Friday, May 7, 2010

What defines a "good" baby?

Yesterday, I noticed this New York Times video showing that babies would prefer "good" puppets after viewing puppet shows with "good" and "bad" characters.  The conclusion was that infants may already have the ability to determine right and wrong behavior.

I think this study could be interesting in so far as it shows that the babies may have to ability to make abstract connections and infer which individuals are likely to be helpful without directly interacting with them.  For example, it is one thing for the baby to learn that it can get fed if it cries.  It takes an additional cognitive step to be able to guess that somebody is likely to help you without ever being helped by that person in the past.

However, I do not think this study really says anything about the origins of "good" or "bad" behavior in the baby itself.  Having the ability to determine that somebody is friendly does not necessarily mean that you have a conscience or a desire to emulate that behavior.  Con artists can manipulate individuals who have a desire to help other people.  Serial killers have lured their victims into cars by pretending to be weak or injured and asking for assistance.  In other words, I do not think the behavior shown by the babies in the study is a reliable indicator of "good" behavior later in life.

That said, I don't believe that moral behaviors absolutely must be learned from parents or other moral authority figures.  If I recall correctly, there have been other studies with babies that actually require the babies to perform truly altruistic actions.  I'm also certain there are several situations where individuals would be "nice" based on rational decision making (even in the absence of the individual's ability to emphasize with other people).  I just disagree with the conclusions drawn from this specific study.

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