Research Topic

Early Moral Cognition and Behavior

About this Research Topic

Historically, psychologists have contended that humans begin life without morals. From Piaget to Kohlberg, there was a firmly held belief that a sense of what is right and wrong, based on underlying moral principles, does not emerge until adolescence. However, recent findings have fundamentally transformed this perspective: infants, from the very first year of life, possess important precursors to morality. Though our knowledge of moral development has dramatically improved over the past few decades, there are several enduring questions regarding what is considered “moral”, the exact nature of early moral representations, how they develop, and how they translate into behavior. This Research Topic aims to bring together scholars to collectively inform these questions.

A key challenge at the forefront of research in moral psychology is defining “morality”. How can researchers know that a given process is moral and distinct from social cognition or emotions more broadly? Relatedly, are the socio-moral representations present during infancy and early childhood the same as the sophisticated representations seen during adulthood, or are they qualitatively different? In this Research Topic we welcome papers that map out a comprehensive definition of morality, driven by experimental evidence, to better guide future research.

A second ongoing debate concerns the continuity of morality. Traditionally, researchers have focused on subdomains such as care, harm, and fairness. However, morality may also extend to other subdomains, such as authority, purity, and loyalty. Though these subdomains are likely related, they are typically examined separately, creating a disjointed representation of early morality. Thus, we welcome papers that examine how these subdomains relate to each other, and how infants and young children integrate and transfer knowledge across these subdomains.

Another source of discontinuity stems from the connection between moral knowledge and behavior. If infants and young children have a moral understanding, why do they sometimes fail to act based on this knowledge? One potential root of this knowledge-behavior gap is that morally-relevant behaviors often require individuals to sacrifice their own desires to benefit others. Here, we welcome papers that examine this trade-off. A final question related to moral continuity concerns its stability across development. Therefore, we call for papers that explore these various sources of continuity and discontinuity. In doing so, we aim to paint a more unified picture of the origins and development of morality.

Despite the recent advances in our understanding of early moral cognition, there has been little consensus on how moral representations and behaviors first develop. Some contend that because a rudimentary sense of morality is present from the first few months of life, humans must be born with an innate moral core. However, others have demonstrated that different experiential factors directly influence moral cognition and behavior. Thus, we call for studies that explore the respective roles of innate foundations versus experiential factors in the ontogeny of morality.

By integrating research that draws from various theoretical perspectives, uses various methodologies, and targets different age groups (between birth-3), the contributed papers will provide important insights into central questions in moral psychology.


Keywords: moral cognition, social cognition, infancy, early childhood, moral development


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

Historically, psychologists have contended that humans begin life without morals. From Piaget to Kohlberg, there was a firmly held belief that a sense of what is right and wrong, based on underlying moral principles, does not emerge until adolescence. However, recent findings have fundamentally transformed this perspective: infants, from the very first year of life, possess important precursors to morality. Though our knowledge of moral development has dramatically improved over the past few decades, there are several enduring questions regarding what is considered “moral”, the exact nature of early moral representations, how they develop, and how they translate into behavior. This Research Topic aims to bring together scholars to collectively inform these questions.

A key challenge at the forefront of research in moral psychology is defining “morality”. How can researchers know that a given process is moral and distinct from social cognition or emotions more broadly? Relatedly, are the socio-moral representations present during infancy and early childhood the same as the sophisticated representations seen during adulthood, or are they qualitatively different? In this Research Topic we welcome papers that map out a comprehensive definition of morality, driven by experimental evidence, to better guide future research.

A second ongoing debate concerns the continuity of morality. Traditionally, researchers have focused on subdomains such as care, harm, and fairness. However, morality may also extend to other subdomains, such as authority, purity, and loyalty. Though these subdomains are likely related, they are typically examined separately, creating a disjointed representation of early morality. Thus, we welcome papers that examine how these subdomains relate to each other, and how infants and young children integrate and transfer knowledge across these subdomains.

Another source of discontinuity stems from the connection between moral knowledge and behavior. If infants and young children have a moral understanding, why do they sometimes fail to act based on this knowledge? One potential root of this knowledge-behavior gap is that morally-relevant behaviors often require individuals to sacrifice their own desires to benefit others. Here, we welcome papers that examine this trade-off. A final question related to moral continuity concerns its stability across development. Therefore, we call for papers that explore these various sources of continuity and discontinuity. In doing so, we aim to paint a more unified picture of the origins and development of morality.

Despite the recent advances in our understanding of early moral cognition, there has been little consensus on how moral representations and behaviors first develop. Some contend that because a rudimentary sense of morality is present from the first few months of life, humans must be born with an innate moral core. However, others have demonstrated that different experiential factors directly influence moral cognition and behavior. Thus, we call for studies that explore the respective roles of innate foundations versus experiential factors in the ontogeny of morality.

By integrating research that draws from various theoretical perspectives, uses various methodologies, and targets different age groups (between birth-3), the contributed papers will provide important insights into central questions in moral psychology.


Keywords: moral cognition, social cognition, infancy, early childhood, moral development


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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21 May 2018 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

21 May 2018 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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