Eye Tracking Children's Moral Decision Making

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A team from University of Chicago used SMI Eye Tracking and Brain Products EEG devices to conduct a study on childrens’ moral decisions.

Challenge

Morality—the sense of what is ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’—likely contributed to the cooperative behaviors that led to the first human societies. And because humans continuously evaluate the morality of others’ behavior as well as their own, being, or at least appearing to be, fair continues to shape the complex social interactions that characterize modern life.

Although morality matures during childhood, its foundation is present very early. Very young infants favor actions intended to help others, and toddlers help, share, and interpret the intentions of others. However, the neural mechanisms responsible for morality and its development have remained largely unknown.

Solution

In a recent study, developmental neuroscientists Jason Cowell and Jean Decety from the Child Neurosuite at the University of Chicago used electroencephalography, or EEG from Brain Products, eye tracking from SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI) and behavioral sharing to examine how brain activity is related to moral judgments.

Specifically, they were able to predict young children’s willingness to share based on the EEG signals.

SMI Eye Tracking

Researchers used SMI Remote Eye Tracking integrated with Brain Products EEG solutions. SMI and Brain Products offer a plug and play solution to co.-register and synchronize both eye tracking and EEG data streams.

Benefit

These results, together with recent empirical findings in developmental science, help explain how infants make sense of moral actions. But future studies are needed to investigate the roles that environmental and cultural factors play in shaping morality.

In this study, where children focused their attention didn’t appear to vary between helping and harming scenes. But a more recent study by the same authors showed that children shifted their attention depending on which characters initiated an action and which received that action. Infants and toddlers paid more attention to the characters who provided help than to those who received help.

Background

The developmental neuroscientists first showed the children short videos of cartoon characters helping or harming each other. The children’s level of attention was gauged by tracking their direction of gaze, while brain activity was recorded using electrodes placed on their scalps. Although eye tracking showed that the amount of attention paid to the characters and their actions did not differ between the two types of scenes, differences in brain activity were observed depending on whether the children viewed a helping or a harming scene.

Brain activity related to automatic emotional responses was greater for helping scenes, whereas activity related to the slower process of detecting and reacting to conflict was greater when the children viewed harming scenes. These findings suggest that children’s moral decision-­‐making involves the integration of both automatic and more controlled neural processing.

To determine whether the early automatic or later controlled neural activity predicted actual moral behavior, the researchers then assessed the children’s generosity based on how many stickers they were willing to share with an anonymous child. They then correlated the children’s generosity with individual differences in brain activity generated during helping versus harming scenes. Only differences in brain signals associated with deliberate neural processing predicted the children’s sharing behavior, suggesting that moral behavior in children depends more on controlled reflection than on an immediate emotional response.

Benefit

These results, together with recent empirical findings in developmental science, help explain how infants make sense of moral actions. But future studies are needed to investigate the roles that environmental and cultural factors play in shaping morality.

In this study, where children focused their attention didn’t appear to vary between helping and harming scenes. But a more recent study by the same authors showed that children shifted their attention depending on which characters initiated an action and which received that action. Infants and toddlers paid more attention to the characters who provided help than to those who received help.

Customer institution University of Chicago
Customer website www.uchicago.edu
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