SPI Working Paper Series

WP #: 141

Date: Aug 2015


SPI Funded Paper

Precursors to Morality in Development: A Complex Interplay between Neural, Socio-environmental, and Behavioral Facets

    Jason M. Cowell, Jean Decety

    University of Chicago
    University of Chicago

The nature and underpinnings of infants’ seemingly complex, third-party, social evaluations remain highly contentious. Theoretical perspectives oscillate between rich and lean interpretations of the same expressed preferences. While some argue that infants and toddlers possess a “moral sense” based on core knowledge of the social world, others suggest that social evaluations are hierarchical in nature and the product of an integration of rudimentary general processes such as attention allocation and approach and avoidance. Moreover, these biologically prepared minds interact in social environments that include significant variation, which are likely to impact early social evaluations and behavior. The present study examined the neural underpinnings of and precursors to moral sensitivity in infants and toddlers (N = 73, ages 12-24 months) through a series of interwoven measures, combining multiple levels of analysis including electrophysiological (EEG, ERP), eye-tracking, behavioral, and socio-environmental. Continuous EEG and time-locked ERP and gaze fixation were recorded while children watched characters engaging in prosocial and antisocial actions in two different tasks. All children demonstrated a neural differentiation in both spectral EEG power density modulations and time-locked ERPs when perceiving prosocial or antisocial agents. Time-locked neural differences predicted children’s preference for prosocial characters, and were influenced by parental values regarding justice and fairness. Overall, this investigation casts light on the fundamental nature of moral cognition, including its underpinnings in relatively general processes, providing plausible mechanisms of early change, and a foundation for forward movement in the field of developmental social neuroscience.