Are Babies Born Good?

New research offers surprising answers to the age-old question of where morality comes from

Because they have barely been exposed to the world, children are some of psychology's most powerful muses. (JIll Greenberg)
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“There are biological effects that people think are genetic, but culture affects them,” he says, adding: “Culture changes your brain.” He points to variations in fMRI brain scans of people from diverse backgrounds.

Baby researchers themselves have produced interesting critiques of their work. In 2009, Warneken wrote that “children start out as rather indiscriminate altruists who become more selective as they grow older.” Today, however, he feels that the picture is more complicated, with broadly pro-social impulses competing with, rather than developmentally predating, selfish ones.

Plenty of bleak observations complicate the discovery of children’s nobler impulses. Kids are intensely tribal: 3-month-olds like people of their own race more than others, experiments have shown, and 1-year-olds prefer native speakers to those of another tongue. Yes, a baby prefers the good guy—unless the bad one, like the baby, eats graham crackers. If the good guy is a green-bean eater, forget it. Babies, in addition, are big fans of punishment. Hamlin likes to show a video of a young vigilante who doesn’t just choose between the good and bad puppets; he whacks the bad guy over the head. In the spontaneous responses of the newest humans, “We’re seeing the underbelly of judgments we make as adults but try not to,” she says.

Wynn, the Yale scientist, has also questioned the deepest motives of Warneken’s tiny altruists, noting that seemingly selfless actions may actually be adaptive. As any parent of an 18-month-old knows, babies’ helping isn’t all that, well, helpful. Try as they might, they can’t really stir the cupcake mix or pack the suitcase when asked to do so (and parents, to be fair to the tots, don’t expect them to succeed but, rather, to occupy themselves). Perhaps babies are not really trying to help in a particular moment, per se, as much as they are expressing their obliging nature to the powerful adults who control their worlds—behaving less like Mother Teresa, in a sense, than a Renaissance courtier. Maybe parents really would invest more in a helpful child, who as an adult might contribute to the family’s welfare, than they would in a selfish loafer—or so the evolutionary logic goes.

A different interpretation, Warneken says, is that in a simpler world maybe toddlers really could help, pitching in to the productivity of a hunter-gatherer group in proportion to their relatively meager calorie intake. “Maybe the smallest kid has the smallest water bucket, the medium kid has the medium bucket and the adult women carry the big bucket,” he says. On a recent visit to Kinshasa, in Congo, where he was conducting more primate studies, “I saw this family walking around, and it was exactly like that. Everyone had firewood on their heads, and it was all proportional to body size.”


For many researchers, these complexities and contradictions make baby studies all the more worthwhile. I spoke with Arber Tasimi again recently. The metal rod is out of his arm and he’s back to having evening beers with friends. Though he still finds babies to be inspiring subjects, their more sinister inclinations also intrigue him. Tasimi watched a lot of “Sopranos” reruns during his convalescence and wonders about designing a baby experiment based on Hammurabi’s code, to determine whether infants think, like Tony Soprano, that an eye for an eye is a fair trade when it comes to revenge. That’s not all.

“I’m trying to think of a lesser-of-two evils study,” he says. “Yes, we have our categories of good and bad, but those categories involve many different things—stealing $20 versus raping versus killing. Clearly I can’t use those sorts of cases with, you know, 13-month-olds. But you can come up with morality plays along a continuum to see...whether they form preferences about whether they like the guy who wasn’t as bad as the other bad guy.”

Likewise, the Crackerz experiment that my daughter participated in is headed for a dark turn. Yes, babies prefer to accept a snack from the good guy, but what if the bad guy offered them three graham crackers, or ten?

For a grant proposal, Tasimi put a working title on this query: “What Price Do Babies Set to Deal With the Devil?”

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