Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Infant Toolbox Includes A Moral Compass

Some new research in the area of emotional development has come to my attention and has motivated me to take a detour this week away from my usual topic of signing with babies.

There’s no doubt that by the time they are preschoolers, children understand the difference between virtue and evil deeds—as is evident in their appreciation of Cinderella over the Wicked Stepmother and of Little Red Riding Hood over the Big Bad Wolf. But when does this critical distinction hold sway in the minds of little children? Believe it or not, fascinating new research indicates the seeds of distinguishing “good guys” from “bad guys” are there practically from Day 1! Here is just one example from Professor J. Kiley Hamlin’s lab at the University of British Columbia that demonstrates how we know.

Imagine you’re a 4 month old baby watching the following two events:

(1) A puppet is struggling to open the lid of a hinged box and a second puppet joins the effort, helping get the box open.
(2) The first puppet is once again struggling to open the box, but this time a third puppet jumps on top of the lid, pinning it down, thereby hindering the first puppet’s efforts.

Having seen these little events, you are given a choice of which of two puppets you want to look at and hold—the “helper” or the “hinderer.” Even babies as young as 4.5 months strongly (75%-100% of them) prefer the “Helper,” thereby indicating they took into account the goal of the lst puppet and evaluated the intentions of the 2nd and 3rd: they liked the “Helper” and spurned the “Hinderer.” (And don’t worry, the order of events was varied across children and other scenarios were tested as well.)

This is indeed good news! Why? Because it indicates that humans hit the ground running in terms of preferring helping and cooperation over negative behaviors—and that takes some of the burden off of parents. Rather than having to start from scratch getting their child to understand and prefer helping others, they need only to nurture the seeds that are already there. That’s burden enough!

Happy Signing! (and don’t forget to look for us on Facebook)


Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, the Baby Signs® Program
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
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