Do Babies Have An Inbuilt Moral Compass? Scientist To Find Out

A new research program on early childhood learning in Singapore aims to study how children deal with conflicting moral principles such as fairness versus in-group loyalty.

AsianScientist (Jul. 7, 2015) – Try giving two cookies to a child, then asking that child to hand over one of the cookies to another child. Sounds like an impossible task, but it turns out that toddlers as young at 2.5-years-old already engage in fair behavior, distributing toys evenly among puppets in pilot studies.

The study of children’s moral reasoning is a new and exciting area of research, but studies predominantly carried out in North America have resulted in a largely Western, white, and middle-class point of view, said Setoh Pei Pei, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) who is launching a new research program on early childhood learning in Singapore.

“It is important to include cultural perspectives in the study of human cognition, particularly in realm of moral judgments. There are likely to be variations in how people reason about moral situations, even at an early age,” Setoh shared with Asian Scientist Magazine.

On Monday, Setoh and Professor Alan Chan, dean of NTU’s College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, signed a memorandum of understanding for a new partnership on early childhood learning research with Science Centre Singapore, represented by Mr. Gerald Tee, director of KidsSTOP™, the children’s science center, and Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng, CEO of Science Centre Singapore.

At an on-site research facility at KidsSTOP™, Setoh and her team will conduct a series of experiments over five years, with each targeting about 200 participants, to study whether children are born with early abstract expectations or do they learn through socialization.

In one socio-moral reasoning study, she will investigate how children deal with a conflict of two moral principles – that of fairness versus in-group loyalty. Her preliminary studies show that 2.5-year-olds are fair in their distributions, but when there are three toys the youngest children favor their own group by giving the third toy to their team puppet half the time. Four-year-olds favor their group less, and develop strategies so that they are fair overall across four trials.

“This shows that as children progress in age, they are less willing to appear unfair, which is perhaps a reflection of the emphasis on fairness in their socialization,” Setoh said.

A research assistant asks a child to distribute items between puppets. This is one of the research experiments that tests children between two- to four-years-old on their notion of fairness.
A research assistant asks a child to distribute items between puppets. This is one of the research experiments that tests children between two- to four-years-old on their notion of fairness. Photo Credit: Nanyang Technological University.

Other experiments Setoh will carry out include tracking babies’ eye movements as they watch videos of social scenarios being acted out. By following babies’ gaze location and duration, researchers can identify which part of the scene they are paying attention to, and hence their expectations.

The research team will also investigate the role of emotions in moral reasoning, through physiological assessments of heart rate, skin conductance and facial temperature measurements alongside behavioral assessments of children’s moral reasoning.

For all those eager to find out the results of these studies, Setoh says that her team’s research findings will be made available to the public via poster presentations and publications over the five-year study period.


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