Research: Babies Have Inherent Sense Of Morality Sure, babies look cute and drool on command. But research shows these little bundles of joy are far from being blank slates; they actually have an inherent sense of right and wrong. Host Guy Raz discusses baby morality with Karen Wynn, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. Her "baby laboratory" is the subject of a piece in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

Research: Babies Have Inherent Sense Of Morality

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GUY RAZ, host:

No matter whether they're from blue states or red ones, all babies quite possibly know the difference between right and wrong - even babies as young as 3 months. That's according to research carried out by two Yale University psychologists, Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn. Paul Bloom writes about their findings in today's New York Times Magazine. His wife, Karen Wynn, runs the baby lab at Yale described in the article. And she told me how her team uses puppet shows to test the theory.

Dr. KAREN WYNN (Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, Yale University): We showed babies of a variety of ages scenarios in which one puppet was trying to climb a steep hill, and having difficulty doing so. And as this character is trying to get up the hill, another individual comes along and helps him up the hill. And then a moment later, he's trying again to get up the hill, and a different individual comes along and pushes him down the hill.

So we then just take the two puppets and hold them out to the baby, and our very simple measure is, who does the baby prefer? And what we find, over and over again, from as young as they are able to reach - which is about 5 months -that babies will reliably reach for the more positive character, the character who's acted in a helpful and kind manner.

RAZ: And now, I saw a video of some of these experiments. These are very rudimentary puppet shows with puppets sometimes as shapes, different colors. How do you know that the kids are picking the puppets based on behavior rather than, you know, the color of the puppet or the shape?

Dr. WYNN: Right. Well, that's a very good question. And, of course, we have to control for those kinds of details. So for half of our babies, the good puppet might be a blue, squarish figure and - but for the other half of the babies, it's the yellow triangle figure that is the what did I just say? The mean character. And so we switch the identities of the characters. And what we always find is that reliably, babies go towards the nice character and away from the mean or naughty character, regardless of what color or shape the characters happen to be.

RAZ: You know, I like to think of my son as a genius, but I can tell you at 14 months, he would pick the puppet that looked most like a banana.

Dr. WYNN: Most like a banana. So in some of our scenarios, we have actual puppets that are identical to each other - like two kitty cat puppets - one of whom has helped somebody else open a box, and the other of whom has slammed the box shut when the character was trying to open it. And they may have different-colored T-shirts on, but otherwise they would both look equally like a banana -or equally, in this case, not like a banana.

RAZ: When you first started out these experiments, and you watched as these babies made these choices, were you amazed? I mean, were you just completely shocked to see this sort of unfolding in front of you?

Dr. WYNN: We had expected at a certain age that we would find that. So we weren't so very shocked with, say, 10-month-olds making these judgments. But when we then looked at our 6-month-old babies and found them doing it, we were a bit more surprised. And when we brought it down to 3 months of age and found that even at that really startlingly early age - I mean, you probably still have a vision of what a 3-month-old looks like, your son being as young as he is. But they can't even sit up on their own. They're not very good at holding their heads on their own. Sometimes I like to call them like soggy bags of oatmeal because they kind of just - you know, you pick them up under the armpits, and they sort of fold in on themselves and sag a bit.

RAZ: Yeah.

Dr. WYNN: Seeing babies that young, who can't even grasp for things, nonetheless looking at these little scenarios and deciding who's a more positive individual and saying to them, basically through their behavior, I would like to interact with that one; no, I wish to avoid that other one - that was very surprising to me, yes.

RAZ: And they're just sort of looking at the one that they like or sort of...

Dr. WYNN: They are looking at the one that they like, that's right.

RAZ: Well, then, what would explain the behavior of children in playgrounds, for example, where, you know, many times, you see I mean, I've got a 14-month-old, you know, he grabs toys from other kids in the park...

Dr. WYNN: For sure.

RAZ: ...why would they not be able to distinguish that kind of behavior from the behavior you're describing?

Dr. WYNN: Mm-hmm. Oh, probably for the same reasons that adults often act in self-interest. We're not saying that babies are complete saints who will forego their own selfish pleasures and desires and needs. What we are saying is that when they are a - disinterested bystanders, as a disinterested bystander, even a young infant is capable of assessing when an individual is acting in a helpful and cooperative and friendly manner to another, and they will render judgments about the individuals.

In some further studies that we've done, they actually would like to see the nice individuals get their just rewards, and would also like to see the unnice individuals get their just punishments.

RAZ: Karen Wynn, I imagine when you were a graduate student, you studied the great psychologist William James. He once described the infant mind as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.

Dr. WYNN: That's right.

RAZ: So is - I mean, is the whole sort of thinking about this just completely changed?

Dr. WYNN: Radically altered, definitely. From my 20 years of studying human infants, there are some interesting things I've discovered that they don't know, but the larger picture is, the more I study them, the more rich and complex of an inner life seems to be emerging. At that basic level, they are pretty sophisticated little customers.

RAZ: That's Karen Wynn. She's a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, where she runs the Infant Cognition Center. Karen Wynn, thanks so much.

Dr. WYNN: Thank you.

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