Babies help unlock the origins of morality

Can infants tell right from wrong? And if so, how would you know? Come to Yale's baby lab.

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Karen Wynn: Study after study after study, the results are always consistently babies feeling positively towards helpful individuals in the world. And disapproving, disliking, maybe condemning individuals who are antisocial towards others.

Lesley Stahl: It's astonishing.

Wynn and her team first published their findings about baby morality in the journal "Nature" in 2007, and they've continued to publish follow-up studies in other peer-reviewed journals ever since -- for instance on this experiment.

They showed babies like James here a puppet behaving badly -- instead of rolling the ball back to the puppet in the middle, this green-shirted bunny keeps the other puppet's ball, and runs away.

Then James is shown a second show -- this time the bunny who he just saw steal the ball, tries to open up the box to get the toy. Will James still prefer the puppet who helps out? Or will he now prefer the one who slams the box shut?

[Annie: Who do you like? That one.]

He chose the one who slammed it shut, as did 81 percent of babies tested. The study's conclusion: babies seem to view the ball thief "as deserving punishment."

Lesley Stahl: So do you think that babies, therefore, are born with an innate sense of justice?

Karen Wynn: At a very elemental level, I think so.

Paul Bloom: We think we see here the foundations for morality.

Paul Bloom is also a professor of psychology at Yale, with his own lab. He's collaborated with Wynn on many of her baby studies, and he also happens to be her husband.

Paul Bloom: I feel we're making discoveries. I feel like we're-- we're discovering that what seems to be one way really isn't. What seems to be an ignorant and unknowing baby is actually a creature with this alarming sophistication, this subtle knowledge.

And he says discovering this in babies who can't walk, talk, or even crawl yet, suggests it has to come built in.

Lesley Stahl: So, remember B.F. Skinner, who said that we had to teach our children everything through conditioning. So, does this just wipe him off the map?

Paul Bloom: What we're finding in the baby lab, is that there's more to it than that -- that there's a universal moral core that all humans share. The seeds of our understanding of justice, our understanding of right and wrong, are part of our biological nature.

Wait a minute, if babies are born with a basic sense of right and wrong, a universal moral core, where does all the evil in the world come from? Is that all learned? Well maybe not. Take a look at this new series of discoveries in the Yale baby lab...

[Annie: Would you like a snack?]

In offering babies this seemingly small, innocuous choice -- graham crackers or Cheerios -- Wynn is probing something big: the origins of bias. The tendency to prefer others who are similar to ourselves.

Karen Wynn: Adults will like others who share even really absolutely trivial similarities with them.

So will Nate, who chose Cheerios over graham crackers, prefer this orange cat, who also likes Cheerios -- over the grey cat who likes graham crackers instead?