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

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. Continue reading →

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