Moral babies, or born to be wild? (Nov 07)

Friday, 23 November 2007 12:29

Daily Telegraph, 23 November 2007

Moral babies or born to be wild?

A new study suggests that babies can differentiate between good and bad behaviour from as early as six months. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe disputes claims that humans are born with an innate morality.
Babies are born with one thing: an instinct to survive

Babies are born helpless. Their survival depends on other people. Babies can make their distress known to others, but those people won't necessarily respond in the way the baby needs. To survive, babies need to be able to assess whether an adult will be helpful or not. So do toddlers, for whom being able to read feelings is essential.

My own mother had an erratic, explosive, dangerous temper which she usually vented on me; my survival depended on being able to read her danger signs.

For the Yale experiment, six- and 10-month-old babies were made to watch two colourful wooden toys either help or hinder another who was trying to climb a steep hill. After the baby viewed the characters, they were invited to pick one. The babies showed a strong preference for the toy that helped rather than hindered, proving, according to the Yale scientists, that babies can differentiate between good and bad.

Identifying good guys and bad guys is necessary for a baby's survival - and for our own as adults - but that ability alone doesn't make them, or us, innately moral. To develop a conscience, a baby has to form a bond with someone who mothers him. When a baby does form a bond, he wants his mother's love and approval. He soon realises, albeit unconsciously, that, as he is, he is unsatisfactory. He has to work hard to be what his mother considers "good" - which is not necessarily something off the usual list of virtues (courage, truth, honesty, loyalty…). Indeed, there are as many moralities as there are people to hold them.

Babies who have no opportunity to form such a bond, however, fail to develop a conscience. Not all become criminals — many become lawyers, politicians or successful business people.

As adults, our assessment of the potential degree of help another person will give us depends on our understanding of what psychologists call the Theory of Mind. We can never experience another person's thoughts and feelings directly, but most of us believe that other people have similar thoughts and feelings to us. The question psychologists ask is, when do we acquire the Theory of Mind? Many believe that the potential to recognise other people's feelings is present at birth.

The neurophysiologist Antonio Damasio considers that the potential lies deep in our brain. One of Damasio's patients, David, had suffered severe brain damage as an adult. He couldn't retain a memory of any experience whatsoever. Yet, in his day-to-day life, he showed consistent preferences for, and avoidances of, certain persons. Damasio set up an experiment in which David encountered two people he'd never met before. One of these was pleasant to him and one was unpleasant. Even though the bad guy was a beautiful woman, David refused to approach her when he saw her again. We may not be born good, but we are born with an instinct to survive.

Dorothy Rowe is author of 'My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: Making and Breaking Sibling Bonds' (£9.99, Routledge)