What part of us knows right from wrong?

An illustration of a street sign against a sunny sky. One sign says
Your conscience is what helps you decide whether your actions or impulses are good or bad, right or wrong.

If you’ve seen the movie Pinocchio, you probably remember Jiminy Cricket. This well-dressed insect acted as Pinocchio’s conscience (CON-shinss). Pinocchio needed that voice in his ear because he didn’t know right from wrong. Most real people, in contrast, have a conscience. Not only do they have a general sense of right and wrong, but they also understand how their actions affect others.

Conscience is sometimes described as that voice inside your head. It’s not literally a voice, though. When a person’s conscience is telling them to do — or not do — something, they experience it through emotions.

Sometimes those emotions are positive. Empathy, gratitude, fairness, compassion and pride are all examples of emotions that encourage us to do things for other people. Other times, we need to not do something. The emotions that stop us include guilt, shame, embarrassment and a fear of being judged poorly by others.

Scientists are trying to understand where conscience comes from. Why do people have a conscience? How does it develop as we grow up? And where in the brain do the feelings that make up our conscience arise? Understanding conscience can help us understand what it means to be human.

Humans help

Often, when someone’s conscience gets their attention, it’s because that person knows they should have helped someone else but didn’t. Or they see another person not helping out when they should.

Humans are a cooperative species. That means we work together to get things done. We’re hardly the only ones to do this, however. The other great ape species (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans) also live in cooperating groups. So do some birds, who work together to raise young or to gather food for their social group. But humans work together in ways no other species does.

a photo of a group of chimpanzees
Apes and some other kinds of animals live in groups, much like humans do. But research suggests our closest relatives — chimpanzees — don’t reward cooperation to the extent that we do.

Our conscience is part of what lets us do so. In fact, Charles Darwin, the 19th-century scientist famous for studying evolution, thought conscience is what makes humans, well, human.

When did we become so helpful? Anthropologists — scientists who study how humans developed — think it started when our ancestors had to work together to hunt big game.

If people didn’t work together, they didn’t get enough food. But when they banded together, they could hunt large animals and get enough to feed their group for weeks. Cooperation meant survival. Anyone who didn’t help out didn’t deserve an equal share of food. That meant people had to keep track of who helped — and who didn’t. And they had to have a system of rewarding people who pitched in.

This suggests that a basic part of being human is helping others and keeping track of who’s helped you. And research supports this idea.

Katharina Hamann is an evolutionary anthropologist, someone who studies how humans and our close relatives evolved. She and her team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany worked with both children and chimpanzees.

She led one 2011 study that put both children (two- or three-year olds) and chimps in situations where they had to work with a partner of their own species to get some treat. For the kids, this meant pulling on ropes at either end of a long board. For chimpanzees, it was a similar but slightly more complicated setup.

When the children started pulling the ropes, two pieces of their reward (marbles) sat at each end of the board. But as they pulled, one marble rolled from one end to the other. So one child got three marbles and the other got just one. When both kids had to work together, the children who got the extra marbles returned them to their partners three out of four times. But when they pulled a rope on their own (no cooperation needed) and got three marbles, these kids shared with the other child only one time in every four.

Chimpanzees instead worked for a food treat. And during the tests, they never actively shared this reward with their partners, even when both apes had to work together to get the treat.

So even very young children recognize cooperation and reward it by sharing equally, Hamann says. That ability, she adds, probably comes from our ancient need to cooperate to survive.

Children develop what we call conscience in two ways, she concludes. They learn basic social rules and expectations from adults. And they practice applying those rules with their peers. “In their joint play, they create their own rules,” she says. They also “experience that such rules are a good way to prevent harm and achieve fairness.” These kinds of interactions, Hamann suspects, may help children develop a conscience.

Attack of a guilty conscience

It feels good to do good things. Sharing and helping often trigger good feelings. We experience compassion for others, pride in a job well done and a sense of fairness.

But unhelpful behavior — or not being able to fix…

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