In morality—as in life—intentions are important. How many break-up songs include some variant of the line, "I never meant to hurt you?" Or friends accidentally-on-purpose forget to return a borrowed item of clothing before repurposing it to their own wardrobes? The principle is even codified in most legal systems: Prosecutors must prove the defendant acted "knowingly" in violating the law if they wish to secure a conviction.
Our systems of moral judgment are predicated on the idea of intentionality: Did someone knowingly seek to cause harm, or was it an accident? It's so fundamental to our sense of morality that we excuse behavior that causes hurt if we're convinced that the person responsible didn't intend for harm to occur—whether it's accidentally trapping your finger in a door or pouring wine over your white dress.
Historically, psychologists believed that children weren't capable of appreciating this moral nuance: They only saw the outcome—the trapped finger or the ruined dress. New research from the University of East Anglia, led by Dr Gavin Nobes, challenges the paradigm that children are immature in their moral decision-making.
"The prevailing view in developmental psychology is that there's a big difference between children's moral judgments and adults' moral judgments," Nobes explains. In essence, "children make immature moral judgments, that are based on outcomes, not intentions."
Nobes and his team set out to challenge this consensus by re-running a pair of experiments from 1996 and 2001 using children and adult volunteers. "The results of the original studies struck us as a bit strange, because not only did children overwhelmingly make outcome-based, immature judgments, but the adults did as well."
Re-running the original studies using 169 children and adults, Nobes posed two fictional scenarios. In the first, a girl called Sally wants to stroke her pet to make it happy. As she's trying to stroke the pet, it unexpectedly jumps and she hits it by mistake. "The important thing with this experiment is that we've got good intention, leading to a bad outcome."
In the second example, Anne wants to hurt her pet—but as she goes to strike it, it wriggles away and is stroked instead. The intention is bad, but the outcome good. "Someone who bases their judgments on intentions, as almost all adults do, would say that Sally is good and Anne is bad. Whereas it has been claimed that children would say the opposite: Anne is good, Sally bad."
When Nobes' team re-examined the original research they found an error in how the original researchers had framed the scenario. "In effect, they'd asked whether hitting the animal was good or bad. Well, hitting the animal is bad. What they should have asked was, 'Are Sally and Anne good or bad?' When we changed the question wording, the results changed dramatically."
In the updated study, children aged four and five were as likely to think Sally and Anne were good or bad: Their judgments were split between intention and outcome. Most kids who between five and six deemed Sally to be good: They made intention-based moral judgments. In essence, they displayed a mature, more adult sense of morality. And Nobes believes that even very young children can be sophisticated moral arbiters.
"We think [intention based moral decision making] might be happening much earlier than four or five. There are indications of something like it occurring during the first year or two of a child's life. How and why that's happening—it's complex and mysterious."
In future research, Nobes hopes to study children who continue to make outcome-based moral judgments into adulthood. Meanwhile, it seems like those tiny human beings are much less immoral than any of us previously thought.