60 Minutes: Yale Baby Lab
For as long as thinkers in philosophy and religion have pondered humanity, they have questioned whether morality—our sense of right and wrong—is innate from birth. Are we born as good people who recognize positive behavior, or does it have to be taught by parents and teachers? Until recently, it has been nearly impossible to ask the subjects who would know best: babies. But now research at the Yale University Baby Lab is offering a new way for us to get inside those tiny heads, as Lesley Stahl reported.
60 Minutes: Infant Cognition Center
Human babies have seemingly limited cognition, since they are still growing and have not yet developed many of the skills and abilities that make older children and adults self-reliant. But what is really going on with them? Do they have opinions about morality?
Rousseau, the philosopher, called them “perfect idiots, knowing nothing.” That was the popular conclusion throughout history, until the recent work of researchers like psychologist Karen Wynn, director of Yale’s Infant Cognition Center, also known as The Baby Lab.
60 Minutes: Cute Little Blobs?
Wynn agreed that babies were considered “cute little blobs,” unable to voice their opinions and feelings, if they had any. But now the Baby Lab team has devised a test to give babies a voice. Though they cannot speak, they can watch puppet shows.
Five-month-old Wesley was one of many test subjects who watched a puppet show. In the scenes, a puppet is having trouble opening a box to retrieve what is inside. A nice puppy comes to help the other puppet accomplish the task.
In a second scene, a mean puppy comes along and slams the box shut, preventing the puppet from retrieving his prize. But can a five-month-old baby tell the difference between who is naught and nice?
60 Minutes: Babies Prefer Nice, Helpful Puppet Characters
Wesley, among other test subjects, voted with his small arms, reaching for the nice puppet to express his interest in it. Over 75% of babies tested in this research voted by reaching for the puppet who behaved kindly in the puppet show.
For babies who are just three months old, reaching is not yet an object. But scientists know that babies will look longer at things they like, and when three-month-old babies are tested in the puppet show, they look significantly longer at the nice puppet than at the mean one.
“The results are always consistently babies feeling positively towards helpful individuals in the world,” Wynn said.
60 Minutes: Babies Want Thieves Punished
Wynn and the Yale team first published their conclusions about the morality of infants in Nature, a peer-reviewed journal, in 2007. Since then, they have continued to share the results of multiple follow-up studies.
In another version of the puppet show, a bunny steals a ball from another puppet and refuses to give it back, before running away. In the next scene, the ball thief is attempting to open a box; here again, one puppet is helpful in opening the box, while another slams it shut.
This time, 81% of babies prefer the puppet who slammed the box shut and deterred the ball thief. Does that mean that babies believe the puppet who stole the ball deserved to be punished?
60 Minutes: Babies Want Justice?
Wynn believed that this proves babies come built in with a sense of justice. Psychology professor Paul Bloom is Wynn’s husband; the two often collaborate on these baby studies.
He sees this research as changing the way culture will perceive babies. “What seems to be an ignorant and unknowing baby is actually a creature with this alarming sophistication, this subtle knowledge,” he said.
These conclusions contradict those of B.F. Skinner, a researcher who believed that babies had to be taught everything by their parents or caregivers. But according to Bloom, this research is more indicative of a universal morality among humans that is biological.
60 Minutes: Graham Crackers Vs Cheerios
You can’t talk about good without delving into a side conversation about evil. If we are born with this preset sense of justice, why are there so many antisocial or evil people in the world? Is that a learned behavior?
It may be more complex than that. Wynn explained that we know adults to prefer others who have “even really absolutely trivial similarities with them.” That formed the basis of another test for babies.
Test subjects were offered the choice between graham crackers and Cheerios. Then they watched as two different puppets enjoyed each snack. Babies were more interested in the puppet who shared their snack preference.
Taking things a step further, this research could indicate where bias comes from. In another iteration of the box-opening skit, babies seemed to want the “different” puppet to be punished. In fact, 87% of babies did not want the “different” puppet (who did not choose their preferred snack) to succeed.
60 Minutes: Babies Show Bias?
What could be an explanation for this? According to Bloom, “we are predisposed to break the world up into different human groups based on the most subtle and seemingly irrelevant cues.” This seems to happen even in babies, and it suggests that we then want to see those groups who are different from us punished.
Lesley Stahl wondered if that means we are born with the desire or drive to hate others. But Wynn put it another way: “I think we are built to…create us and them,” she said.
Bloom seemed to find the results fascinating, if depressing. He said that this innate moral sense is impressive, but the fact that bias is ingrained is the sad part. Maybe knowing this is a step toward addressing larger, more adult problems, such as racism.
60 Minutes: Babies Dislike “The Other”
He went on to explain that babies are biased to favor those who are like them, which is a human bias that we encounter throughout childhood and adult life. Bloom attributes this impulse in part to natural selection, but has some concerns about the potential ramifications.
Survival instincts probably helped to make us hyperaware of “the other,” which is where nurturing and societal structures come into play. The Baby Lab has also done some experiments using older children.
Kids are asked to decide how many tokens they can get, and how many should go to another child. The tokens, they are told, can be traded for prizes. One girl chose to have one token for herself, rather than two for her and two for another child.
60 Minutes: Selfish Instincts Vs Fairness
Younger children seemed predisposed to choose fewer rewards for themselves when it meant that another kid would get nothing. “They don’t care about fairness. What they want is they want relatively more,” Bloom explained.
But by the time they hit ages eight, nine, and 10, they are more likely to choose the fairest option, or even give another child more. That demonstrates a value on generosity. Does this social conditioning override our selfish instincts?
60 Minutes: Childhood Regression & Adult Adversity
“When we’re under pressure, when life is difficult, we regress to our younger selves and all of this elaborate stuff we have on top disappears,” Bloom offered by way of explanation.
Adversity can also bring out great qualities, like heroism and sacrifice. Bloom agreed that all these aspects seem to be present biologically from the earliest stages of life. Lesley Stahl seemed bowled over by these babies, and the research is definitely compelling.
What does it mean for the future of babies and early childhood education? We may have to stay tuned to the Baby Lab to find out, but in the meantime, you might not be so quick to dismiss the opinions of babies the next time you see one.