The Development Of Infant Morality: A bi-directional theory

You are probably wondering: What in the world is this post doing here? Well…I was going through some of my previous research on attachment and found some things on the development of MORALITY in infants. Morality as defined as: the principles that govern our behavior…and yes, all evidence points to this being a bi-directional process, established in infancy…when considering the concentration of this blog I actually found this essay quite applicable…so I polished and picked it apart and present it to you here…for a little intellectual food for thought! Hope you enjoy it, xxx c.

Development of Morality in Early Infancy:

A Pathway Through Attachment and the Emergent Self

If we understand morality to develop through a culturally specific process of socialization and learning wherein, “moral values are evaluations of actions believed by members of a given society to be ‘right’” (Berkowitz, 1964) then the origin of this conception necessitates that we develop a fuller and increasingly specific understanding of the individual’s attachment in infancy through the lens of intersubjectivity.

Morality is arguably culturally situated and yet is born from our initial inter-relatedness as infants, through our capacity for empathic connection with our caregivers. And while empirically supported research has demonstrated that aspects (or rather prerequisites) of empathic connections may be biologically based (Buck & Ginsburg, 1997), we still must learn how to employ these innate capacities within our particular social contexts, in fact through our socially and culturally defined contexts. Implied therein is the development of self, representing the pathway through which understanding of another is achieved.


When does this quantum leap in infant development from self to other occur?

The answer differs slightly depending on one’s theoretical orientation, however the purpose of this essay is to attempt to make those divisions in orientation less obvious and increasingly inter-connected.

Two general views of human nature predominate psychological theories of social influence and cognitive development of self (Lewis & Feinman, 1991). In the first view, referred to as the mechanistic perspective, the child is acted on by a variety of external forces, relying on both biological and social control paradigms. In the second, the child acts upon these forces, requiring action that is necessarily dialectic in nature and course. This latter, bi-directional or constructivist view has become the more accepted theory of development of self across variant psychological schools of thought although each seems to hold theirs as unique. Michael Lewis (In Lewis and Feinman, 1991), a socially instructed developmental researcher, understands this dynamic of self-knowledge and social influence as such:

Socialization and the uses of social control involve the parent as the agent of the distribution of social rules, ideas, and action, and the child as an agent of receipt. Adaptive significance requires the wish to become conspecific. It is not a struggle between the child and the parent, but a mutual learning experience. To be socialized does not involve, for the child, a passive role but an active one. The infant’s development of consciousness or objective self awareness facilitates this process. (p.111)

Related, classic psychoanalytic theory envisions the development of self as beginning in early childhood when young children utilize their interactions and relatedness with their particular environments to establish notions of self and of self-with-other (Winnicott, 1965, 1960; Stern 1995, 1985; Bergman & Fahey, 1999; Pine, 1992; Bretherton, 1992; Murray, 1989; Beebe, et al., 1997; Emde, 1999). Contemporary developmental researchers argue (with the help of compelling empirical data) that in fact the stage for the self is set at birth, and perhaps even prior to birth (See: Stern, 1985). However, this view is not without contention from the field of child development, particularly psychoanalytic theorists and researchers who differ in their views as to whether or not the birth of the psychological self coincides with biological birth.

This argument is further deconstructed into selective theoretical gradients therein:

Does sense of self precede and occasionally coincide with conception of other (Stern, 1985)?

Does understanding of an-other in fact facilitate a sense of self (Winnicott, 1956)?

Or must we fuse (through “symbiosis”) with an-other before we can develop a sense of differentiated self (Mahler et al., 1975)?

These and similar questions have continued to confound and engage psychoanalytic researchers and theorists concerned with development, as demonstrated through more than fifty years of compelling and constructive discussion beginning with Freud, Anna Freud, Mahler, Kohut, Klein, Winnicott—to name only a few. These early psychoanalytic theorists, in particular those from the British “school” of object relations including Klein (1952) and Winnicott (1956, 1960), recognized the significance of relatedness and empathic connection as essential to the development of self, beginning in early infancy. Additionally, Bowlby (1969) and Ainsworth (1979) further defined prior related work through their attachment paradigm, yielding objective support. Thus, the continuation of attachment-related research throughout the 1970’s marked a theoretical shift in psychoanalytic theories of development. A model understanding infant development of representations of self and other as necessarily a bi-directional philosophy, integrating the effects of others on the infant as well as the infant’s effect on the environment.

Distinguished among more interdisciplinary developmental researchers, Daniel Stern (1985) attempted to bridge original psychoanalytic theories through incorporating research on infants drawn from varied orientations, bolstered by empirical support. His work has yielded an integrated account of the formation of the self, beginning at birth and inclusive of (even dependent upon) interpersonal relatedness.

Stern conceptualizes the development of the self over four phases that capture self-experience and social relatedness (1985). Stern suggests that these phases form a developmental line (Freud, 1965) that continues to exist and further evolve throughout life. Superimposed upon this distinct developmental line concerning the formation of self are what Stern refers to as, “domains of relatedness,” equally necessary to the infant’s psychological growth and connected to each specific sense of self forming gradients of self-being-with-other. Sterns work suggests that:

Only when infants can sense that others distinct from themselves can hold or entertain a mental state that is similar to one they sense themselves to be holding is the sharing of subjective experience or intersubjectivity possible. (p.124)

Following the development of the subjective self, the infant senses that an attunement process bridging the two minds between infant and caregiver has been created. The caregiver’s empathy is now crucial to the infant’s development, becoming a direct subject of the infant’s experience. Hinde (1979) refers to the emergence of this capacity in the infant as psychic intimacy or the permeability that occurs between two people.

In a pre-verbal infant, what might constitute empirical evidence for intersubjective relatedness?

Trevarthan and Hubley (1978) operationalize intersubjectivity as: “a deliberately sought sharing of experiences  about events and things.” These researchers as well as others (Stern, 1985; Bruner, 1977) found subjective experiences that infants can share without the need for translation into language. Stern (1985), through a meta-analysis of 30 years of attachment related infant research identified three mental states that are of great relevance to gaining insight into the infant’s interpersonal world yet do not require language including: sharing joint attention, sharing intentions, and sharing affective states.

How is empathy developed in the infant?

Margaret Mahler was perhaps one of the first researchers to observe this developmental trajectory of moral development through social relatedness later in infancy. Mahler (in Bergman, 1999) identified the period of 18 to 24 months (“rapprochement” phase) as an essential process in individuation, wherein the shared moments of a caregiver’s understanding and acknowledging of the child’s desire to be present in the caregiver’s mind ultimately help to bridge the gap of separateness of self that also marks this period of development. Related work on attachment done by Peter Fonagy (Fonagy & Traget, 1998) further illuminates this process as a dialectical theory of self-development, which assumes that the psychological self develops through perception of this self in another person’s mind.

Mahler’s famous observation studies beginning in the early 1960’s, children were seen to display empathic behavior near the end of the second year of life. This occurred through what Mahler referred to as, “role-play.” A commonly enacted script by children of this age required a mother to cry when her child left or when she had been hurt:

A little boy of 20 months bites his mother playfully and wants her to pretend to cry. Then he runs and brings her his blanket, the beloved transitional object, to comfort her. He shifts from being the playful biting or aggressive hurtful baby to being the comforting parent. (Bergman, 1999, p.22)

Mahler felt firmly that the ability to play these games, to put oneself in the role of the other, reveals self and object representations and provides evidence of object constancy as well as early identification with the caregiver (or in Mahler’s case, the mother) and the working through of issues and conflicts related to aggression, separation, and socialization.

Later, Zahn-Waxler and colleagues (1992) constructed an experiment wherein mothers of infants ranging from between one to two years were instructed in setting up situations that invoked distress responses, to observe development of empathic reactions in infants of different ages. Their findings reflected much of the earlier work as done by Mahler and others, mainly that behavioral expressions of empathy arise in conjunction with the development of self-awareness or intersubjectivity and what the researchers referred to as role-taking abilities. The researchers concluded that:

Empathic other-oriented patterns were linked in development to self recognition in this sample of children. Self-referential behaviors (e.g., pointing out one’s own injury when another is injured) may also reflect some capacity for role-taking. Such responses are sometimes interpreted as ego-centrism and self-concern. Rather, at this age, they serve to connect another’s experience to the child’s own and hence increase comprehension of the other’s experience. Our data support this interpretation: Self-referential responses were correlated with self-recognition; they predicted later prosocial behaviors and empathic concern, and they were unrelated to self-distress. (p. 133)

Zahn-Waxler et. al, further solidified, through empirical demonstrations, the existence of the capacity for empathic connection and inter-relatedness as a specific and central developmental line. Their work takes Stern’s one step further by linking intersubjective attunement with empathy, combining to form the developmental origin of morality in early infancy.

References available upon request*

One thought on “The Development Of Infant Morality: A bi-directional theory

  1. Pingback: Baby Mirrors

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