Psychology, Broccoli, and Spite
Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. An internationally recognized expert on the psychology of child development, social reasoning, and morality, he has won numerous awards for his research, writing, and teaching. Bloom’s previous books include Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil and How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, and he has written for Science, Nature, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.
Question: What’s the most unusual or exciting project you’re working on now?
Paul Bloom: There's a lot going on in my lab that I'm very, very excited about. I'll tell you about one study that's kind of cool, and it's with a graduate student named ****. We're interested in whether children will punish other people. Now that much we actually know, that they do. But the further question is, will they punish other people and suffer to do it? So the design that we came up with is, we put children in a room, we're testing four and five year olds, and we show them somebody in another room who behaves horribly, she knocks over someone else's blocks, she laughs, she's terrible. And we tell the child, and that person says, "I can't wait for my broccoli, I have a big plate of broccoli coming, I can't wait for it." And then the experimenter goes over to the child with a big plate of broccoli and says, "I'm going to bring this over to that person, you want to eat some of it?" And it's set up so that children know that if they eat it, that person won't get their broccoli. And we also know that the kids hate the broccoli, for the most part, we also test them to see if they hate the broccoli. The question we're interested in is will they force broccoli down their mouths to punish a stranger? Are they that instinctively spiteful? And right now, the data looks promising. We have some lovely film clips of children cramming broccoli into their mouth, almost weeping, because they hate the stuff, so as to stop this other person from getting it.
And I think, this is just part of a line of studies that show how powerful our moral impulses are, how deep the desire to reward the good and punish the bad run in all of us, including young children.
Recorded on November 20, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
Paul Bloom has researched everything from religion and moral reasoning to children’s understanding of fiction and art. What’s the most unusual project he’s working on now?
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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