Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New study shows right/wrong distinctions in infants

Apropos to the current round of discussions we've been having with Rhology, news has appeared today announcing the result of a new study suggesting that even 6 month old babies can distinguish fundamental differences between good and bad social behaviors, and choose all by their little selves the better option.

Babies as young as 6 to 10 months old showed crucial social judging skills before they could talk, according to a study by researchers at Yale University's Infant Cognition Center published in Thursday's journal Nature.

The infants watched a googly eyed wooden toy trying to climb roller-coaster hills and then another googly eyed toy come by and either help it over the mountain or push it backward. They then were presented with the toys to see which they would play with.

Nearly every baby picked the helpful toy over the bad one.

The babies also chose neutral toys -- ones that didn't help or hinder -- over the naughty ones. And the babies chose the helping toys over the neutral ones...

The choice of nice over naughty follows a school of thought that humans have some innate social abilities, not just those learned from their parents.

"We know that they're very, very social beings from very, very early on," Hamlin said.

A study last year out of Germany showed that babies as young as 18 months old overwhelmingly helped out when they could, such as by picking up toys that researchers dropped.

There is an obligatory quote from a psychologist who isn't convinced of the "innate ability" part, insisting these behaviors were learned. But it seems he's not recognizing that all these babies observed were the actions of the toys themselves, which toys "helped" one another and which "fought" each other. They were not then told by the researchers which to choose to play with. On their own, they overwhelmingly chose the "good" toy over the "bad" one.

He does make a good point about the social experience babies have in their first six months of life, and how this likely plays a role. But this experience would be limited exclusively to family, where the baby will naturally be getting cared for in most cases. But often, even at that age, there can be bullying and sibling rivalry in multi-child households. I can think of one good control for a future study to test how much the babies' choices are innate, but it would be difficult to pull off. Find some 6-month-olds taken from homes where neglect, if not outright abuse, was the norm, and see if they choose the "meaner" toy.

While nothing in science ever rests on one study, and there is more research clearly to be done here, I think what this study can be confidently said to establish is that it wasn't necessary to hammer these babies with a fusillade of Christian moral indoctrination about their innate "depravity," and nasty threats of eternal hellfire and damnation, in order to persuade them to choose nice over naughty. Sure, they're not old enough to understand such indoctrination in the first place, but that's the whole point: even at this young an age, very fundamental notions of beneficial social behaviors appear to be entirely comprehensible. And the babies didn't even need parental authority — the real-world analogue to Christianity's reward-or-punishment-based morality paradigm — to distinguish good from bad behavior. We're a social species, and it's human nature to want to get along. Sadly, it's only as we grow older, and are exposed to whatever social, political, or religious ideologies appeal to us (or are forced on us), that we feel more inclined to divide ourselves and view our neighbors, our former playmates, with hate, fear, and suspicion.


  1. Begs the question how we know the behaviors of said babies are "good" or "bad". But we're going over all that right now. You just keep begging the same question, though; I don't know if I should have much confidence that we'll go anywhere. At some point you'll have to respond to the points I've made.


  2. Begs the question how we know the behaviors of said babies are "good" or "bad".

    Because (for the 12,645th time) people can judge the consequences of actions as good or bad based upon whether they are helpful or harmful.

    Just because you can't use your mind to figure this stuff out doesn't mean no one else can, Rho.

    I don't know if I should have much confidence that we'll go anywhere.

    Neither do I. We've explained the basis of secular morality to you more times than anyone should need. You still keep asking, how do we know, how do we know, how do we know? I really am starting to think it's all beyond you. So, feel free to take a hike any time.

  3. Yeah, b-b-but what is your objective basis for determining what is helpful or harmful?

    Sorry, I was just channelling Rhology there.

    When all is said and done, there really is nothing we can say to him that will ever satisfy him. And that "begs the question" why should we even bother trying?

    I have a value system that I rely on to guide me through my life. Sadly, I don't always live up to the ideals that I hold for myself, but I do my best to correct myself when I fall short. If my values were entirely about doing what I liked or not doing what I don't like, then I could do anything I wanted and justify it. But it doesn't work that way at all. Rather, my values come from a recognition that actions have consequences that are either beneficial or harmful either to myself, others, or both.

    As Martin has noted a number of times, humans are social creatures. We have to share this world with each other. So, we can either try to abuse each other or cooperate with each other. There is a great scene from the Clint Eastwood movie "The Outlaw Josey Wales" where Wales meets and parlays with the Comanche chief Ten Bears. I put it up on my blog earlier this evening. Wales lays it out for Ten Bears, "I'm not offering you anything extra. I'm giving you life and your giving me life. And I'm saying that men can live together without butchering one another."

    That is what it all boils down to the way I see it. By valuing each other's life, we help to preserve our own. That seems like a pretty good objective standard to me.

  4. Let's not forget also that a person who makes the effort of being nice to others is more likely to be helped in their time of need. There's an obvious evolutionary advantage in being nice, and that's why we, human beings, have a tendency to be nice and helpful.

    There's nothing divine or mysterious about morality. It's all about causality.

  5. Find some 6-month-olds taken from homes where neglect, if not outright abuse, was the norm, and see if they choose the "meaner" toy.
    I think you're on the right track, but I'm not sure how you could even begin to do a control group. Hrmmmmmmm. I think the thing that's making me question the survey is that I'm not sure seeing a toy that pushes another toy would always be seen as negative. I mean, we push people on swings and down slides and it's not a threatening action.

    I think what this study can be confidently said to establish is that it wasn't necessary to hammer these babies with a fusillade of Christian moral indoctrination about their innate "depravity,"
    Agreed. Especially when you consider that most infants can't even conceptualize "heaven" and "hell". Not to mention the fact that the child who's yelled at and lectured about heaven and hell isn't fearing hell so much as they're fearing the negative or frightful intonation and facial stress clues of the parent who's doing the brainwashing. I mean...when you look at a kid who's been pulling a cat's tail and say "NO! We don't pull the kitty's hurts the kitty!", you normally say it with a serious or angry facial expression and short, succinct words. Babies like neither.

  6. I rue the day that any fundamentalist or evangelical Christian ever read about the concept of logical fallacies.

    Now, they just throw around "begging the question," "strawman," "ad hominem," and such with supposed impunity, as if even the mere mention of such will either (A) end the argument instantly or (B), suddenly make the atheist say, "Well, sheeit! That there feller is a diablo-bolical genius!"

    I'd pose the question "Is it moral because God says so, or does God say it because it is moral?" but Rho's probably heard that one and will, without fail, find a way to dismiss it as a frivolous and irrelevant query beneath the holy scrutiny of the "True Christian."

    Just as he'd think that the question "Who created the creator?" is asinine and ridiculous without ever debating the issue.

    Martin, is this turning into "Dan Marvin 2.0?" Just with a slightly more (but still tortured) real-life (as opposed to strictly literally apologetic) philosophical bent?


    Time magazine just posted an article about what makes us moral. It repeats a lot of what martin and other here have been saying, but also goes into some of the science and reasoning behind the findings.

    Something that should be thought about, that I only thought of after reading this article, was that the question of what makes us moral is being studied by an entire branch of science. I wonder if they've found any difference between christians, people of other faiths and atheists. Do they, when asking for participants for a morality study, ask what religion they are so they can better understand the results? "Well, we have to take into account his results will be screwed up...he's not christian" No.

  8. Oh piffle. The devout Christians will just say "See? This is proof that God Writes His Laws On Our Hearts, and thus NO ONE has ANY excuse when they do wrong and are eventually sent to hell! They knew as BABIES what was Right and what was WRONG!"

    That this conflicts with "inherent depravity from conception" is just another of the contradictions devout Christians live with every day.


PLEASE NOTE: The Atheist Experience has moved to a new location, and this blog is now closed to comments. To participate in future discussions, please visit

This blog encourages believers who disagree with us to comment. However, anonymous comments are disallowed to weed out cowardly flamers who hide behind anonymity. Commenters will only be banned when they've demonstrated they're nothing more than trolls whose behavior is intentionally offensive to the blog's readership.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.