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What Research Says About The Moral Instincts Of Babies

Turns out your kid doesn’t need Mr. Rogers to tell them to “Look for the helpers.” Research out of Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center in 2010 concluded that, when given the choice between individuals who actively help versus actively hinder someone else, 6- and 10-month-old kids overwhelmingly choose the helpers. Although, just to be clear, everyone needs Mr. Rogers.

At the time, the Yale researchers were one of just a handful of teams probing the moral instincts of babies. They showed babies puppets sharing or stealing a ball from each other, then asked them to take a treat away from one puppet. The babies overwhelmingly punished the naughty puppet (“No treat for you! You’re naughty!”). In a more nuanced version, the babies showed a preference for characters who rewarded the helper puppets over those who rewarded the hinderers, further bolstering the notion that babies have an inborn sense of right and wrong. Either that, or the helper puppets were all Elmos and the hinderers all Oscars. Society can only hope the researchers had the good sense to use Sock Monkeys across all the tests.

fatherly_baby_newborn_moral_instincts_of_babiesFlickr / Carolien Dekeersmaeker

These findings challenged the psychology community’s long-held notion that humans start life as amoral animals and must be shaped, like sweet little balls of human Silly Putty, into civilized creatures who hold doors open and buy beers for each other. Even the tiniest ones have some grasp on how people think and why they do what they do. That doesn’t mean you’re off the hook from teaching your kids how to be part of polite society, just that your role is more to make sure they choose the correct path when they hit the “Right vs. Wrong” fork in the road than it is to teach them to drive in the Right lane. But yes, now you can officially cite research while insisting that your kid is naturally a sweet little angel.