This has to be the best ‘value for time’ video clip I have watched over the past few years. Only about 13 min long, it is packed full of useful insights – all based on research conducted in ‘The Baby Lab’ by psychologists Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn. [To find out more about these things, you may want to read Bloom’s excellent book ‘Just Babies].

Reading is one thing but seeing is believing, so get yourselves a nice cup of coffee and sit back to marvel at the ingenious ways Developmental Psychologists have thought up in order to discover what goes on inside babies’ brains.

The first big discovery is that when it comes to the chapter on morality, the human ‘tabula’ is far from ‘rasa’. Here is what the studies suggest:

  • [2:14 – 3:52]: Babies prefer ‘good’ puppets over ‘mean’ ones (ok – no surprises here) but…
  • [4:30 – 5:30]: …babies want to see bad/selfish puppets punished (!) and in this case they prefer the mean puppets who punishes them!

As Paul Bloom says [6:22] there seems to be a ‘Universal moral core that all humans share’. So – it looks like babies are little angels, right? (Albeit somewhat strict and unforgiving perhaps…) But there is another side to them as well. Read on.

  • [6:48 – 7:28]: Babies prefer puppets who have the same preferences as they do (ok – again, this is what one might have predicted) but…
  • [7:28 – 9:13]: …it’s not just that; incredibly, babies want to see puppets with different preferences punished!!! (Wow!! Babies are born bigots!!)

There is more to come. You would expect toddlers to always prefer two to one (e.g. two toys over one toy, two sweets over one sweet), right? Wrong!

  • [10:31 – 11:23]: It seems toddlers (at the age of 3) are quite happy to accept less for themselves, provided they get more than another child!! So one-upmanship is not something taught to us by society; we seem to have a predisposition for it. But then something interesting happens…
  • [11:23 – 11:49]: …Society takes a hand; by the age of 8 kids start to prefer a fair deal and by the age of 10 if they have to choose between an option like ‘2 for me and 2 for another kid’ or ‘2 for me and 3 for the other one’ they choose the latter! In the words of the hostess ‘chalk one up to society’.

Yet lest we get carried away, Bloom [12:10 – 12:39] hastens to point out that innate predispositions do not just disappear as a result of socialization; it is not the case that society wipes the ‘rasa’ clean and then writes something else there. Instead, ‘when we are under stress’ or ‘life is difficult’ it is extremely easy to revert to our ‘default predispositions’. [So now we know why in times of crisis the rubbish that Golden Dawn peddles will always be an easier sell than, say, the internationalism advocated by Communists].

So there we have it. The tendencies we are born with are both good (pro-social) and bad (with predispositions towards one-upmanship and an ‘us vs them’ mentality). If we want a better world, we have to nurture the former and combat the latter (as Bloom says ‘If you want to eradicate racism, you want to know to what extent babies are little biggots’ [9:36]). There is no point denying the negative aspects of our nature just because it would be better if they did not exist.

‘A thousand anachronisms dance down the strands of our DNA from a hidebound tribal past… If we resent being bound by these ropes, the best hope is to seize them out like snakes, by the throat, look them in the eye and own up to their venom.’  (Barbara Kingsolver)