Monday, August 25, 2014

Origins of good and evil in human babies.

Felix Warneken does a review in TICS (Trends in Cognitive Sciences) of Paul Bloom new book "Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil," which argues that humans, already in the first year of life, have a basic moral sense that is shaped by innate evolved processes. studies in which babies can choose to touch one of two geometrically shaped agents with googly eyes – and they prefer to touch one who helps a struggling fellow up a hill rather than one who pushes that fellow down. This indicates that babies like helping and despise harming others, even if they are only a third party who observes how other people treat each other. Beyond their judgments of the actions of others, young children also display helpful tendencies in their own behavior. Bloom reviews the extensive work on toddlers as young as 18 months of age who display a tendency to comfort others who are in distress, and spontaneously help clumsy people by picking up dropped objects and holding doors open. Last but not least, preschool children seem to have a sense of fairness when faced with the task of divvying up desirable resources, with equality already serving as a guiding principle.
...although our basic, parochially bound moral sentiments come naturally to us without much effort, applying these principles to strangers takes some mental effort. It requires that we employ perspective-taking in our interactions with others...Expanding our moral circle to include strangers thus depends on socialization and abilities that develop only in late childhood...our evolutionarily evolved morality is prepared for kin and friends, but not for strangers. This can be seen in young children's ingroup biases and toddlers’ stranger anxiety.
...human children depend more on interactions beyond the immediate family than do our closest evolutionary relatives... Infants thus have to tolerate being handed around and interact with many unfamiliar people from early on. We might therefore expect infants to be open-minded and vigilant at the same time, creating their social circles in a more sophisticated manner than ducklings who follow either white feathers or men with white beards, whichever they see first. And it seems as if they do so, not in a naïve fashion, but in a sophisticated way that balances risk and opportunity.

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