Jordan Layton and Dr. Ross Flom, Psychology
A recent as well as intriguing question in developmental psychology is whether human infants have an innate sense of morality. Media outlets such as 60 Minutes and New York Times magazine have reported findings from Hamlin et al. (2007)1 that infants as young as 6-months have the innate ability to discriminate an individual as either appealing (i.e., helpful) or aversive (i.e., hindering).
The significance of this research is the use of more ecologically valid events (i.e., humans and human interactions) compared to less ecologically valid events (i.e., geometric blocks or puppets) in examining whether 5-, 7- and 10-month-old infants reliably prefer the actions of a helper or hinderer. Moreover these results will further add to our understanding of whether preverbal infants’ comprehend the hypothesized morality of human actions.
While subsequent research has attempted to replicate, or refute these initial findings2, all follow-up studies, including the original set of experiments by Hamlin, et al. (2007) have used colored geometric shapes or hand puppets as stand-in for humans and human behavior. One possibility regarding these early results is that infants’ preference for the “helper” or “hinderer” is based on some yet to be controlled low-level visual feature (shape of the object, the fact they are objects, rather than humans, etc.) Another possibility is that infants do reliably discriminate between individuals, rather than geometric objects or puppets that behave in a helping or hindering manner.
The purpose of the current experiment is to examine whether 5-, 7- and 10-month-olds show a reliable preference for an individual that behaves in a helping compared to a hindering manner. Moreover, in prior studies the assumption was made that infants’ preference for an object or puppet that behaved in a helpful or hindering manner – and infants’ subsequent preference – is a suitable proxy for human behavior. In this experiment infants watch a series of filmed stimuli that portray an adult attempting to build a tower of blocks. During this event the builder struggles and hesitates at a certain point and cannot finish. In one version of the video a helper (another adult) enters and helps complete the tower. In another version of the video a hinderer (a third adult) enters and knocks over the tower. Each video is shown 6 times to each participant, and the participant is shown a still image of the helper and hinderer on two separate and side-by-side video monitors both before and after the video events.
Recorded looking times show whether the infants have a preference before the events are shown, and if so, whether that preference changes or grows stronger after the video is shown.
As of December 2014, we have tested 44 infants stretching across the 5, 7, and 10-month age groups. Another 19 infants are needed before the data analysis will be completed. We will also be introducing pre-school aged children into the study, and plan to be done with all testing and analysis by the end of March. We will be presenting at the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) Biennial Meeting in Philadelphia, PA at the end of March 2015.
1 Hamlin, J., Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2007). Social evaluation in preverbal infants. Nature, 450(7169), 557-559. doi:10.1038/nature06288
2 Scarf, D., Imuta, K., Colombo, M., & Hayne, H. (2012). Social evaluation or simple association? Simple associations may explain moral reasoning in infants. Plos ONE, 7(8), doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042698