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"If anyone 'as a go at you, you 'it 'em back, right?" said the mother to her five-year-old, sitting behind me on the after-school bus. 

In his enthralling account of the development of morality as seen through the window of the psychology lab, Professor Paul Bloom admits that just as "much of experimental psychology is the study of the American college undergraduate who wants beer money, there's some truth to the claim that a lot of developmental psychology is the study of the interested and alert baby". He might have added: also of the recently fed, non-windy baby with a dry nappy, whose mum is organised enough to turn up to the session and does not have a houseful of older kids at home.

Perhaps the lady on the bus was the sort to enrol her child as a subject for cognitive development studies at the local university, as I did when my two older children were babies. But I would be pretty sure she wasn't.  So I suppose we should allow for a little pre-selection in Bloom's delightful studies, which involve recording the "look-time" of infants as young as five months, having determined what that "look-time" tells about what might be going on in the baby's mind. 

A longer look can indicate the baby is surprised by what he sees. It can also indicate seeing something familiar, such as the baby's mother's face — but Bloom's team has ways of working round that and other problems.  

For example, the babies were shown a red ball trying to go up a hill, and sometimes a yellow square nudged it up, sometimes a green triangle pushed it back down. The colours and shapes were varied to eliminate bias. Other scenarios, puppets and choices were introduced. 

Overwhelmingly the babies would look with surprise at the bad action, or if given the chance, would reach for the "good guy", the helpful shape. They would take opportunities to reward do-gooders and punish the unhelpful. I hasten to add that no violence was involved — though one one-year-old boy did lean forward and smack the "bad" puppet on the head. 

Bloom weaves his department's work into a powerful case for the presence of an innate moral sense, of empathy, fairness and justice. We have evolved these senses because they are survival tools, especially where our close family and friends are concerned, and as we grow up we use our rationality to extend them outward from the small moral circle of the baby to the wider moral circle of humanity. 

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