Few days ago , I was walking in the park when I came across two ladies sitting on a bench with their babies on their laps. Lets call the babies Mark and Tom. They were laughing and having one of those little baby talks that no one understands. Mark was holding a ball when a cat passed in front of him , so he throws the ball at it. The two moms did not see that , but Tom did. And he took Mark’s pacifier. Mark starts crying so the moms noticed what happened. Toms’ mom was so embarrassed that she says : I’m sorry , you know he’s just a baby , he does not understand what he is doing.
Or....does he? What I saw left me wondering , did Tom really pull the pacifier out of Marks mouth just for fun? Or did he intentionally pulled it to punish Mark for hurting the cat?
Does Tom already know that hitting a cat is wrong and that Mark should get what he deserves for doing that?
After a little research , I found that psychologists and neuroscientists through the ages had the same question.
One of them is Dr. Paul Bloom who asked this question:
“Is human baby a purely immoral creature? Just blank slates who learns from society to respond from compassion to suffering and with outrage for unfairness and injustice or is it possible that a baby understands right and wrong at the very start of his life?”
To understand that , we need to study those little creatures, but since babies cannot speak, write, or express their feelings, we have to find another way to get in their minds.
Yale psychologist Karen Wynn , director of the infant cognition center at baby lab has her own ways in communicating with babies and getting in their heads.
She, with the help of Dr. Bloom, her husband , conducting many experiments over many years and came up with fascinating results.
First they showed babies between 3-6 months old , a little play. In the first scene , a puppet tries to open a box with a toy in it , and puppy dressed in a yellow shirt tries to help him.
In the second scene , the same puppet tries to open the box and another puppy dressed in blue shirt slams the box shut.
Then the babies were asked to choose between the two puppies.
Around 75 % of the babies choose the puppy with the yellow shirt , the helper !
Does that mean that babies at this very young age can differentiate between good and bad behavior ?
Well , apparently , they can!
Another experiment using the same method of little puppet shows , reveals what’s there in the little babies brain about justice. Do they understand it?
In the first scene , a puppet loses the ball he is playing with and bunny reaches for the ball and run away with it.
In the second scene , the bad bunny who stole the ball , tries to open a box with a toy in it.
And a gain a puppy was helping and another was slamming the box shut.
Around 81% of the babies choose the puppy who slammed the box!
Those babies knew that the bunny was bad and he deserves a punishment ! At this very young age , do babies understand the concept of bad behavior and punishment or in other words , justice?
Dr. Wynn says :
“On a very elementary level , they do”.
And here , I would like to borrow what the 3rd president of the United States of America Thomas Jefferson said in one of his letter to Peter Carr :
“The moral sense or conscious is as much part of a man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree.”
Any modern-day psychologist or neuroscientist thinks all traits vary , all traits are heritable to some extent that show natural variations.
So until now , it seems like a limited sense of morality is bred in the bones of a baby.
But , In the previous experiments , babies were 3rd-parties , they were not involved , they were observers.
But what will happen if the experiment was more personal? Will that affect their choices?
In this test , babies were offered two bowls of treats to choose from.
And then two puppets eat from the two bowls. One orange puppet eats from the same kind the baby likes and another gray puppet eats from the other.
Then , in a little puppet show , the gray puppet tries to open the toy box , a puppet helps and another one shuts the box.
The surprise was that 87% of the babies chose the puppet who shuts the box !
The babies are biased! They believe that just because someone likes another type of food , he should be punished ! Just because he is not like them.
Researchers say that as our primitive ancestors lived in groups and any other group was a huge threat for them , their genes developed this gut feeling in order to survive.
“I think , to some extent , a bias to favor the self where the self could be people who look like me , people who act like me , people who have the same taste as me is a very strong human bias. It is what one would expect from a creature like us who evolved from natural selection but it has terrible consequences. “
That was Dr. Blooms explanation to the behavior of babies. So evolution predisposed us to be wary of “the other” for survival so we need parents , religion , society to intervene and shape our behavior.
After few years of experimenting and researches , Dr. Bloom wrote a book named :(Just Babies, The Origin of Good and Evil ) In which he argued that a deep sense of good and evil is bred in our bone.
He shows that babies are capable of judging good and bad behaviors of others but this sense is limited.
Our natural moral sense is strong towards the individuals of our own groups.
Margaret Mead a famous enthusiastic towards the life style of primitive tribes says :
“Most primitive tribes feel that if run across one of these subhumans from rival groups in the forest , the most appropriate thing to do is bludgeon him to death. “
This is another explanation why babies tend to feel that every individuals of a different group should be punished . Because its hardwired in their genes that every outer being is a threat.
The American geographer, historian and author, who is known for drawing from a variety of fields (Jerad Diamonds) wrote about the small- scale society of Papua New Guinea :
“ To venture out of one’s territory to meet (other) humans even if they lived only a few miles away , was equivalent to suicide. “
And that pretty much shows why babies are afraid of strangers. Because they are born this way.
Religion , parents , teachers and society all helps in shaping the human behavior and civilizing it in further years of his life , but at the very beginning , every individual will have a trait or a sense of morality built-in in his genes.
Apparently , we as humans are born with a natural gut feeling to sense right and wrong , to prefer justice over unfairness. And on the other side we do have a sense of favoring ourselves, our group, our race ,...etc over other group of individuals.