SPI Working Paper Series

WP #: 126

Date: Jan 2015


SPI Funded Paper

The Neuroscience of Implicit Moral Evaluation and Its Relation to Generosity in Early Childhood

     This paper was published in Current Biology in 2015

    Jason Cowell, Jean Decety

    University of Chicago
    University of Chicago

Despite cultural and individual variation, humans are a judgmental bunch. There is accumulating evidence for early social and moral evaluation as shown by research with infants and children documenting the notion that some behav- iors are perceived as right and others are perceived as wrong. Moreover, social interactions are governed by a concern for fairness and others’ well-being. However, although generosity increases between infancy and late childhood, it is less clear what mechanisms guide this change. Early predispositions toward prosociality are thought to arise in concert with the social and cultural environment, developing into adult morality, a complex incorporation of emotional, motivational, and cognitive processes. Using EEG combined with eye tracking and behavioral sharing, we investigated, for the first time, the temporal neurodynamics of implicit moral evaluation in 3- to 5-year-old children. Results show distinct early automatic attentional (EPN) and later cognitively controlled (N2, LPP) patterns of neural response while viewing characters engaging in helping and harming behaviors. Importantly, later (LPP), but not early (EPN), waveforms predicted actual generosity. These results shed light on theories of moral development by documenting the respective contribution of automatic and cognitive neural processes underpinning social evaluation and directly link these neural computations to prosocial behavior in children.