The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Fall 2018

"Neurodevelopmental Findings on the Emergence of Moral Thought" By Hannah Czeladko


While philosophers and theorists continue to search for a unified definition of morality, cognitive neuroscientists have begun studying how a sense of morality emerges. As it is generally defined by scientists, morality is a set of dogmatic principles that govern social interaction and thought. This involves considerations of fairness, justice, and personal rights, as well as the ability to detect social norms and recognize “right” from “wrong.”[1] As a result, morality lies at the core of interpersonal activity and proves vital to social life. In recent years, researchers have investigated numerous cognitive, emotional, and neurological phenomena in early development in order to refine the construct of morality and to study the emergence of moral abilities in children and adolescents. New developments in this area of research may begin to have widespread implications in child rearing and in current understanding of behavioral abnormalities. 

Several behavioral and neurological markers of early moral abilities emerge as early as infancy. For example, at only a few days old, infants display a preference for prosocial stimuli and gaze longer at happy facial expressions than at neutral or fearful ones. By 6 months old, infants even begin to preferentially approach such prosocial stimuli. At 15 months old, infants begin to respond to moral transgressions against others. Infants exhibiting altruistic behavior (sharing a preferred toy over a less preferred toy, or not sharing at all) gaze longer at transgressions against a third-party in which resources are not equally distributed.[2] Infants are also remarkable in their demonstrated ability to discriminate between “good” and “bad” behavior well before they begin to rationalize other people’s actions. In fact, several studies from 2006-2013 support the conclusion that “From extremely early in life, human infants show morally relevant motivations and evaluations... these early tendencies are far from shallow, mechanical predispositions to behave well or knee-jerk reactions to particular states of the world. Infants’ moral inclinations are sophisticated, flexible, and surprisingly consistent with adults’ moral inclinations.”[3] As a result, it appears as though infants are born ready for social interaction. Shortly after birth, they exhibit several behavioral precursors considered important to the development of a mature moral core. After infancy, new developments continue to emerge, indicating further progress in moral cognition. 

One such development is cognitive control, the process by which flexible, goal-oriented decisions influence behavior.[4] Cognitive control has been linked to sharing across childhood and has been implicated as a major contributor in bringing behavior and actions into alignment with norms and beliefs.[5] Cognitive control in part bridges an understanding of others’ behavior with a responding action. As these behavioral abilities emerge, several neurological pathways that are considered important in moral cognition continue to develop. Recent electrophysiological and fMRI data suggest that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC, informs decision making based on motivational value or utility. The vmPFC connects with regions of the brain such as the striatum, amygdala, and temporoparietal junction – regions of the brain involved in processing emotion – in order to store information about the value of various objects and actions.[6] Research has shown that “Lesions of the vmPFC acquired before 16 months of age manifest in severe antisocial insensitivity to future consequences of decisions” and “judgements that broke moral rules or inflicted harm to others.”[6]

These early indicators culminate in what is considered to be one of the strongest indicators of the development of morality in children -- a theory of mind. Daily life involves a tremendous amount of social goals, such as obtaining information, interpreting the behavior of others, or influencing another person’s actions. These goals are achieved through a diverse range of social interactions, the success of which is largely dependent on an individual’s ability to understand the intentions, emotions, beliefs, and desires of others and to use such an understanding to predict behavior. This ability constitutes an individual’s theory of mind.[7] Theory of mind typically develops in children by the age of four or five, allowing them to rationalize the relationship between intention and action and therefore assess the morality of the action.[8] Together with the emergence of early prosocial behavior, cognitive control, and the sound development of several areas of the cerebral cortex, the theory of mind rounds out early moral abilities in the growing individual. Further understanding of the stages at which contributing factors of moral ability develop may prove crucial to children’s behavioral therapies and management. Children exhibiting behavioral and/or emotional problems often behave well under external guidance but fail to “internalize” such good behavior and to behave well on their own. Behaviorists commonly dismiss literature on moral cognition and development but may benefit from it in ways that allow them to “internalize” children’s motives based on typical benchmarks of moral abilities at various stages of childhood.[9] It may also lead to an increased understanding of adult behavioral disorders and decision-making. 


[1] Killen, Melanie, and Michael T. Rizzo. 2014. "Morality, Intentionality and Intergroup Attitudes." Evolved Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience 151, no. 2-3: 337-59. doi:10.1163/1568539X-00003132. 

[2] Decety, Jean, and Lauren H. Howard. 2013. "The Role of Affect in the Neurodevelopment of Morality." Child Development Perspectives 7, no. 1: 49-54.

[3] Hamlin, J. Kiley. 2013. "Moral Judgment and Action in Preverbal Infants and Toddlers." Current Directions in Psychological Science 22, no. 3: 186-93. doi:10.1177/0963721412470687. 

[4] Munakata, Yuko, Hannah R. Snyder, and Christopher H. Chatham. 2012. "Developing Cognitive Control." Current Directions in Psychological Science 21, no. 2: 71-77. doi:10.1177/0963721412436807. 

[5] Steinbeis, Nikolaus, and Eveline A. Crone. 2016. "The Link between Cognitive Control and Decision-making across Child and Adolescent Development." Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 10: 28-32. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.04.009. 

[6] Decety, Jean, and Jason M. Cowell. 2017. "Interpersonal Harm Aversion as a Necessary Foundation for Morality: A Developmental Neuroscience Perspective." Development and Psychopathology 30, no. 01: 153-64. doi:10.1017/s0954579417000530. 

[7] Byom, Lindsey J., and Bilge Mutlu. 2013. "Theory of Mind: Mechanisms, Methods, and New Directions." Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7: 413.

[8] Loureiro, Carolina Piazzarollo, and Debora De Hollanda Souza. 2013. "The Relationship between Theory of Mind and Moral Development in Preschool Children." Paidéia (Ribeirão Preto) 23, no. 54. doi:10.1590/1982-43272354201311. 

[9] Termini, Kristin A., and Jeannie A. Golden. 2007. “Moral behaviors: What can behaviorists learn from the developmental literature?” International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy 3, no. 4: 477-493.

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