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Surprising Science

The Subtle Morality of Infants

Between the ages of five and eight month, infants develop surprisingly complex moral attitudes, considering the context of an action when determining whether it is right or wrong.

What’s the Latest Development?

Researchers have shown that infants’ moral sense is not only present from the early age of five month but that it develops rapidly. By eight months, infants are able to consider the context in which an action occurs when determining if it is right or wrong. In a series of puppet shows where unhelpful elephants and selfish moose roamed, younger infants followed basic moral calculations such as generous moose = good moose. But at eight months, infants preferred generous moose who helped good elephants rather than bad ones.

What’s the Big Idea?

A strong moral sense develops at an early age. Infants are not merely concerned with their own desires, mitigated by the authority of adults, but have a larger understanding of what constitutes right and wrong. Child psychologist Uta Frith says, “[Infants] can tell the difference between appropriate reward and punishment according to the context. To me this says that toddlers already have more or less adult moral understanding.” Based on the experiments, it is unclear how an adult could react in a more sophisticated way.

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