Something was terribly wrong, according to two-year-old Jeremy. There was a woman lying face down in the pool, and two men were approaching her in the water. “Help”, he cried, pointing to the woman and looking anxiously at me.

What Jeremy didn’t know was that the lifeguards at the community pool were conducting a rescue exercise. I knew that toddlers understand the term “pretend”, and playing pretend is one of their favorite games. Dad pretending to be an alligator is likely to elicit delighted screams and giggles.

So I told Jeremy the nice men and the lady were playing “pretend”. That was all it took. Along with the rest of us, he calmly watched in fascination as the rescuers gently turned the woman over, fitted her with a life vest, and towed her to safety.

Are We Morally Stupid, Morally Precocious, or Something In-Between?

In Middlemarch, author George Eliot muses that we are all born morally stupid, unable to see others except through the lens of our own interests and standards. Early psychological theories of moral and cognitive development endorsed this claim. According to Jean Piaget, children are supremely self-interested (or egocentric) until about seven years of age, and moral rules are slowly acquired through interactions with peers (1). Lawrence Kohlberg believed that moral development proceeded through six stages, from the young child’s focus on the avoidance of punishment to the idealized adult’s adherence to universal principles(2). Yet two-year-old Jeremy’s animated concern for the welfare of a stranger seems to contradict these claims that we are inherently morally stupid creatures.

Here in the 21st century, as it turns out, we need not speculate on these matters. Scientific studies have provided a startling view into the infant mind, and the picture that is emerging is far more complex and nuanced than Eliot, Piaget, or Kohlberg imagined.

We Like Those Who Help Others.

In one series of experiments, six-month-old infants were shown video clips of a red disk straining to roll up a hill(3). A yellow square races into view and pushes the circle up the hill. A blue triangle appears and pushes the circle back down to the bottom of the hill. Then the infants are presented a tray containing two toys: a yellow square or a blue triangle. Guess which one the infants overwhelming choose to play with?

The yellow square.

Studies like these show that infants prefer individuals who help others over those who harm others. In fact, they even prefer individuals who mistreat others whom they saw harm someone else(4). So far so good.

But here is where things get a bit ugly. In a recently published set of studies, infants were found to prefer those who helped individuals who were like them, and they preferred those who harmed individuals who were unlike them(5).

In these studies, researchers first assessed the taste preferences of 9- and 14-month old infants by allowing them to choose which of two foods to eat: green beans or graham crackers. (Believe it or not, about a third of the infants preferred green beans!) Both 9- and 14-month-olds preferred individuals who helped the puppets that shared their food preferences. They also preferred individuals who harmed the puppets that didn’t share their food preferences. By 14 months, they showed these same preferences even when the choice was between a neutral party and a helper or harmer. Results like these indicate that infants hold different standards of morality for in-group and out-group members. These same biases have been found among adults, even when in-group and out-group is defined as simply as a preference for Klee vs Kandinsky paintings(6).

The researchers concluded that “… such biases, rather than being solely the result of accumulated experience in a sharply divided social world, are based in part on an inborn or early-developing propensity to like those whom we recognize as similar to ourselves and to dislike those who dif¬fer from us. These tendencies are already operative in the first year of human life.”

How Did We Get This Way?

If these social biases emerge long before we have had an opportunity to learn them, where do they come from? Perhaps the best explanation comes from our evolutionary history. Developmental data such as these can be predicted from standard evolutionary theories such as kin selection. Kin selection is one explanation offered for the evolution of cooperation. The key to evolution is the change in the frequency of genes in a population over time. Individuals who possess traits that allow them to survive longer and better contribute more living offspring than those who do not. When we invest in the survival of our offspring (parental care), we increase the likelihood of their survival and concomitantly, our own genes. When we invest in the survival of blood relatives—those with whom we share genes—we achieve the same result. In biological terms, kin selection maximizes our inclusive fitness, that is, the combination of our own offspring (direct fitness) plus the offspring of blood relatives whom we’ve helped (indirect fitness). This phenomenon has been observed in humans and non-human animals, including insects.

How does an individual recognize blood relatives? One cue is similarity. Individuals who look like us are more likely to share genes with us than those who do not look like us. So if we are generous towards those whom we resemble and stingy towards those whom we do not resemble, we are wittingly or unwittingly investing in our own inclusive fitness. In complex creatures like humans, similarity can extend far beyond simple physical features. Preferences, habits, customs, and even taste preferences can serve as similarity cues.

The Take Home Message

The most important take away message from this kind of research is how much our culture must mitigate against these early emerging biases. The most dangerous thing we can do is assume that human nature is wholly good (or, in the case of tabula rasa theories, bias-free) unless our environments teach us to be biased. Data like these indicate that this is clearly not the case. Certain aspects of human nature make us prone to a kind of destructive tribalism, a proclivity to hold a different standard of morality towards those who are like us and those who are not.

The task of limiting destructive tribalism falls on our philosophies, religions, education systems, and social policies. The single largest difference between the brains of humans and our closest non-human relatives (apes) lies in our inexplicably oversized frontal lobes—the seat of reason and decision-making. That is what all of that frontal lobe matter is for--to notice, to assess, and to choose what is fair, what is right, and what is best for the greater good. As philosopher Christine Korsgaard (7) puts it

“…we human beings, unlike the other animals, think of ourselves and our lives in normative terms. We are governed not merely by instinctive likes and dislikes, attractions and aversions, enjoyment and suffering, but by values. Being reflective animals, we endorse or reject our likes and dislikes, attractions and aversions, pleasures or pains, declaring them to be good or bad. Each of us identifies himself in terms of certain roles, relationships, occupations and causes, all of them governed by normative standards, which it is then the business of our lives to live up to. And so we come to think of ourselves as worthy or unworthy, lovable or unlovely, good or bad.”

It is this capacity for normative thinking that makes us capable of being forces for enormous good or enormous evil in our dealings with others.

 1. Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgement of the child. New York: Free Press.

2. Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence: the cognitive approach to socialization. In Goslin, D.A., ed. Handbook of socialization theory and research. Chicago: Rand McNally.

3. Hamlin, J. K., Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2007). Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature, 450, 557–559. doi:10.1038/nature06288

4. Hamlin, J. K., Wynn, K., Bloom, P., & Mahajan, N. (2011). How infants and toddlers react to antisocial others. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 108, 19931–19936.

5. Hamlin, J.K., Mahajan, N., Liberman, Z, and Wynn, K. (2013) Not Like Me = Bad: Infants Prefer Those Who Harm Dissimilar Others. Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797612457785

6. Vanbeselaere, N., Boen, F., van Avermaet, E., & Buelens, H. (2006). The Janus face of power in intergroup contexts: A further exploration of the Noblesse Oblige effect. The Journal of Social Psychology, 146, 685-699.

7. Korsgaard, C. (2013) Getting animals in view. The Point, Winter, Issue 6.

Dr. Denise Dellarosa Cummins is the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas that Influence the Way We Think (2012, Cambridge University Press).

About the Author

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D.

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author of Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.

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