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Are humans born with a moral compass?

Throughout history, philosophers have long debated whether humans are innately good. New research from Japan has found that infants can act on moral judgments, shedding light on the origin of morality.

Researchers at Osaka University revealed that 8-month-old infants can punish antisocial behavior exhibited by others. This led the experts to conclude that the motivation driving punishment might be intrinsic as opposed to learned.

Across all cultures, punishing antisocial behavior is only found in humans. However, how we develop moral behavior is not well understood as it can be difficult to examine decision making in infants. The researchers at Osaka University aimed to address this. 

“Morality is an important but mysterious part of what makes us human,” said study lead author of Yasuhiro Kanakogi. “We wanted to know whether third-party punishment of antisocial others is present at a very young age, because this would help to signal whether morality is learned.”

For the investigation, the experts developed a new research paradigm. First, infants were familiarized with a computer system that displayed animations on a screen. The infants could control the actions on the screen using a gaze-tracking system –  looking at an object for a sufficient period of time led to the destruction of the object. 

The infants then watched a video where one geometric agent appeared to “hurt” another, and watched whether the infants “punished” the antisocial geometric agent by gazing at it. The results showed that infants chose to punish the aggressor by increasing their gaze towards the aggressor. 

“The observation of this behavior in very young children indicates that humans may have acquired behavioral tendencies toward moral behavior during the course of evolution,” said Kanakogi. Punishing antisocial behaviour could have evolved from the importance of cooperation. 

This could be a turning point in infant cognitive research and the study of decision making. Previous research has relied on third party observations to study infant cognition. The eye-gaze paradigm allows for observation of active decision making in infants.

The research model could be useful in future learning about cognitive abilities in infants, and could put an end to the nature vs. nurture debate. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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