Once A Meanie, Always A Meanie: Toddlers Are Harsh Judges Of Moral Character

By guest blogger Sofia Deleniv

Over the past ten years, developmental psychologists have been astounded by the young age at which children appear to be aware of the moral qualities of others’ actions. At just four months, babies already react with surprise when others engage in unequal distribution of treats and resources. They also snub these unfair individuals in social interactions by the age of 24 months and expect others to do the same. Other forms of moral judgement may emerge even sooner: as early as 3 months of age, infants show distinct preferences for those who help, as opposed to hinder, others.

In thinking about these nascent moral judgements, researchers have become interested in figuring out their underlying mental “structure”. Do children’s moral rules operate like a loose “‘anthology”, where judgements passed on the basis of one principle have little effect on judgements on the basis of another? Or is there a deeper underpinning mental framework that gives rise to a multitude of connected moral expectations?  

A recent study in PNAS by a duo of American researchers breaks new ground on this fascinating question. It reveals that toddlers are guided by a core mental representation of what it means to be a moral person (albeit with some potentially concerning caveats). Within this moral framework, a single faux pas risks entirely sweeping an individual from a child’s good books.  

In their set of experiments, the researchers examined how 25-month-old toddlers reacted to a series of morally loaded social interactions staged during a puppet show. The toddlers were first introduced to two dog puppets before observing one of them subject the other to a harmful action that ranged from crumpling up their drawing to knocking down a toy tower they had made. 

Next came the crucial question. Would the toddlers be surprised if the perpetrator engaged in an entirely different sort of moral transgression in another setting? To test this, the researchers staged a scenario in which the dog discovered two toys and decided how to divide this lucky find between two excited puppets. Children were randomly selected to see one of two possible endings to this story: a fair outcome, where each recipient got a toy, or an unfair one where the dog inexplicably snubbed one of the puppets and gave both toys to just one.

The researchers found that toddlers who viewed the fair outcome spent significantly more time gazing at the interaction. This observation — which developmental psychologists widely accept to indicate surprise — suggested that the children didn’t quite expect someone who acted as a bully to make fair decisions in a different context. The finding indicates that children judge others from a holistic perspective of what being moral really means. In their view, a single action that is at odds with one aspect of a “good” representation implies that the individual should be expected to violate other moral principles.

But there’s a catch — it turns out that seeing an individual mistreating someone else does not always cause children to expect them to behave immorally in the future. The researchers saw this when they repeated their experiment, except this time the toddlers first witnessed a dog puppet mistreating a rabbit (as opposed to a fellow dog) before watching the dog share out a pair of toys.  

In this scenario, toddlers gazed longer when the dog went on to make an unequal sharing decision, suggesting that they still expected the puppet to be fair. Only when the researchers ensured that the dog engaged in three sequential acts of bullying towards the rabbit did the children’s gaze patterns suggest that they no longer expected it to act fairly in the next social interaction.  

While this outcome is not entirely surprising (other studies have documented children expecting others to give their in-group members special treatment), the present study is the first to discover something profound about the way children make their moral judgements, flawed as they might be. That is, the moral principles that children use do not operate in arbitrary isolation. They stem from a core mental representation of what makes someone a moral person. Whether this representation is “hardwired” or amenable to changes through development, experience, and age is an exciting question for future research to address.

Toddlers draw broad negative inferences from wrongdoers’ moral violations

Post written by Sofia Deleniv for the BPS Research DigestSofia is a policy advisor and science writer based in Toronto, Canada. Her written work has appeared in magazines such as New Scientist and Discover Magazine. She holds a BA in Experimental Psychology and a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Oxford, where she investigated how the brain processes sensations using a mix of electrophysiology and computer modelling. Ever enthusiastic about anything from genes and brains to social behaviours, Sofia’s Twitter feed features the occasional update on her written work and other exciting bits of science.

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