John Locke, famed 17th century English philosopher, proposed that babies were born as blank slates, “tabula rasas.” Ever since, society has assumed that babies are born without knowledge, that all mental content is acquired through experience and perception. However, scientists at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center are conducting research that refutes Locke’s theory. Research suggests that infants as young as three-months-old have innate preferences for altruistic individuals (1).
Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, led the team of researchers in assessing Locke’s theory. In the first experiment, infants between the ages of six and ten months watched a series of puppet shows. Each puppet had a unique shape and color for the infants to easily distinguish. The first puppet, a red ball, struggled to climb a hill. On several occasions, the red ball was pushed up the hill by a yellow triangle. On other occasions, the red ball was pushed back down the hill, during its struggle, by a blue square. After watching the puppet show at least six times, the infants selected their favorite puppet, either the yellow triangle or the blue square. Over 80 percent of the infants chose the “helpful” puppet, a surprisingly high, statistically significant percentage (2).
In a follow-up experiment, infants watched a slightly different puppet show. Instead of shapes, researchers used stuffed animals as puppets. The researchers showed a puppet dog struggling to open a box. In some instances, a friendly teddy bear would help the dog open the box, while in other cases an unfriendly teddy bear would prevent the dog from opening the box by sitting on the box. After watching this version of the experiment, infants were asked to choose a puppet. Once again, the majority of the infants chose the “helpful” character (2).
In the third experiment, researchers changed the scenario again to increase the validity of their findings. To an audience of five-month-old babies, researchers showed a puppet cat playing with a ball as two rabbits stood beside him. On one side, a helpful rabbit returned the ball when the cat lost the ball. On the other side, an unhelpful rabbit stole the lost ball and ran away. After watching the play half a dozen times, the infants were asked to choose between the two rabbits. The majority of the babies chose the helpful rabbit (6). When repeated with 21-month-old babies, researchers asked the children to steal a treat from one of the rabbits. Most of the babies chose to steal from the “unhelpful” rabbit. In fact, one of the babies even smacked the unhelpful rabbit on the head! Kiley Hamlin, the lead author of the study, reflected on the results by stating, “Basically every single baby chose the nice puppet… totally surreal.” (1).
Yale University researchers further extended their investigation by testing for a preference toward altruism in even younger infants. Infants only three-months-old were given the same puppet show. Since the infants were too young to reliably reach, researchers used eye trackers to determine the children’s preferences. Eye trackers record the subject’s focus when looking at visual displays. Karen Pierce, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, explained that eye tracking helps researchers assess young children’s preferences by recording the amount of attention spent on different visual displays (4). Children stare longer at the visuals they prefer. Ultimately, the eye tracking results revealed that infants showed a clear aversion toward the “unhelpful” characters (1).
The research at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center suggests that babies are born with a set morality – a clear preference toward altruistic behavior. Infants as young as three-months-old can already evaluate others based on their actions, long before they are taught to do so. Researchers predict that this innate preference for altruism is an evolutionary trait that has allowed humans to decide with whom to interact (5). Future research will investigate infants’ innate, evaluative systems to uncover how they work and what they can reveal about humankind.
1. A. Tucker, Are Babies Born Good? (2013). Available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Are-Babies-Born-Good-183837741.html?c=y&page=2 (15 Sept 2013).
2. L. Edwards, Psychologists Say Babies Know Right From Wrong Even at Six Months (2010). Available at http://phys.org/news192693376.html (15 Sept 2013).
3. Babies Show Sense of Fairness, Altruism as Early as 15 Months (2011). Available at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111007161636.htm (15 Sept 2013).
4. T. Ghose, Eye Tracking Could Diagnose Brain Disorders (2012). Available at http://www.livescience.com/23274-eye-tracking-gaze-brain-disorders.html (15 Sept 2013).
5. J. K. Hamlin, K. Wynn, P. Bloom. Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants. Pediatr. Res. 63, 219-219. (2008).
6. P. Bloom, The Moral Life of Babies (2010). Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (15 Sept 2013).