Moral Reasoning Changes With Age

Children respond to moral situations differently than adults

(RxWiki News) Like adults, children generally know the difference between an accident and a mean-spirited act. But how they respond to these events changes over time.

A University of Chicago study has found that the brain's ability to perform moral reasoning and judge appropriate consequences for events matures with age. Both children and adults can distinguish the difference between accidental and intentional damage done to a person or an object. But children are typically harsher in judging the person who caused the problem.

"Our moral reasoning changes with age."

If someone accidentally tips over a lamp, children tend to think the person should still be punished, even though the damage was clearly not intentional. Adults understand it was an accident and are much less likely to think punishment is necessary, according to study author Jean Decety, Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago.

The research showed that moral reasoning involves complex mental activity and cognitive functions that gradually change with time.

Decety and his team showed 127 participants, aged 4 to 36, short video clips. The 96 clips portrayed  intentional and accidental harm being done to both people and objects. Functional MRIs were used to image what areas of the brain were involved in the responses. Researchers also measured eye tracking and changes in pupil dilation.

Participants - across the board - paid more attention to the people and objects being harmed than they did to the perpetrators. Intentional actions caused more activity in two specific areas of the brain, the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex.

The study illustrated that brain response changed with age. For young children, the area associated with the emotional responses to social situations was much more activated than it was in adults. Adult responses were highest in areas that allow us to reflect on the values linked to outcomes and actions.

Participants were also asked to judge the perpetrators' mental states (how mean they were) and how they should be punished for the damage they caused.

Children tended to view all the perpetrators as malicious. The older participants realized the perpetrators were mean-spirited when the damage was accidental.

Similarly, adults were more forgiving of accidental damage because corresponding regions of the brain relating to moral reasoning were stronger and more developed.

Decety, a leading scholar on affective and social neuroscience, said the study is the first of its kind "to examine brain and behavior relationships in response to moral and non-moral situations from a neurodevelopmental perspective."

The article reporting these findings - "The Contribution of Emotion and Cognition to Moral Sensitivity: A Neurodevelopmental Study" - was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.


Review Date: 
June 7, 2011