and what is not good.

    Taken together, it’s not a stretch to say that an infant would recognize the feeling of a puppet whose toy is taken away. Every infant has had a “toy” taken away at some point (usually because they try to stick it into the VCR or an electrical outlet). When they prefer the “good” bunny it’s because they align their wishes (or fears, even) with the desired outcome. It has less to do with survival, I think, and more to do with empathy.

    I think this helps explain why it’s “only” 80% of infants who prefer the “good” bunny. They may not have developed that sense of empathy, or may not have a similar experience. Perhaps those infants don’t have a memory of having something taken away, or (as Gabby and Allen suggested) another stimulus is biasing their result. Sure the bunny is “good” but the “bad” bunny is wearing the same color that mommy likes to wear. That connection overwhelms the empathic one.

    As to the scientific design of the study, there are many factors outside of control. As I said, infants are very sensitive to things. Even older children put together connections that are incredibly subtle, evading the grasp of adults. For example, my 2-year-old shook a walkway light right out of the ground the other week. She said she wanted it to make music; to me this is absurd, it’s a light, it doesn’t make music. But the curved design of the lamp resembles a windchime we have in the backyard. |=>lightbulb<=|

    I do think the results support this sense of empathy and – more importantly – that children reason and make choices on the basis of that empty, partly because of the consistency (4 out of 5 experiments) over what I assume is a reasonable enough sample size to overwhelm the effects of specific tendencies of certain children.


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