Experts are skeptical of the claim made in a recent study conducted by American researchers which suggests that babies as young as six months old have a moral compass that leads them to believe whether an individual is good or bad..
The 2007 study by Yale University researchers had provided the first evidence that 6- and 10-month-old infants could assess individuals based on their behaviour towards others, showing a preference for those who helped rather than hindered another individual.
Based on a series of experiments, researchers from New Zealand's University of Otago have shown that the earlier findings may simply be the result of infants' preferences for interesting and attention grabbing events, rather than an ability to evaluate individuals based on their social interactions with others.
In the original experiment, infants watched a wooden toy attempt to climb a hill. They viewed two social interactions; one in which a "helper" toy nudged the climber up the hill, and another in which a "hinderer" toy nudged the climber down the hill.
After viewing these two scenarios, the infants were presented with a tray; on one side of the tray was the helper and on the other side was the hinderer.
Amazingly, the majority of infants picked the helper over the hinderer. To further elucidate infants' moral reasoning abilities, a "neutral" toy (i.e., a toy that neither helped nor hindered) was pitted against the helper or hinderer.
When the neutral character was paired with the helper, the infants preferred the helper; when paired with the hinderer, they preferred the neutral character.
The paper concluded that the experiments show that infants can evaluate individuals based on how they interact with another individual, and that their ability to do this is 'universal and unlearned'.
After reviewing videos of the Yale experiments, the Otago researchers noticed that two obvious perceptual events could be driving infants' choices.
"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," lead author of the study Dr Damian Scarf said.
Dr Scarf said that the researchers carried out a series 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. 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," Scarf said.
Although the Yale researchers have followed up their original study with further research findings that appear to support the original study, these too could be explained under the simple association hypothesis, he said.
"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 added.
The new study has been published in PLOS ONE.