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Dr. Damian Scarf, University of Otago – Detecting Morality in Infants

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Damian Scarf of the University of Otago reexamines the conclusions of an experiment that claimed to detect a sense of morality in infants. 

Damian Scarf is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago in North Dunedin, New Zealand. His current research focuses on planning, episodic memory, and foresight in pre-school children. As the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship Scarf worked as a visiting researcher in the Primate Cognition Lab at Columbia University where he investigated the planning abilities of rhesus monkeys and transitive preference in children. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Otago.

About Dr. Scarf

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Dr. Damian Scarf – Detecting Morality in Infants

Are we born amoral or do we come into this world with an innate moral compass? In 2007, this question was addressed by a paper published in the prestigious journal Nature. The study presented 6- and 10-month-old infants with two scenarios played out on a stage. In one scenario, a coloured shape was struggling to make its way up a hill, and was pushed up the hill by a second shape, called the helper. In the other scenario, the shape was again struggling to make its way up the hill but this time was pushed back down the hill by a third shape, called the hinderer.

After infants watched these two scenarios, they were presented with a tray, with the helper on one side and the hinderer on the other and were asked to pick one. Remarkably, both the 6- and 10-month-old infants picked the helper. Based on their findings, the authors concluded that some components of our moral system are innate.

After reading this paper, our research group thought something much simpler may be behind infant’s choices. Videos of the experiment showed that, after the shape was helped, it bounced up and down at the top of the hill, an attention grabbing event that infants seemed to enjoy. In contrast, when the hinderer pushed the shape down to the bottom of the hill, the shape stayed still and did not bounce.

By manipulating the location of the bounce, we were able to show that it was the bounce rather than any moral judgment that was driving infant’s choices. Additional tests confirmed that simple perceptual events could explain all the findings of the original Nature paper. Our finding raises serious doubts about the claim that morality is innate and remind us that we must be cautious when interpreting infant’s behaviour.      


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