We’re investigating the developmental foundations of morality – what are the cognitive building blocks upon which we build our moral systems? Previous research we’ve conducted in the Baby Lab has shown that even long before their first birthday, infants distinguish nice social actions from mean ones; judge those who act badly as deserving of punishment and those who act kindly as deserving of reward; and dislike ‘bad’ characters sufficiently that they will shun them, even at significant personal costs. They also have a long memory for who has acted badly. I’m deeply interested in pursuing this line of work, asking questions such as the following:
Theories of Punishment
When in development do we develop the intuition that the punishment should fit the crime? Do human infants appreciate that some bad acts are worse than others, and that punishment should be scaled to the seriousness of the transgression, or are they just happy to see a ‘bad’ person punished regardless of the severity of the punishment? If the latter is the case, then when do we develop a more nuanced theory of punishment, and what promotes this development?
Crimes of Omission and Commission
Our legal system, and our lay moral intuitions, differentiate between active transgressions of commission in which someone acts in a way that causes harm, and passive transgressions of omission, where someone fails to help another and the failure to act causes harm. We still often judge the latter as morally wrong, but not as wrong as the former. (For example, someone who throws a kitten into a pond and watches it drown, versus someone who comes by a pond with a kitten drowning in it and doesn’t do anything to save the kitten.) Where does this distinction come from – why is it part of our mature moral thinking, what elements of our moral cognition produce it, and where do these elements come from, developmentally?
Emotions play a huge role in our moral lives: sympathy and empathy for victims, moral outrage at transgressors, guilt or shame when it is we who have transgressed, pride when we do moral good. When do these emotions develop, and how do they influence infants’ and young children’s moral judgments, and their own moral behavior? Specific questions include: What exactly do infants feel towards good guys and bad guys? For example, we know that after seeing someone act badly towards another, babies have an aversion to the bad actor. But what is this aversion, specifically – is it simple dislike? Fear? Moral condemnation or repugnance? Each of these emotions serves distinct adaptive functions and correspondingly has distinct effects on our responses. I’m very interested in exploring how and when the various moral emotions each develop—both in babies’ and young children’s responses to witnessing the actions of others, and also in their responses to their own behaviors.
Emotional Expression and Regulation as Social Strategy
Emotions do two very important jobs: they motivate us to act in some ways rather than others, and our expressions of emotion send potent signals to others. I am interested in the role of emotions in guiding social responses in infancy and early childhood. Central to this work is my assumption that infants possess evolved strategies for maximizing gain and minimizing risk in social interactions. When you weigh, say, 8 pounds and are approximately the size of a loaf of bread, are utterly helpless and completely dependent, represent a staggeringly huge resource investment for caregivers, and to top it all off are a tender and juicy morsel to boot, you need to offset these vulnerabilities and disadvantages with some powerful tools for promoting social bonding, as well as for identifying potentially threatening individuals and for eliciting protection. Babies aren’t as utterly helpless as we might think; I’m fascinated with the question of what, exactly, are the protective strategies infants employ?
Naive Theories of the Minds of Babies
What we think of other individuals influences, sometimes profoundly, how we interact with and respond to them. How do adults, and in particular parents, think about the minds of babies? What do they think babies’ inner mental life consists of, and does a parent’s working mental models of their infant’s mind influence their parenting responses? There is huge individual variation in how parents intuitively conceive about their infant’s cognitive, social and emotional complexity and responsiveness. In what ways does enriching a parent’s working model of their baby-as-person influence their day-to-day interactions with their infant?