Babies May Not Have a ‘Moral Compass’ After All

ScienceDaily (Aug. 15, 2012) — New research from New Zealand’s University of Otago is casting doubt on a landmark US study that suggested infants as young as six months old possess an innate moral compass that allows them to evaluate individuals as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

New research from New Zealand’s University of Otago is casting doubt on a landmark US study that suggested infants as young as six months old possess an innate moral compass that allows them to evaluate individuals as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. (Credit: © oksun70 / Fotolia)


The 2007 study by Yale University researchers provided the first evidence that 6- and 10-month-old infants could assess individuals based on their behaviour towards others, showing a preference for those who helped rather than hindered another individual.

Based on a series of experiments, researchers in the Department of Psychology at Otago have shown that the earlier findings may simply be the result of infants’ preferences for interesting and attention grabbing events, rather than an ability to evaluate individuals based on their social interactions with others.

The Otago study was recently published in PLoS One, an international, peer-reviewed, open-access, online journal.

Lead author Dr Damian Scarf says that the Yale study caused an international sensation when it was published in the leading journalNature.

“The paper received a lot of attention when it was first published, including coverage in the New York Times. It has received well over 100 citations since 2007, a phenomenal number over such a short period. The paper was initially brought to our attention by one of the PhD students in our lab. The head of the lab, Professor Harlene Hayne, suggested that a group of us read the paper together and then meet to discuss it. Our original motivation for reading the paper was merely interest. Obviously, the idea that morality is innate is extremely interesting and, if true, would raise questions about which components of our moral system are innate and also have implications for the wider issue of the roles that nature and nurture play in development,” says Dr Scarf.

In the original experiment, infants watched a wooden toy (i.e., the “climber”) attempt to climb a hill. They viewed two social interactions; one in which a “helper” toy nudged the climber up the hill, and another in which a “hinderer” toy nudged the climber down the hill.

After viewing these two scenarios, the infants were presented with a tray; on one side of the tray was the helper and on the other side was the hinderer. Amazingly, the majority of infants picked the helper over the hinderer. To further elucidate infants’ moral reasoning abilities, a “neutral” toy (i.e., a toy that neither helped nor hindered) was pitted against the helper or hinderer. When the neutral character was paired with the helper, the infants preferred the helper; when paired with the hinderer, they preferred the neutral character.

The paper concluded that the experiments show that infants can evaluate individuals based on how they interact with another individual, and that their ability to do this is ‘universal and unlearned’.

After reviewing videos of the Yale experiments, the Otago researchers noticed that two obvious perceptual events could be driving infants’ choices.

“On the help and hinder trials, the toys collided with one another, an event we thought infants may not like. Furthermore, only on the help trials, the climber bounced up and down at the top of hill, an event we thought infants may enjoy.”

The researchers carried out a series experiments to test these assumptions and, by manipulating the collision and bouncing events, were able to show that these perceptual events were driving infants’ choices of the helper over the hinderer, Dr Scarf says.

“For example, when we had the climber bounce at the bottom of the hill, but not at the top of the hill, infants preferred the hinderer, that is, the one that pushed the climber down the hill. If the social evaluation hypothesis was correct, we should have seen a clear preference for the helper, irrespective of the location of the bounce, because the helper always helped the climber achieve its goal of reaching the top of the hill.”

Although the Yale researchers have followed up their original study with further research findings that appear to support the original study, these too could be explained under the simple association hypothesis, he says.

“Their newer studies employ different paradigms but can still be explained using our simple association hypothesis. While we accept it is not easy to develop paradigms that perfectly match up the perceptual attributes of the helper and hinderer events, we still think there is room for improvement. I look forward to future studies on the topic of moral nativism and hope our study stimulates some discussion.”


Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byUniversity of Otago, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

Journal Reference:

  1. Damian Scarf, Kana Imuta, Michael Colombo, Harlene Hayne. Social Evaluation or Simple Association? Simple Associations May Explain Moral Reasoning in InfantsPLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (8): e42698 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0042698

University of Otago (2012, August 15). Babies may not have a ‘moral compass’ after all.ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 17, 2012, from

Children Who Spend Three-Quarters of Their Time in Sedentary Behavior Have Up to Nine Times Poorer Motor Coordination Than Active Peers

ScienceDaily (Aug. 13, 2012) — Children who spend more than three-quarters of their time engaging in sedentary behaviour, such as watching TV and sitting at computers, have up to nine times poorer motor coordination than their more active peers, reveals a study published in the American Journal of Human Biology.

(Credit: YMCA of the East Bay, Oakland, CA)


The study, involving Portuguese children, found that physical activity alone was not enough to overcome the negative effect of sedentary behaviour on basic motor coordination skills such as walking, throwing or catching, which are considered the building blocks of more complex movements.

“Childhood is a critical time for the development of motor coordination skills which are essential for health and well-being,” said lead author Dr Luis Lopes, from the University of Minho. “We know that sedentary lifestyles have a negative effect on these skills and are associated with decreased fitness, lower self-esteem, decreased academic achievement and increased obesity.”

Dr Lopes’ team studied 110 girls and 103 boys aged nine to ten from 13 urban elementary schools. The children’s sedentary behaviour and physical activity were objectively measured with accelerometers (a small device that children attach to their waist that quantifies movement counts and intensities) over five consecutive days. Motor coordination was evaluated with the KTK test (Körperkoordination Test für Kinder), which includes balance, jumping laterally, hopping on one leg over an obstacle and shifting platforms.

The tests were supplemented with a questionnaire for parents to assess health variables, before the authors compiled the results into three models to calculate odd ratios for predicting motor coordination. These were adjusted for physical activity, accelerometer wear time, waist to height ratio and home variables.

On average the children spent 75.6% of their time being sedentary, but the impact on motor coordination was found to be greater on boys than girls.

Girls who spent 77.3% or more of their time being sedentary were 4 to 5 times less likely to have normal motor coordination than more active girls. However, boys who were sedentary for more than 76% of their time were between 5 to 9 times less likely to have good or normal motor coordination than their active peers.

“It is very clear from our study that a high level of sedentary behaviour is an independent predictor of low motor coordination, regardless of physical activity levels and other key factors” said Lopes. “High sedentary behaviour had a significant impact on the children’s motor coordination, with boys being more adversely affected than girls.”

Until now there has been little research into the links between sedentary behaviour and motor coordination, but these findings reveal that physical activity did not counteract the negative effects that high levels of sedentary behaviour had on motor coordination.

“The results demonstrate the importance of setting a maximum time for sedentary behaviour, while encouraging children to increase their amount of physical activity,” concluded Lopes. “We hope that our findings will make a valuable contribution to the debate on child health and encourage future investigations on this subject.”

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byWiley, via AlphaGalileo.

Journal Reference:

  1. Luís Lopes, Rute Santos, Beatriz Pereira, Vítor Pires Lopes. Associations between sedentary behavior and motor coordination in childrenAmerican Journal of Human Biology, 2012; DOI: 10.1002/ajhb.22310

Wiley (2012, August 13). Children who spend three-quarters of their time in sedentary behavior have up to nine times poorer motor coordination than active peers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 16, 2012, from

Acute Stress Alters Control of Gene Activity: Researchers Examine DNA Methylation

ScienceDaily (Aug. 15, 2012) — Acute stress alters the methylation of the DNA and thus the activity of certain genes. This is reported by researchers at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum together with colleagues from Basel, Trier and London for the first time in the journal Translational Psychiatry. “The results provide evidence how stress could be related to a higher risk of mental or physical illness,” says Prof. Dr. Gunther Meinlschmidt from the Clinic of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the LWL University Hospital of the RUB. The team looked at gene segments which are relevant to biological stress regulation.

In stressful social situations, the methylation patterns (bright spheres) of the DNA change. (Credit: Illustration: Christoph Unternährer and Christian Horisberger)

Epigenetics — the “second code” — regulates gene activity

Our genetic material, the DNA, provides the construction manual for the proteins that our bodies need. Which proteins a cell produces depends on the cell type and the environment. So-termed epigenetic information determines which genes are read, acting quasi as a biological switch. An example of such a switch is provided by methyl (CH3) groups that attach to specific sections of the DNA and can remain there for a long time — even when the cell divides. Previous studies have shown that stressful experiences and psychological trauma in early life are associated with long-term altered DNA methylation. Whether the DNA methylation also changes after acute psychosocial stress, was, however, previously unknown.

Two genes tested

To clarify this issue, the research group examined two genes in particular: the gene for the oxytocin receptor, i.e. the docking site for the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which has become known as the “trust hormone” or “anti-stress hormone”; and the gene for the nerve growth factor Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is mainly responsible for the development and cross-linking of brain cells. The researchers tested 76 people who had to participate in a fictitious job interview and solve arithmetic problems under observation — a proven means for inducing acute stress in an experiment. For the analysis of the DNA methylation, they took blood samples from the subjects before the test as well as ten and ninety minutes afterwards.

DNA methylation changes under acute psychosocial stress

Stress had no effect on the methylation of the BDNF gene. In a section of the oxytocin receptor gene, however, methylation already increased within the first ten minutes of the stressful situation. This suggests that the cells formed less oxytocin receptors. Ninety minutes after the stress test, the methylation dropped below the original level before the test. This suggests that the receptor production was excessively stimulated.

Possible link between stress and disease

Stress increases the risk of physical or mental illness. The stress-related costs in Germany alone amount to many billions of Euros every year. In recent years, there have been indications that epigenetic processes are involved in the development of various chronic diseases such as cancer or depression. “Epigenetic changes may well be an important link between stress and chronic diseases” says Prof. Meinlschmidt, Head of the Research Department of Psychobiology, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy at the LWL University Hospital. “We hope to identify more complex epigenetic stress patterns in future and thus to be able to determine the associated risk of disease. This could provide information on new approaches to treatment and prevention.” The work originated within the framework of an interdisciplinary research consortium with the University of Trier, the University of Basel and King’s College London. The German Research Foundation and the Swiss National Science Foundation supported the study.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byRuhr-Universitaet-Bochum. 

Journal Reference:

  1. E Unternaehrer, P Luers, J Mill, E Dempster, A H Meyer, S Staehli, R Lieb, D H Hellhammer, G Meinlschmidt.Dynamic changes in DNA methylation of stress-associated genes (OXTR, BDNF ) after acute psychosocial stressTranslational Psychiatry, 2012; 2 (8): e150 DOI: 10.1038/tp.2012.77

Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum (2012, August 15). Acute stress alters control of gene activity: Researchers examine DNA methylation.ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 16, 2012, from