Moral sense: Babies prefer underdogs and do-gooders

Do babies have prosocial impulses? Do they feel empathy? A preference for do-gooders? An inclination to be helpful? Do babies know right from wrong?

Let’s be clear: We shouldn’t hold babies responsible for moral transgressions. They can’t anticipate all the consequences of the things they do.

If your baby hits you in the face with a spoon, that isn’t a willful attempt to cause harm. When your baby wakes you up in the middle of the night, it isn’t an act of manipulation or malice!

But there is compelling evidence that babies experience some of the fundamental  components of a moral sense. Far from being little survival machines — exclusively focused on their own, immediate needs — babies show signs of empathy. And they have a keen interest in the social world.

Babies seem to care about victims, and they prefer individuals who treat others with kindness and fairness. By the time they can walk, babies engage in spontaneous, prosocial acts — offering help and consolation to people in trouble.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out the research. Here is an overview of the clever — and fascinating — tests that psychologists use to understand the moral development of babies.

Babies selectively reach out to victims

Picture this: A mother holds a 6-month-old baby on her lap. The baby is watching a puppet show.

It’s a simple story. A rectangular shape with googly eyes is climbing up a hill. Another character — a circle with googly eyes — sits at the summit, and begins to descend. 

Then comes the conflict: The circle attacks the rectangle. It hits the rectangle several times — making a whacking noise — and forces the poor rectangle back down the hill.

The story ends with the rectangle character bent over and whimpering sadly.


What does the baby make of this?

Florina Uzefovsky and her colleagues wondered if infants are sensitive to the plight of victims. So the researchers presented this puppet show, along with another, to 29 babies, each ranging in age from 5 to 9 months.

The additional puppet show featured the same setting as the first. But the characters were different, and there was no violence or nastiness. 

In this happier story, another rectangle character begins climbing a hill, and another circle character sits at the top. But this time, the circle is friendly. The characters meet on the slope and make friendly noises. Then they descend together. The rectangle doesn’t act sad.


Uzefovsky’s team had the babies watch each vignette three times, in alternating order. So the infants had plenty of opportunity to attend to the details. The purple rectangular got beaten up. The yellow rectangle was treated with kindness.

Did it make a difference to the babies?

To find out, the researchers administered a simple test: They presented the babies with both of the rectangle puppets, laid out on a tray, and told the babies to pick one. “You can choose one of these, just one. Which one do you want?”

As I explain in my article about motor milestones, babies can reach for things at this age, even if they aren’t always successful at picking them up. So the researchers could see which puppet each infant wanted to grab. And most babies reacted the same way.

Of the 27 infants who participated in the test, 22 of them reached for puppet who’d been victimized.

More than a statistical fluke

Granted, this was a single study, and relatively small one. We need to be cautious before we conclude anything about the development of morality.

But Uzefovsky’s experiment builds on the work of other investigators, and the trend across studies is clear. Babies frequently act as if they have prosocial reactions or preferences. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Babies prefer victims to aggressors

Yasuhiro Kanakogi and his colleagues (2013) showed 10-month-old babies short video clips of geometric shapes moving around and interacting with each other.

Afterwards, babies were offered solid shapes that resembled the “characters” they’d seen on the screen. And the babies?

When it was a choice between a bully and a victim, babies were more likely to reach for the victim. Babies also preferred victims to neutral characters.

Babies prefer individuals who come to the defense of victims

In a follow-up study, Kanagoki’s team presented both 6- and 10-month-old babies with animated scenarios featuring brightly-colored, googly-eyed creatures. In some scenarios, a bully chased and attacked a victim with impunity while bystanders did nothing. In other scenarios, one of the bystanders intervened, blocking the bully’s path.

Once again, babies were given a choice of characters to reach for, and once again babies sided with the angels. They preferred “do gooders” to bystanders who did nothing (Kanagoki et al 2017).  

Babies prefer helpful characters to neutral individuals — and neutral characters to bad actors

J. Kiley Hamlin and colleagues tackled this question in pioneering experiments on 6- and 10-month-old babies, and their results have been replicated in subsequent studies (e.g., Chae and Song 2018; Steckler et al 2017).

The drill? Researchers show babies a series of episodes involving a protagonist who is trying to climb a hill.

  • Sometimes the protagonist encounters a character who helps.
  • Other times the protagonist meets a different character  — one who actively hinders the protagonist.
  • And sometimes the protagonist encounters a neutral “fellow traveler” who neither helps nor hinders.

Afterwards, the babies are presented with a choice of characters to reach for, and most babies follow the same pattern.

In a head-to-head match up, babies prefer the helpful character to the neutral one. When it’s between the neutral character and the antagonist, babies go for the neutral character (Hamlin et al 2007).

The only hitch is that babies seem to need unambiguous evidence to form a judgement. When researchers tried presenting 9-month-old babies with characters who sometimes behaved in an inconsistent way (e.g., being mostly helpful, and occasionally antagonistic), babies failed to show preferences. It seems that the problem — making judgments about individuals with mixed records — was to difficult for them (Steckler et al 2017).

Babies also seem to prefer people who divide up resources in a fair (equal) manner.

image of sharing experiment copyright Lucca et al 2018 PLOS One - creative commons licenseimage copyright Lucca et al 2018

Do babies have egalitarian leanings? Maybe so — at when it comes to watching third-party interactions. Kelsey Lucca and colleagues presented 13- and 17-month-old babies with video clips that featured live human actors gathered around a dining table.

  • Some clips showed a woman giving away equal portions of food to people seated at the table. 
  • Other clips showed a different woman giving away unequal portions. Unfair!

After the babies watched these clips, they were given the opportunity to approach one of the women. Which did babies choose? Babies showed a preference for the woman who had divided up food in an equitable way.

So when babies “vote” with their hands or feet, they tend to favor underdogs and nice guys.

That doesn’t mean that all babies show these preferences, everywhere, every time. 

As noted, babies may require very consistent, unambiguous data to make their judgments. And not all studies have reported an effect. For instance, researchers have failed to replicate the results of an early study suggesting that even 3-month-old babies preferred helpers to hinderers (Hamlin and Wynn 2007; Salvadori et al 2015).

But the overall pattern is pretty clear. When Francesco Marconi and Luca Surian recently looked over the data — from both published and unpublished studies — they found evidence for a well-established effect. Across all studies, approximately 2 out of 3 babies showed preferences for prosocial others (Marconi and Surian 2018).

What about showing empathy? Where’s the evidence that babies truly feel for others?

The experiments we’ve mentioned tell us about babies’ inclinations for approaching (or avoiding) certain individuals. That doesn’t prove that babies feel sympathy for others. It doesn’t prove the babies want to help.

To address these questions, researchers have looked for signs in baby facial expressions and social behavior. And they’ve found them.

Babies pay attention — and look concerned — when they observe real people in distress

In one study, researchers asked mothers to feign a minor injury (e.g., bumping their knees on a piece of furniture) while they were playing with their infants.

The mothers pretended — whimpering softly and looking sad — while their babies watched. Infants as young as 8 months responded with furrowed brows, and they showed evidence of trying to understand.

For instance, babies would make little sounds with questioning intonations, or look back and forth between the mother’s faces and the body part she hurt. Sometimes, babies would touch the matching part of their own bodies (Roth-Hanania et al 2011).

The same study found that babies would show concern for distressed peers displayed on a video screen (Roth-Hanania et al 2011). And in other experiments, researchers have seen babies react with empathy toward live infants (Liddle et al 2015; Jin et al 2018).

In addition, studies confirm that babies want to help.

In experiments conducted by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, 14-month-old babies observed a stranger trying — and failing — to pick up an object. Most children responded by handing the object over — without even being asked. The babies noticed the struggle, worked out what the stranger wanted, and offered help (Warneken and Tomasello 2007).

In another study, Sarah Nichols and colleagues fooled babies (12 to 24 months old) into thinking that realistic-looking, swaddled baby doll was an infant in distress. A hidden audio device played back recordings of crying, and the participating babies were allowed to approach. 

Babies of all ages showed evidence of personal distress and empathic concern. And some babies — in an effort to be comforting — even tried to give the crying “infant” their own toys (Nichol et al 2015).

Intrigued? Read more about the remarkable development of babies.

Decades of fascinating research confirms that babies are highly interested in the social world around them. Read about the beginnings of your baby’s social life in these articles:

In addition, check out my article about mind-minded parenting for information about the impact of treating babies as social partners.

Mind-minded parents try to understand what’s going on in a baby’s head. When they talk with their babies, they make accurate comments about what their babies are thinking and feeling. (“Oh! You really like this toy!”) Mind-minded parents also talk about the whole world of the mind. They help children understand the causes of emotions, and encourage children to take the perspectives of others.

Finally, don’t miss these articles about your baby’s social development:

And these articles about fostering empathy in children:

References: Do babies know right from wrong?

Chae JJK and Song HJ. 2018. Negativity bias in infants’ expectations about agents’ dispositions. Br J Dev Psychol. 36(4):620-633.

Cowell JM and Decety J. 2015. Precursors to morality in development as a complex interplay between neural, socioenvironmental, and behavioral facets. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.112(41):12657-62

DesChamps TD, Eason AE, Sommerville JA. 2016. Infants Associate Praise and Admonishment with Fair and Unfair Individuals. Infancy. 21(4):478-504.

Hamlin JK, Wynn K, Bloom P. 2007. Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature. 450(7169):557-9.

Hamlin JK and Wynn K. 2011. Young infants prefer prosocial to antisocial others. Cogn Dev. 26(1):30-39.

Jin KS, Houston JL, Baillargeon R, Groh AM, Roisman GI. 2018. Young infants expect an unfamiliar adult to comfort a crying baby: Evidence from a standard violation-of-expectation task and a novel infant-triggered-video task. Cogn Psychol. 102:1-20. 

Kanakogi Y, Inoue Y, Matsuda G, Butler D, Hiraki K,  and Myowa-Yamakoshi M. 2017. Preverbal infants affirm third-party interventions that protect victims from aggressors. Nature Human Behaviour 1(2): 0037.

Kanakogi Y, Okumura Y, Inoue Y, Kitazaki M, and  Itakura S. 2013. Rudimentary sympathy in preverbal infants: Preference for others in distress. PLoS ONE 8(6), e65292.

Liddle MJE,  Bradley BS and Mcgrath A. 2015. Baby empathy: Infant distress and peer prosocial responses. Infant Mental Health Journal 36: 446–458.

Lucca K, Pospisil J, Sommerville JA. 2018. Fairness informs social decision making in infancy. PLoS One.13(2):e0192848.

Margoni F and Surian L. 2018. Infants’ evaluation of prosocial and antisocial agents: A meta-analysis. Dev Psychol. 54(8):1445-1455. 

Nichols SR, Svetlova M, Brownell CA. 2009. The role of social understanding and empathic disposition in young children’s responsiveness to distress in parents and peers. Cogn Brain Behav. 13(4):449-478.

Roth-Hanania R, Davidov M, and Zahn-Waxler C. 2011. Empathy development from 8 to 16 months: early signs of concern for others. Infant Behav Dev. 34(3):447-58

Sommerville JA and  Enright EA. 2018. The origins of infants’ fairness concerns and links to prosocial behavior. Curr Opin Psychol. 20:117-121.

Steckler CM, Woo BM, Hamlin JK. 2017. The limits of early social evaluation: 9-month-olds fail to generate social evaluations of individuals who behave inconsistently. Cognition. 167:255-265.

Surian L, Ueno M, Itakura S, Meristo M. 2018. Do Infants Attribute Moral Traits? Fourteen-Month-Olds’ Expectations of Fairness Are Affected by Agents’ Antisocial Actions. Front Psychol. 9:1649. 

Uzefovsky F,  Yael Paz Y,  and Davidov M. 2019. Young infants are pro‐victims, but it depends on the context. British Journal of Psychology. DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12402.

Van de Vondervoort JW and Hamlin JK. 2018. The early emergence of sociomoral evaluation: infants prefer prosocial others. Curr Opin Psychol. 20:77-81.

Xu J, Saether L, Sommerville JA. 2016. Experience facilitates the emergence of sharing behavior among 7.5-month-old infants. Dev Psychol. 52(11):1732-1743

Ziv T and Sommerville JA. 2017. Developmental Differences in Infants’ Fairness Expectations From 6 to 15 Months of Age. Child Dev. 88(6):1930-1951.

image of mother holding smiling baby in the air by violet-blue / istock

Images of rectangles attempting to climb brown hill reproduced from a screenshot of a video posted by Uzefovsky and colleagues (creative commons license). I have modified the images (with arrows, hearts, and text) to convey the action.

Images credited to Lucca et al appear under creative commons license. The images come from the paper (Lucca et al 2018) cited in the references section above.

Contest last modified 9/19