I is for Inherently good?

“But if babies have positive feelings for the similar puppet, do they actually have negative feelings for the one who’s different?”

Watching CBS News 60 Minutes this summer, I noted that they repeated a story Born good? Babies help unlock the origins of morality. I found it fascinating, as I watched it for a second time.

“It’s a question people have asked for as long as there have been people: are human beings inherently good? Are we born with a sense of morality or do we arrive blank slates, waiting for the world to teach us right from wrong?”

There were a series of experiments done on children six months old at a clinic associated with Yale University: “In offering babies this seemingly small, innocuous choice — graham crackers or Cheerios — [researcher Karen] Wynn is probing something big: the origins of bias. The tendency to prefer others who are similar to ourselves.

“So will [baby] Nate, who chose Cheerios over graham crackers, prefer this orange cat, who also likes Cheerios — over the grey cat who likes graham crackers instead? Apparently so.

“But if babies have positive feelings for the similar puppet, do they actually have negative feelings for the one who’s different? To find out, Wynn showed babies the grey cat — the one who liked the opposite food, struggling to open up the box to get a toy. Will Gregory here want to see the graham cracker eater treated well? Or does he want him treated badly? Gregory seemed to want the different puppet treated badly.”

Reporter Lesley Stahl notes that the child went with his bias.

“And so did Nate and 87 percent of the other babies tested. From this Wynn concludes that infants prefer those ‘who harm… others’ who are unlike them.”

I can’t help but wonder if most people, including adults, react similarly, depending on whether they relate to different individuals in a dispute.

But there are also positive outcomes in this study. Especially as children get older, altruism develops, a sense of fairness.

Here is the video, and here’s a bonus feature, Is your child fair when no one is watching?

ABC Wednesday – Round 13

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

26 thoughts on “I is for Inherently good?”

  1. Fascinating. I overheard a young parent speaking to his child in the supermarket yesterday. “We are going home because you are STRESSING me out!” The child/baby was not old enough to walk let alone speak…just wondered what the stress was? I didn’t know the word stress as a child. Never used. Look how I turned out! (Well maybes not!)

  2. I don’t know how I feel about that video. I watched it. It annoyed me when Stahl misquoted Skinner and even more when the researcher didn’t correct her. But there’s worse science on TV.

    Interesting post.

  3. Stephan Pinker explores heritable inclinations vs. environmental factors in his brilliant book “The Blank Slate.” His conclusion is that the majority of our biases, as well as out moral sense, have evolved, and that our learned behaviors depends largely on how our individual genetic endowments a;;ow us to perceive the environment in which we are raised.

  4. What a fascinating post!!!Especially now as we face the dilemma with Syria. Ethically, can we afford to let someone, anyone get away with mass-murder? Is there truly an axis of evil and how far must we go to protect the innocent from them? Now I’m rambling – but awesome post. Thank you.

  5. Wow! I watched the entire video and was enthralled. Who knew babies could distinguish between good and bad? Fascinating!

    abcw team

  6. Astounding. I never thought of babies as blobs. I always knew they had feelings, even something approaching opinions, and could be influenced by OUR behavior, but who knew they could carry within them this ability to distinguish what they see as right or wrong?
    I’ll have to give this whole thing some serious thought…as in, can a despot or dictator be shaped by his parents encouraging him to want more for himself and less for others?
    V-e-r-y interesting, Roger.

  7. Thank you so much, Roger, for showing this video! I always like to know what babies think and what their innate feelings are. I saw a program, where babies showed their wish to help people who were looking for something, by pointing in the right direction.Amazing.
    Wil, ABCW Team

  8. I’m not sure how I feel about this video either. Some of the babies’ behavior may be explained by simply choosing the most colorful puppet, regardless of their actions. If one believes humans are instilled with a sense of Moral Law, some of this behavior is not surprising. Also, if one believes that original sin is also at work in the human heart, even babies are subject to bias and other types of “bad” behavior without being taught. Nature versus nurture? It’s not that simple.

  9. Lisa- I assume that they would have tested – not necessarily on air – for variations in color preference, e.g.

  10. I’m not sure if this Baby Lab experiment accomplished what they hoped to accomplish, – but then the older I get the less sure I am about a lot of things!!!

  11. The philosophy I followed in the last 19 years of teaching was from Sister Grace. A time line indicating the progress of humans in our lives was this:
    animal-like behaviors to humane behaviors. She allowed the thought that teachers take the student from where they are at the beginning of the year, help them develop life skills with the beliefs that it’s okay to make mistakes, one needn’t know everything today, everyone learns in their own time, etc. So it makes sense for babies to be wrapped up in themselves, doesn’t it? They needed a study for that!

  12. No doubt carry a genetic load very important, but morality is a human invention, and therefore depends on the social environment!

  13. I saw that report, and it’s one of the few times I’ve seen “60 minutes” of late. I always hold these studies at arm’s length until I know who funded it. Was it the graham cracker companies? You know what a cynic I am…!

    Besides, enrolling your 6-month-old in any type of study like this is an awful thing to do to a kid. They should all be out playing, not “playing lab rat.” Ha ha Amy

  14. Interesting Question, Roger!
    But I disagree with the announcer’s premise that “the only way to know (if a person is born inherently good) is to ask a baby,”
    and then show a piece of research.
    Research is only applies to the population the research is done on (even if the claim is “a random sample” there is still a 4-5% margin of error), only at the time that the research occurs. So, what is that compared to a life span? If people would be inherently good, they might make wrong decisions, if they don’t have all the information. On the other hand, if people would be inherently bad, they still could behave “correctly”, because they have learned the consequences of bad behavior.
    Then there is the question of nurture-nature that impacts behavior, etc. etc.
    I know we like simple and short answers, but big philosophical questions like this one needs a whole book of research to say anything meaningful.
    I’m off to have some lunch:)

  15. Fascinating post Roger. I know you would know how interested I am in this topic. I have printed it out and am definitely coming back to see the video. Right now my husband is watching 911 newsreel on the TV and I want to be able to concentrate on what you have to say — and show. So I’ll be back.

  16. Hmm….I think I mostly agree with Lisa and Emille on this. My overwhelming reaction to the video is that there are way too many variables in their testing. I realize that they had to edit for the length of the segment, but I would have preferred no segment to one that maybe comes up with a flawed conclusion. Disappointing — not your post, but the 60 minutes piece. If you can reduce such an important philosophical concept to a simplicity that even a 12 year old can understand, there’s something inadequate about the research. I guess the debate will go on until the end of time. But very interesting for me to read what others commented.

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