2/01/2017 Peter Durantine

How Children Determine What is Morally Wrong

A Franklin & Marshall College psychology professor, studying how harmless actions become moralized, showed a group of 7-year-old children a picture of aliens from outer space placing cotton balls in a forest, and then told them what the aliens were doing was harmful.

Their responses, said F&M Assistant Professor of Psychology Josh Rottman, help reveal how children determine what is morally acceptable or not.

“They became much more likely to judge the aliens’ actions as wrong,” Rottman said. “It didn’t matter if the information we provided seemed well-fit to the action.”

The picture was one of 12 used in the research, and telling the children the aliens’ action was harmful was one of many possible pieces of information provided to them.

  • Rottman, here working on another research project at F&M's Developmental and Experience Center, says, "Children have such strong connections between morality and harm or between morality and fairness that they use these principles to justify why things are wrong." Rottman, here working on another research project at F&M's Developmental and Experience Center, says, "Children have such strong connections between morality and harm or between morality and fairness that they use these principles to justify why things are wrong." Image Credit: Deb Grove

The children’s justification also did not seem to match the information they were given, Rottman said. For example, while they were more likely to judge the actions as wrong after being told the actions were disgusting, most of the children used welfare-based terminology to explain why, saying things like, “Animals that live there can get sick from it or die.”

“Children have such strong connections between morality and harm or between morality and fairness that they use these principles to justify why they think things are wrong, even when these principles are irrelevant given the information they were provided about the behaviors,” Rottman said.

Most moral actions involve harm, but in today’s culture wars many harmless issues such as polytheism, homosexuality, obscenity or stem cell research – actions that involve consenting adults – have become moralized, Rottman said.

“When children have experiences where they get their toys stolen or they get hit and cry, they may be able to learn from these consequences to form moral beliefs that stealing is wrong or that hitting is wrong,” Rottman said. “However, we also have a lot of moral beliefs that are not tied to harm and fairness, and in these cases, there are no negative consequences to learn from.”

He said examples include a recent proposal to build a gondola tramway in a pristine swath of the Grand Canyon, which draws condemnation from people who value nature, or the apostasy and secularism among Muslims that causes the enmity of the Islamic State.

Conducted with colleagues from Boston University and Boston College, Rottman’s research will appear online in the journal Emotion in February. Rottman wanted to learn what sorts of information could lead children to adopt the view that various actions are wrong, even if there is no apparent harm.

He asked children to render moral judgements of novel, seemingly victimless, body-directed or nature-directed actions after they were exposed to an emotional induction or brief information provided by an adult.

Children were more likely to judge harmless actions – aliens distributing cotton balls – as wrong when they were told the aliens’ actions were disgusting or angering, but their judgments were not affected when they were induced to feel disgusted. Information that characterized the actions as harmful or unfair also increased children’s tendencies to judge the actions as wrong, even for a prolonged period.

“Our research demonstrated that children rapidly and enduringly moralize entirely unfamiliar, apparently innocuous actions upon exposure to a diverse array of morally relevant information,” Rottman said. 

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