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Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Where Morals Come From: Innate Empathy

Where do our morals come from?

Are they inborn or conditioned by society?

Researchers at the University of Chicago have discovered that children between the ages of 7 and 12 seem naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain.

Prof. Jean Decety's team showed animated photos of people experiencing pain, either received accidentally or inflicted intentionally, to a group of 17 subjects comprising 9 girls and 8 boys.

They then used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to study responses in their brains.

The responses on the scans were similar to those found in studies of adults.

Researchers found that children, like adults, show responses to seeing someone in pain in the same areas of their brains. The research also found additional areas of the brain, those connected with moral reasoning, were activated when youngsters saw somebody intentionally hurt by another individual.

Prof. Decety said: "The programming for empathy is something that is 'hard-wired' into the brains of normal children, and not entirely the product of parental guidance or other nurturing."

He explained that understanding the brain’s role in responding to pain can help researchers understand how brain impairments influence anti-social behavior, such as bullying.

He also noted that: "Although our study did not tap into explicit moral judgment, perceiving an individual intentionally harming another person is likely to elicit the awareness of moral wrongdoing in the observer."

Would you like to know more?

- Original article:
Who caused the pain? An fMRI investigation of empathy and intentionality in children (Decety et al. 2008 Neuropsychologia)
- Press release:
Children are naturally prone to be empathic and moral, University of Chicago study shows