Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Are Babies Born Good? Do Our Children Come to Us as Blank Slates?

I've seen this study before, the one where researchers use puppets to determine whether babies as young as three months old have a sense of morality. CBS's 60 Minutes recently ran an update on this baby research, and here's the video. The research indicates that babies prefer those who help others, that they dislike mean people and want mean people, as well as those unlike themselves, to be punished. The results suggest that humans are born with a sense of morality and also the tendency to favor those who like the same things they like or discriminate against the other (those they deem unlike themselves) due to superficial differences.

The research also shows something that many parents have already observed: young children are selfish (Mine mine mine!). However, after children are older and have been educated, research shows they are less selfish, more fair, even generous. So, there's hope for the human race after all.

I've been interested in such work for a while. In 2007, for instance, I wrote a post at, "Are Babies Born a Blank Slate?" The research says no, no they aren't.


Stephen Brooke said...

I watched that 60 Minutes segment. I wonder, though, how much the altruism of older children comes from outside of them and how much is part of the process of their own minds maturing and being able to handle such concepts. Empathy is not just learned behavior, after all, but seems somewhat intrinsic to us.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

I'm sure some of these positive changes may reasonably be linked to further development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, Stephen. Some studies indicate that this part of the brain--which guides impulse control, problem solving, and judgment--does not mature fully until age 25. Imagine the implications of that information for parenting, schools, and our juvenile justice system. But undoubtedly sound ethics education and good role models factor in greatly as well.

Carolyn Moon said...

I found this intriguing as well and an area that demands further study. The prefrontal cortex theory of the brain has been around for awhile and supported the concept of the juvenile justice system for adolescents and children who commit heinous crimes.
Although there is this trend now to bring these cases to criminal courts.

The 'doll experiment' by Kenneth Clark and later other social scientists would be challenging as there is a tendency for children of color to choose or place value on dolls that are different and when they begin to use language they place more value on the other. Frameworks are handy for they give us a way to view, however, flexibility is a must for I feel there will be an interesting breakthrough on this issue. Before indoctrination by black families to enable their babies and toddlers to feel more comfortable with objects that look more like them; what phenomena is on hand within the first 3-6 months of life.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

@Carolyn. Thank you for dropping by. I'm glad you brought up the Clark study because it's evidence that children can be educated to have a healthy state of mind or miseducated to have negative biases even against themselves. What's sad is that the Clark study has been repeated in the last few years and we still have too many children of color who have been acculturated to prefer the white doll rather than the doll that looks like them. However, we are making some progress.

Regarding prefrontal cortex theory, I was appalled that some people bought into one of the 2012 presidential candidate's proposal that we change the legal age of adulthood to 13. :-(