Funded Grants

The emergence and early development of morality

Morality is central to human life. Whether we think about what is right and wrong, what one ought to do or must not do, what is fair and unfair; whether we reason about the dilemmas of our everyday life or evaluate the actions of others; whether we enforce moral norms by arguments, sanctions, or education – we engage in moral considerations that are in their extent unique to humans. Indeed, no human society could exist without moral rules that regulate our behavior. And societal change is often related to a change in moral views.

How and when do we develop moral norms? Although there is ample evidence that moral norms are acquired early in life, potentially supported by evolutionary roots, the psychological basis of the emergence and early ontogeny of morality is still poorly understood.

My long-term research goal is to understand and develop a comprehensive theoretical account of how morality and moral concerns emerge during early ontogeny. A key focus of this account will be to identify the biological foundations and psychological prerequisites on which moral concerns are built, the necessary social input that gives rise to the emergence of moral thought, and the child’s own contribution to the construction of morality. In addition to classical observation and interview techniques, my lab uses eye-tracking and neurophysiological measures to study early social-cognitive and moral development. We have examined the neural correlates of infants’ emerging prosociality and infant precursors of moral development. Further work along these lines has uncovered that young children’s reliance on fairness principles changes in the course of the preschool years, and that children enforce norms of fairness towards others. We have also found that the different facets of moral considerations so far employed in developmental research do not always relate to each other. This points to unchartered territory in the study of moral development. We now aim to raise this research endeavor to a next level by more systematically addressing the developmental foundations of human morality.

With support from the James S. McDonnell Foundation, I will take this research line forward by examining: 1) young children’s behavior and experiences in naturalistic settings. Modern observational tools and techniques will give us unique insights into children’s emerging real life engagement with moral concerns 2) the extent to which children’s developing moral understanding can be analyzed in terms of conceptual development. To which extent does moral reasoning form an independent domain or is interrelated with other domains of knowledge? 3) children’s perception and processing of morally relevant information. Eye-tracking methods and neurophysiological measurements will be used to address this question.

This proposed research program will advance our understanding on the emergence of morality by bridging the gaps between hitherto separated research areas and by contributing to a comprehensive account on the development of morality.