People’s moral responses to similar situations change as they age, according to a new study at the University of Chicago that combined brain scanning, eye-tracking and behavioral measures to understand how the brain responds to morally laden scenarios.
Both preschool children and adults distinguish between damage done either intentionally or accidently when assessing whether a perpetrator had done something wrong. Nonetheless, adults are much less likely than children to think someone should be punished for damaging an object, especially if the action was accidental, said study author Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago and a leading scholar on affective and social neuroscience.
The different responses correlate with the various stages of development, Decety said, as the brain becomes better equipped to make reasoned judgments and integrate an understanding of the mental states of others with the outcome of their actions. Negative emotions alert people to the moral nature of a situation by bringing on discomfort that can precede moral judgment, and such an emotional response is stronger in young children, he explained.
“This is the first study to examine brain and behavior relationships in response to moral and non-moral situations from a neurodevelopmental perspective,” wrote Decety in the article, “The Contribution of Emotion and Cognition to Moral Sensitivity: A Neurodevelopmental Study,” published in the journal Cerebral Cortex. The study provides strong evidence that moral reasoning involves a complex integration between affective and cognitive processes that gradually changes with age.