Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom was awarded around $1 million by the Jacobs Foundation on Oct. 2 in recognition of his research on babies’ abilities to make moral judgments.

Bloom received the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize, one of two annual awards bestowed by the Swiss-based foundation. The prize honors individuals around the globe for their scientific contributions to the study and improvement of child development and living conditions, according to Alexandra Güntzer, the head of communication for the Jacobs Foundation. Bloom will use the award of one million Swiss francs — or $1.03 million — to pursue further research on morality in babies, children and adolescents.

“Bloom’s research on children’s developing an appreciation of good and evil across the course of development has profound implications for educators, clinicians and policymakers,” Güntzer said. “Knowing when and how children develop their moral psychology can help promote moral development and provide the foundation for various programs and interventions that work to establish more just and fair communities.”

According to Güntzer, the multi-stage selection process for the prize involves an outside nomination and a written application, which is reviewed by a jury comprised of eight scientists from institutions around the world.

Bloom said he was recognized for his investigations into how babies judge between right and wrong and for his recent book Against Empathy, which criticizes the role of empathy in society and explores the value of combining reason and compassion.

In a typical study by Bloom and his collaborator and wife Karen Wynn, the researchers would show babies ranging from six to nine months old a one-act play in which a person tries to make his way up a hill. A second character would help him up, while a third character would push him down. Then, Bloom and Wynn —  who is also a Yale psychology professor — would put the second and third characters in front of the baby and see which one the baby chose.

The babies tended to go for the one that is, by adults’ perceptions, the “good guy,” Bloom said. When the test was extended to older children, the older subjects wanted to reward the good guy and punish the bad guy.

“We found, for a range of different situations, a rudimentary sense of right and wrong present as early as you can test,” Bloom said.

Güntzer added that Bloom has demonstrated that in addition to judging the goodness of others’ actions, babies feel empathy and compassion, act to soothe those in distress and have a rudimentary sense of justice — all before they can speak or walk.

Although these studies are largely of theoretical interest in understanding how the mind works, Bloom said, they have important practical implications.

“By learning how the minds of babies, children and adolescents work, we get a picture of moral development,” Bloom said. He added that individuals can construct better and more moral societies once they are able to identify which aspects of morality come naturally to humans and which require more work to instill.

Güntzer said the prize provides funding for its recipient to continue to answer important questions in the realm of child development. Bloom said he will use the money to pursue several directions in his research, like studying adolescents and their developing understanding of generosity and kindness.

“When do babies understand about the morality of non-physical actions, such as deceiving someone or lying? When do babies understand that not doing something — or omission — is wrong?” Bloom said. “We’re interested in everything, such as the roots of evil and the nature of dehumanization. When does that occur in development, and what are its consequences?”

In December, Bloom and Wynn will attend a ceremony in Zurich, Switzerland, in which Bloom will be presented his award, and the organization War Child will receive the Foundation’s other annual award, called the Best Practice Prize. Bloom said he will give a talk on his work and speak with other noted psychologists at the ceremony.

The Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize has been awarded since 2009.

Amy Xiong | amy.xiong@yale.edu