The latest studies on the minds of infants reveal new information about how humans shape their moral views – and this research is being done by Canadians.

Studies by a group of Canadian-born or based psychologists have provided the first evidence that babies are hardwired with an innate sense of good and bad.

5 month-old Linden judging good and bad behaviour in a puppet show in Kiley Hamlin's lab at U.B.C.

A 2007 study by Yale University's Paul Bloom of Montreal and Karen Wynn of Regina, as well as J. Kiley Hamlin from the University of British Columbia, shows that six- and ten-month old babies can assess individuals based on their behaviour towards others.  The trio presented babies with scenes involving shapes that represented both "helper" and "hinderer" characters. When asked to point at or touch the character they liked best, in an overwhelming number of scenarios, the babies almost always chose the "good guy."

In 2010, Bloom's research also proved that babies as young as three months old can make moral judgements about right and wrong. The next year, Hamlin published another study that suggests babies as young as eight months old embrace the punishment of "bad" characters.

9 month old Eila with a new found friend at Kiley Hamlin's lab, UBC

Although volumes of work have been done on babies' cognitive development and even their understanding of other higher-order processes, such as empathy, it's hard to find any previous studies on the moral life of infants. Hamlin says she's not surprised.

"The reason you can't find any work on this before our paper is because there just wasn't any," Hamlin said. "The assumption was that there was no way that babies did any of this stuff."

Hamlin adds that psychologists were satisfied with the more common belief that a baby's mind was a tabula rasa or a blank slate, waiting to learn the difference between right and wrong, at about three to ten years of age.

Jean Piaget is most famous for his research during the 1920s, but the Swiss psychologist drew his theories on moral development from young children, not preverbal infants. Piaget, like Sigmund Freud and Lawrence Kohlberg, believed that children were born as amoral agents and eventually form their own moral reasoning through socialization. But over the last thirty years, scientists have overturned this view.

In the 1970s and '80s psychologists started to make use of babies' eye movements as an experimental tool. "Looking time" – the theory that babies tend to linger on what captures their attention – helped psychologists like Elizabeth Spelke and Renee Baillargeon understand a baby's "naive physics." Their experiments involved showing babies magic tricks, such as floating boxes and disappearing objects. They determined that babies have expectations about the behaviour of objects, especially when they violate laws of the universe.

Daphne participating in an in-group/out group study in Renee Baillargeon's lab, University of Illinois

Then Baillargeon, Stephanie Sloane and David Premack took their queries a step further earlier this year. If infants have expectations of the behaviour of objects, they must have some kind of innate, general understanding of fairness, the psychologists hypothesized.  In their experiments, they engaged 19 to 21-month-old children in scenarios in which puppets earned rewards or gifts. Baillergeon and her team found that babies spent more time focusing on the scenes in which "slacker" characters were rewarded more or the same number of treats than the "hard-working" puppets.

"These studies, like earlier studies, show that children have expectations that individuals will distribute resources and rewards fairly," Baillargeon said. "It could affect the way we teach what is appropriate behaviour."

Jennifer Jenkins, the Atkinson Chair of early child development and education at the University of Toronto, has also done research in young children and what influences their early development. She says that although babies are born with a multitude of expectancies, they are constantly taking in information, even before birth.

"I think children are learning from their environment when they are in utero," Jenkins said, "and as they come out, they are also learning from their environment – all of those are experiences that children learn from."

Jenkins emphasizes that this breakthrough research shows it's possible to delve into the minds of infants younger than we thought possible, which can help adults understand how to interact with young children. 

"What's happening in the research is that people are showing that children are making these discriminations earlier and earlier," she said. "What that tells us is that the environment is important from very early on in children's lives, so it makes a difference what we're doing in child care settings and in families."

8 week old Elliot, thinking.

In other areas of cognitive development, scientists have studied the minds of infants younger than three months old. This research, Hamlin says, is 'easier' to design and conduct than those involving moral cognition, but she believes they have yet to reach the frontiers of studying innate knowledge.

"My tests necessarily involve watching an interaction unfold over time, and newborns are notoriously poor lookers and visual-attenders. So I am not sure how much younger we will be able to go with the kinds of morality play studies that I do.

"That said, I definitely do not believe, in general, that three months is the youngest we can study innate knowledge," Hamlin added. "Additional methodologies are coming around every day, especially with the use of infant EEG (electroencephalogram) and NIRS (near-infrared spectroscopy), which allow us to probe the brain activity of even newborn brains, or even prenatal brains."

However, Hamlin and her peers, including Bloom, acknowledge that the morality babies start off with is primitive and limited, and is not complete without cultural influence.

"The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at – its generality and universality – is the product of culture, not biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention," he said. "A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development."

Bloom adds that studying moral development is not just about feeding the fascination people have with how a baby's mind works. He says there are larger social implications that can be drawn from these studies.

"It helps to know how the mind works," Bloom said. "Take the example of prejudice. If we want to eradicate prejudice, it's important to ask questions like 'are we naturally prejudiced?'  When we try to instil kindness, are we nurturing impulse? It helps to know what our natural biases are."

The Wild Canadian Year

Wild Canadian Year

Visit our website to watch the series online, discover extra behind-the-scenes stories and view Canada's nature scenes in 360. Visit Wild Canadian Year

From CBC Kids

The Nature of Thingies