The Primal Origins of Morality and Bias

CBS' 60 Minutes aired an amazing episode Nov. 18, 2012 It was a special on what aspects of morality and bias are innate. Yale University's Baby Lab studied babies as young as three months old, as well as children of differing ages and came to some interesting conclusions:

1) Babies overwhelmingly prefer puppets that are nice to other puppets. They intuitively know and are attracted to the "nice" moral behaviors. We are born with a sense of morality.

2) Babies show a bias towards puppets that are similar to them.  For example, if a baby likes Cheerios and dislikes graham crackers, the baby will gravitate towards the puppet that likes Cheerios vs. the puppet that likes graham crackers.  The bias towards self and the need to categorize belonging is strong in humans from birth.

3) In one of the scarier studies, if a puppet is mean to another puppet that the baby has decided he dislikes (i.e. the puppet eats graham crackers). The baby is attracted to the puppet that is mean rather than the disliked puppet. This is because the disliked puppet is "them," so the mean puppet must be "us."  Bias and a need to categorize us vs. them is an innate human emotion.

4) Almost all children up to a certain age choose less for themselves if it means they get more relative to their friend.  For example, you can have five candy bars and your friend can have one or you can each have 10 candy bars. The children almost always opted for the five candy bars because, relatively, they had more than their friend.  Relativity and comparison to others is a powerful innate motivator.  This does not fully go away. I mentioned this behavior in the Envy blog about adults behaving the same way.

5) Over a certain age, children start making the "right" choice more often, as they are socialized  about right and wrong.  The way they described it was that primal desires still can lead to bad behavior, but we can learn to moderate them.

Watch the study and think about what you see in life. Are we born with this universal moral code, knowing right from wrong? Is there a dark side of morality? Or is dividing people up by us verses them natural?

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