Are We Hard-Wired for Greed or Empathy?

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. He is a past president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology and a co-editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, one of the major journals in the field. Dr. Bloom has written for scientific journals such as Nature and Science as well as for popular outlets such as The New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic. He is the author or editor of four books, including "Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human." His newest book, "How Pleasure Works," will be published by Norton in June 2010.

Professor Bloom is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.

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TRANSCRIPT

Note - Experiment footage of toddler altruism courtesy Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello.

Paul Bloom: So much of the action in psychology has been a running debate over which view is right. And this concerns morality, both moral judgments of right and wrong, but also moral feelings including compassion.  Many people would argue that in that regard, the baby starts off with nothing.  

The idea is that children start off immoral, monsters or if not monsters, at least they know not from good and evil.  This is not the view which I think is supported by the data.  I think there is now more and more data in support of a different view of compassion. 
Now we know this is true for children.  In fact, we know this is true for babies.  One way to make a baby cry is to expose it to cries of other babies.  There’s sort of contagiousness to the crying.  It’s not just crying.  We also know that if a baby sees another human in silent pain, it will distress the baby.  It seems part of our very nature is to suffer at the suffering of others.  

We know that young babies, as they become capable of moving voluntarily will share.  They will share food, for instance, with their siblings and with kids that are around.  They will sooth.  If they see somebody else in pain, even the youngest of toddlers will try to reach out and pat the person.  Maybe hand over a toy.  

There’s some lovely studies finding that slightly older children are able to help others when they see somebody who is unable to fulfill a goal, they’ll seek out to come to their aid.    

So one elegant demonstration of this comes from a recent set of experiments by the psychologist, Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, where they take a toddler, put him or her in a situation where an adult is in some sort of mild distress and see if the toddler will voluntarily help, even without any prompting.  And they find that toddlers typically do.  There seems to be some sort of impulse in us that’s altruistic, that’s kind, that’s compassionate. 


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