The tragedy that the individuals, family and country experienced yesterday is another "canary in the mine" moment about the culture we are becoming.

We have many people in our country---and the evidence suggests the number is increasing---whose development has been neglected. This affects their moral functioning. At critical periods in early life different brain functions are formed. So when an infant or young child is not given the attention needed, those systems do not form properly. There is more and more documentation of specific neurendocrinological systems (that underlie brain function) that are under or maldeveloped from too much stress (which kills brain cells) or neglect (lack of stimulation of what's needed at the particular time).

  • For example, Carlsson (1998) suggested that autism is a handicap that occurs when a child does not receive the social tuning up at the critical time (apparently in the first year of life).
  • Those with borderline personality disorders were neglected or abused which results in neurotransmitter dysfunction and subsequent problems with self understanding, perspective taking, autobiographical and working memory (Grosjean & Tsai, 2007).

Children need responsive, sensitive care in the first 5 years of life, otherwise deficits occur in the brain that can emerge later in adolescence or adulthood.

So that's one thing: we have more and more people who are in distress.

Here is a recent example: Princeton graduate student attempts suicide and leaves a note about childhood abuse.

Second, how do we prevent children from being poorly developed? We need massive structural changes in our social policies to put children first. This means that, like other advanced nations, we need to give parents leave from work to give them the time to sensitively care for their children. Jobs need to have ethical wages so that a person doesn't need to work three jobs to make a living (and neglect the children).

But this is not enough for children. We also need to restore ancestral parenting practices which have been around for over 30 million years among catarrhine mammals like ourselves:

  • nearly constant touch in the first years of life (physical separation stops growth)
  • prompt response to fusses and cries (don't let babies cry-it kills brain cells and fosters a permanently stressed brain which can only react selfishly)
  • multiple adult caregivers (the child learns to adapt to multiple social relations and the mother is not depressed)
  • breastfeeding for at least one if not two or more years (immune system is built to resist cancer and other diseases)
  • free play (child directed) in nature 

These practices are all linked to better outcomes for kids (more here and in previous posts). Changing parenting will require not only societal changes but change in incorrect attitudes about children (e.g., they can take anything, they have to be taught to be independent, they have evil natures, punishment is good and pleasure is bad).

So that is how we can improve our moral psychology on the individual level.

How about our morality at the cultural level?

In a culture of stressed  and distressed people, the last thing you want to do is make guns and weapons easy to obtain. We need at least bullet sales control if not stricter, enforced gun control. Humans are passionate creatures and many can flip into emotional wildness and "logically" reach for a gun to solve their problems. Even though much damage can occur with other weapons, guns are one of the best tools for having a quick and immediately deadly impact. Guns are too easily sold to potential terrorists and to disgruntled citizens who seek "justice" through gun play. People get ideas about shooting others from the media.

The media promote worldviews that trigger particular moral mindsets in the altready distressed. Right now, television programming makes the world appear threatening (you can't even watch a football game without seeing ads for threatening, violent shows). People who habitually feel threatened adopt a security mindset and (over)react to keep themselves safe or make vicious plans against those who seem to be a threat to what they value, much like the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, seems to have done.

Not only entertainment media are promoting an atmosphere of threat, news media are also. Fox News and talk radio are out of control in how they spew suspicion, innuendo and outright lies about our fellow citizens, including our president and our congressional representatives. Rhetoric matters. I suggest as a remedy that the "Fairness doctrine" be reinstated in our media so that stations are required to present more than one side of each story.

For a democracy to work, citizens also need good, reliable information from the media. Fox News' has been shown to promote falsehoods (e.g., about the health care bill) and its viewers are more likely to have misconceptions about public policy, government action and presidential birthplace. Journalists need to follow journalistic ethics. Having people on news shows that put targets on people's backs, as was done with Representative Giffords, is unethical (and isnt' inciting violence a criminal act?).

Our foraging cousins (and ancestors) were intentionally peaceful. We seem to be becoming more and more intentionally violent. Is this the culture we want to be? Cultures are not permanent. As older citizens know, they change quite a bit. Robert Sapolsky documents how a violent baboon culture became peaceful when the violent males died from a disease and calmer males took over. Human cultures also can move from violence to peace (note Norway). Although the slope towards the future is currently lubricated for violence, we can all move to the other side of the boat we share and change our direction.


Carlsson ML. Hypothesis: is infantile autism a hypoglutamatergic disorder? Relevance of glutamate - serotonin interactions for pharmacotherapy. J Neural Transm 1998;105:525-35. [PubMed]

Grosjean B and Tsai, GF (2007). NMDA neurotransmission as a critical mediator of borderline personality disorder. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 32(2): 103-115. PMCID: PMC1810584. | Abstract | Full Text | PDF-206K |

Turnbull, C. (1983). The Human Cycle. New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster.

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