Paul Bloom
Professor of Psychology, Yale University

Little Ones in the Lab

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Psychologist and father Paul Bloom studies early childhood development. How does he meet the challenges of working with young kids?

Paul Bloom

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.


Question: What challenges arise in doing research with young children?

Paul Bloom: I think there's tremendous insight to be gained by looking at babies and young children. It's basically a way of seeing human nature before it gets tainted and corrupted by culture and if you test them young enough, before it gets even affected by language. So it's a way of seeing human nature in a very direct and sort of untainted way. But it's really difficult working with kids and with babies because they are not cooperative subjects, they are not socialized into the idea that they should cheerfully and cooperatively give you information. They're not like undergraduates, who you can bribe with beer money or course credit. And so you need to be somewhat clever in designing studies that tap their knowledge. You have to tap their knowledge indirect and sometimes kind of interesting and subtle ways. And even when you do that, you know, some of them are just going to run away from you. Some babies are going to fall asleep and cry. Some kids are going to think it's hilarious to answer every question with the opposite that, you know, they believe to be true.

And so you have to work around that in all sorts of ways. But as a developmental psychologist, I'm committed to the idea that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Question: How has your research affected your parenting and vice versa?

Paul Bloom: It's funny, I don't think, I'll be honest, I don't think anything I've ever learned as a developmental psychologist, as a scientist, has affected how I treat my kids. I think that at this stage of the game, there's a real disjunct between what the science tells us and actual practical applications, and I would distrust someone who told you otherwise.

But there's been a lot going around on the other way around. I mean, having kids has proven to be this amazing, for me, this amazing source of ideas of anecdotes, of examples, I can test my own kids without human subject permission so they pilot, I pilot my ideas on them. And so it is a tremendous advantage to have kids if you're going to be a developmental psychologist.

Recorded on November 20, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen