Research shows babies have a moral compass: Children want to see wrongdoing punished at 8 months old.

Children Already Want Bad Guys Punished at 8 Months Old

Children Already Want Bad Guys Punished at 8 Months Old

The state of the universe.
Dec. 19 2013 3:53 PM

Babies Want Revenge

… As long as someone else levies the sentence. The science of right and wrong in infancy.

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It’s not just siblings who enjoy telling on each other. The psychologists Gordon Ingram and Jesse Bering explored tattling by children in an inner-city school in Belfast, Ireland, and concluded, “The great majority of children’s talk about their peers’ behavior took the form of descriptions of norm violations.” They noted that it was rare for children to talk to their teachers about something good that someone else had done. As in the sibling study, most of the children’s reports about their peers were true. The children who lied were not the tattlers but the tattlees, who would often deny being responsible for their acts. Children also don’t tattle about insignificant things: One study found that 3-year-olds will tattle when someone destroys an artwork that someone else made, but not when the individual destroys an artwork that nobody cares about.

Part of the satisfaction of tattling surely comes from showing oneself to adults as a good moral agent, a responsible being who is sensitive to right and wrong. But I would bet that children would tattle even if they could do so only anonymously. They would do it just to have justice done. The love of tattling reveals an appetite for payback, a pleasure in seeing wrongdoers  (particularly those who harmed the child, or a friend of the child) being punished. Tattling is a way of off-loading the potential costs of revenge.


It is hard to tell whether babies also have an appetite for justice. Here is the experiment that I wish we could do to find out: show a baby a good character and a bad character, using our standard methods (such as having one character help someone up a hill and another block that individual’s path). Then, one at a time, put the good character and the bad character alone on a stage, facing the  baby. Next to the baby’s hand is a large red button, and the baby is gently shown how to press on it. When the button is touched, the character will act as though it’s been given an electric shock—it will scream and writhe in pain. How will babies respond to this? Will they snatch their hand back when the good guy screams? Will they continue to press it for the bad guy? What if it is a difficult button to press—will babies push down on it, their little faces red with exertion, so as to enact just punishment?


I doubt that we will ever do this study. My colleagues, more fastidious than I am, have ethical concerns. But we have done other studies that offer clues to babies’ punitive motivations.  In one  study  with  Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, and Neha Mahajan, we did a variant of the good guy/bad guy experiments described in the first chapter. In one scenario, one puppet struggled to open a box, one puppet helped to lift the lid, and another slammed the lid shut. In the other scenario, a puppet rolled a ball to one puppet who rolled it right back, and to another who took the ball and ran away. Instead of asking whether infants preferred to interact with the good or the bad puppet, we asked 21-month-olds either to choose  which  of the two to reward by giving it a treat or to choose which of the two to punish by taking away a treat. As predicted, we found that when asked to give a treat, they chose the good character; and when asked to take away a treat, they chose the bad one.

One problem with this study, though, is that it was set up so that children were basically forced to choose a puppet to reward and a puppet to punish. We don’t know, then, whether toddlers have an urge to reward and an urge to punish, let alone whether they feel that rewarding and punishing are the right things to do. Also, given the physical demands of rewarding and punishing, we had to use toddlers instead of infants in this study, and they may well have learned  some  of  the  rewarding  and  punishing  behavior from watching other people.

To explore how babies think about reward and punishment at an earlier age, we decided to look at what 5- and 8-month-olds thought of other individuals who rewarded and punished. Would they prefer someone who rewarded a good guy to someone who punished a good guy? Would they prefer someone who punished a bad guy over someone who rewarded a bad guy? For each contrast, by adult lights at least, one individual is acting justly and the other is not.

We tested the babies by first showing them the scenarios with the box—one puppet would help open the box; the other would slam it shut.  Then we used either the good guy or the bad guy as the main character of an entirely new scene. This time the puppet rolled the ball to two new individuals in turn: one who rolled it back (nice) and the other who ran away with it (mean). We wanted to see which of these two new characters the babies preferred—the one who was nice to the good guy or the one who was mean to the good guy; the one who was nice to the bad guy or the one who was mean to the bad guy.

When the two characters were interacting with the good guy (the one who had helped open the box), babies preferred to reach for the character who was nice to it as opposed to the one who was mean to it—probably because babies tend to prefer nice puppets overall. Indeed, the 5-month-olds also preferred to reach for the character who was nice to the bad guy. Either these younger babies weren’t keeping track of the whole sequence of events, or they just preferred nice puppets, regardless of whom they were interacting with.

But the  8-month-olds were more sophisticated: They preferred the puppet who was mean to the bad guy over the one who was nice to it. So at some point after 5 months, babies begin to prefer punishers—when the punishment is just.


Excerpted from Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom, out now from Crown