How do Children Think about Morality? Research at Boston Children’s Museum

KidsBoston Children’s Museum works closely with researchers from local universities to conduct studies into child development, cognition and more; and to translate the latest studies and findings for the general public in order to make a positive impact on parenting practices. Look for articles each month about these researchers’ work, their reflections and themselves. As part of our continuing series sharing details about research happening at Boston Children’s Museum, Larisa Heiphetz from Boston College’s Morality Lab shares below recent learning about her research at the Museum:

Imagine that two children disagree about a moral issue. One child says that it’s better to share with someone, and another child says that it’s better to pull someone’s hair. Could both of these children be right, or could only one child be right?

Several prior studies in developmental psychology and experimental philosophy have shown that preschoolers usually think that moral beliefs are akin to factual beliefs. That is, if two people disagree, at least one of them must be wrong. However, these previous studies have focused on unambiguous moral beliefs—moral issues for which there is one “correct answer” about which nearly everyone in a given culture agrees. For example, in the United States (and most other places!), nearly everyone thinks that it is good to share with someone and wrong to pull someone’s hair.

We wondered whether children might reason similarly about moral beliefs that are a little more ambiguous. For example, what happens if we tell children about one character who thinks it’s better to make cookies for someone and another character who thinks it’s better to help someone with a project? The two characters are disagreeing about a moral issue—which of two actions is better—but in this case, there is no clear-cut “correct” answer. Most children think that making cookies for someone is good and that helping someone with a project is also good, and it may be a little more complicated to decide which is better.

So far, we’ve been finding that 4- to 6-year-old children distinguish unambiguous moral beliefs from moral beliefs that are more ambiguous. When we present them with disagreements about unambiguous moral beliefs, most children say that only one character can be right. However, when we tell children about ambiguous moral beliefs, they are more likely to respond that both characters can be right.

This result shows that children don’t think about all moral beliefs in the same way. Rather, children seem to think differently about different types of moral claims. This finding helps scientists better understand how children think about morality. This research also has important implications for early childhood education because it can help teachers learn more about how their students interact with other children who disagree with their own moral views.

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