Born with a moral compass? Even babies know to punish antisocial behavior

OSAKA, Japan — Are people born with a sense of right and wrong? A new study finds young infants can already make moral judgments — revealing new insights into the origins of morality.

Researchers from Japan discovered that eight-month-old babies are capable of punishing antisocial behavior they see in a third party. Therefore, the team believes the drive to punish others for misdeeds is a natural human reaction — rather than something people learn over time.

Study authors note that punishing antisocial behavior is something scientists have only seen humans do, and it is also a universal act across cultures. However, researchers have not fully understood how people develop the framework for their moral behavior.

“Morality is an important but mysterious part of what makes us human,” says lead author Yasuhiro Kanakogi of Osaka University in a media release. “We wanted to know whether third-party punishment of antisocial others is present at a very young age, because this would help to signal whether morality is learned.”

Babies don’t like aggressive behavior

To study this, researchers first familiarized a group of infants with a computer system that displayed animations on a screen. The children could control the actions on the screen using a gaze-tracking system. If they looked at an object long enough, the object would be destroyed.

The team then showed the infants a video where one geometric shape appeared to “hurt” another one. Researchers watched to see if the children wanted to “punish” the antisocial geometric shape by staring at it longer.

“The results were surprising,” Kanakogi reports. “We found that preverbal infants chose to punish the antisocial aggressor by increasing their gaze towards the aggressor.”

“The observation of this behavior in very young children indicates that humans may have acquired behavioral tendencies toward moral behavior during the course of evolution,” the researcher adds. “Specifically, the punishment of antisocial behavior may have evolved as an important element of human cooperation.”

Study authors believe their findings could be a turning point in infant cognitive research. Since most of the work with young children to this point involves observations from third parties, the new study provides new insight into the decision-making of infants.

The findings appear in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

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