Babies are already morally superior to the rest of us by 15 months

Babies are already way more adorable and beloved than other humans, but at least we old-timers could scoff at infants and proudly declare, "My senses of fairness and altruism are way better developed than yours!" Well...I've got some bad news.

It turns out that babies - those cute, lovable jerks - are just as good at us old people when it comes to basic morality. If anything, they're even more moral than we are, considering they haven't yet had a lifetime of experience to warp and corrupt their sense of right and wrong. Until now, it was thought that children don't understand altruism - the tendency to do things for the benefits of others - until at least two years old, and a sense of fairness doesn't develop until the age of 6 or 7.

But University of Wisconsin researcher Jessica Sommerville wasn't convinced, and she set out to prove that babies already think they're better than the rest of us - at least, I assume that's how to interpret her research - at an even younger age than previously thought. Recent research has shown that children as young as fifteen months display signs of cooperative behavior, and Sommerville designed an experiment to reveal just what these youngsters were capable of.

To that end, she had 15 month old children sit on their parents' laps while they were shown two videos. The first video featured three characters, one of whom had a bowl of crackers. This person shared the crackers with the other two - once in equal portions, and then with one person getting more crackers than the others. The second video was exactly the same thing, only this time around with milk substituted in for crackers. (And they say sequels never add anything new...)

The researchers measured the responses of the forty-seven babies that participated in the experiment, each of whom was tested individually. The researchers were on the lookout for something called "violation of expectancy", which basically means babies pay more attention when they're surprised. The babies' attention tended to perk up considerably when the milk and crackers were unevenly shared than when they were distributed equally, indicating they expected the participants to get equal shares.

Admittedly, it's not ironclad proof, but it does suggest babies possess some sense of fairness. That conclusion only gets stronger when you consider the next part of the experiment, in which the babies were presented with two Lego toys, one a simple block and the other a more elaborate figure. Whichever toy the baby chose was considered the preferred toy.

A previously unseen experimenter then entered the room and asked the baby if he could have one of the Lego toys. A full third of the babies gave up their preferred toy, while another third just gave the researcher the other toy that they hadn't previously chosen. The remaining third perhaps just didn't want to share, although it's also possible that they felt nervous around strangers.

Here's where it gets really interesting - 92% of the babies who shared their preferred toy had also paid more attention to the unequal sharing video. In other words, the vast majority of babies who gave up the toy they liked - a basic act of altruism - were also ones who were surprised by an act of unfairness. The same held true going the other way, as 86% of the non-altruistic sharers who gave away the other toy had paid more attention to the equal sharing of food.

Taken together, it suggests that babies do possess a sense of fairness and a sense of altruism, and the presence of one very heavily informs the presence of the other. We now know a lot more about babies' cognitive capacity for morality, and now the big question is why some babies develop these tendencies at such a young age and why others don't. Sommerville speculates that a lot of it has to do with nonverbal cues, as babies are informed by how those around them treat other people. But that's a much bigger question, and one that will need a lot more research before we can really say for certain.

Via PLoS ONE. Image by pfly on Flickr.