Moral responses of people, to similar situations, change as they age, according to a new study at the University of Chicago, a report on the university website said.

The study combined eye-tracking, brain scanning and behavioral actions to understand how the brain responds to morally weighed situations.

Author Jean Decety along with professor Irving B. Harris of psychology and psychiatry department at the University of Chicago said in their study that both children and adults have the capacity to differentiate between what has been done accidently or intentionally and adults are less likely than infants to conclude if someone should be punished for the act.

“This is the first study to examine brain and behavior relationships in response to moral and non-moral situations from a neurodevelopmental perspective,” Decety wrote in his study, ‘The Contribution of Emotion and Cognition to Moral Sensitivity: A Neurodevelopmental Study’.

The article was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex. The study presents a strong proof that ethical reasoning involves an intricate incorporation between affective and cognitive process that slowly changes with age.

Decety and his colleagues examined more than 120 people aged between four and 36 for the research. The participants were shown more than 90 short videos, comprising of intentional and accidental harm and damage, while they underwent an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scan. Changes in pupil dilation were also measured during the event.

The study has revealed that there were changes with age in different parts of the brain. For children, the generation of emotional responses to a social situation was much more activated and in case of the adults, the brain stressed more on the values linked to outcomes and actions.

“Whereas young children had a tendency to consider all the perpetrator malicious, irrespective of intention and targets (people and objects), as participants aged, they perceived the perpetrator as clearly less mean when carrying out an accidental action, and even more so when the target was an object,” Decety said.

The research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Decety was helped by Katherine Kinzler, an assistant professor and Kalina Michalska, a postdoctoral scholar, both from the Department of Psychology, in writing the paper.