January 05, 2015

Science Says Your Baby Is a Socialist -- from Mother Jones

Psychologist Paul Bloom discusses the moral lives of children. —By Indre Viskontas

'At the playground, I watch my 10-month-old son beeline to the center of the sandbox where there is a bright pink shovel. But before he gets there, a rambunctious 2-year-old snatches up the coveted toy first. As my son watches the shovel slip away, a wobbly 14-month-old comes over and offers him a half-chewed cookie. I tear up a bit at this random act of kindness. It's probably just "hormones," but I am touched by the empathy that this little person is showing my child.

'What caused this toddler to "do the right thing" and show kindness to a stranger? Was it good parenting or an innate personality trait? That's the mystery that cognitive scientist Paul Bloom, author of the recent book Just Babies, is working hard to figure out: Can the youngest of our species distinguish good from evil practically from birth—or does morality need to be taught?

'Philosophers like John Locke and psychologists like Sigmund Freud took for granted that we are born with a blank moral slate. But Bloom rejects that. He argues that babies actually have a natural sense of morality and fairness—one that simply emerges, like many other developmental milestones. "I think all babies are created equal in that all normal babies—all babies without brain damage—possess some basic foundational understanding of morality and some foundational moral impulses," says Bloom on the Inquiring Minds podcast. "They're equal in the same way that all babies come with a visual system, and the ability to move around, and a propensity to learn language."

'Bloom thinks this sense of morality emerged via Darwinian evolution, just like every other adaptive trait that marks our species. But how can he tell? How does one study morality in babies who can't wax poetic? Scientists have come up with several clever solutions to break the language barrier.

'"The way we do it here at Yale," says Bloom, "is we show babies one-act plays." These one-acts, playing at the Yale lab run by Karen Wynn, who is Bloom's colleague and wife, star puppets who model behaviors that we would label as naughty or nice. Similar experiments are being conducted at the Center for Infant Cognition at the University of British Columbia, where Wynn's former graduate student, Kiley Hamlin, now runs her own lab.'

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