Babies with Bias?

Sundays are for relaxing and avoiding any real critical thinking beyond which outdated sweatpants to wear, right? I would normally agree, but a 60 Minutes episode airing on CBS on November 18, 2012, one of the last remaining venues of real journalism within the U.S. market broke the silence in my mind. A piece entitled, Born Good? Babies Help Unlock the Origins of Morality, evoked my lazy carb induced Sunday evening mind to contemplate. Leslie Stahl sought to answer the questions if we as humans are born to be good or bad? Do we start out in life with a sense of morality, selfish, and or oppressive? Or as many have over time believed, such as B.F. Skinner simply blank slates which are in need of guidance from society to fill the voids?

Scholars from Yale University’s Infant Cognition Lab (“the baby lab”) were interviewed to answer these questions. Researchers such as Karen Wynn, Director of the Infant Cognition Lab that is within the psychology department, used babies as young as three to five months old to prove babies have a predilection for persons who exhibit nice behaviors and a disdain for those who illustrate antisocial behaviors. Their findings were first published within nature (2007) within an article entitled, “Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants.” In addition, they have also gone on within subsequent years to show babies have an elementary understanding of justice. Paul Bloom, also a professor of psychology at Yale, has noted babies are “creatures of sophistication and subtle knowledge.” Within the 60 Minute interviews he stated

there is a universal moral core that all humans share. The seeds of our understanding of right and wrong are part of our biological nature.

In terms of what some may call “evil,” the findings from the lab have pointed to evidence which proves that babies are born with a sense of bias and preference for individuals who have similar traits and characteristics that they as babies possess. Simply, babies are predisposed to divide and categorize the world up into groups. But the research that proved babies prefer individuals who harm others unlike them was the point within the televised show which pushed me to sit up and take real notice. If one believes in the findings, on one hand we are essentially we are genetically wired to know and value justice and equity, but on the other we have a calling to protect our own through the means of dividing and conquering.

Even though people such as Dr. James Anderson have argued that the term race and acts of racism did not emerge until the 18th century, Bloom noted that “evolution” dedicates at least the need for humans to categorize individuals and thus be weary of those unlike them was necessary in order to survive. This he feels is the key to understanding how to exterminate racism and bigotry that is acted upon throughout the world. Moreover, the call for society and positive nurture is needed to combat these biological callings. This was shown in the 60 Minutes piece to be true as researchers worked with older children (9 to 10 years of age) and proved categorized evil traits of humanity could be tempered due to education and positive inculcation. Even though the Wynn and Bloom’s research initially argues that babies and young children are genetically predisposed, on an elementary basis, to prefer others like them, while at the same time punishing others unlike them, the researchers also illustrated that the feelings that drive these actions can be corrected to a large degree with positive societal and family guidance.

What are the true sociological implications? I feel that attention and research is needed to the possible linkages of “evolution” and public policies. A better picture as to why historical and contemporary policies that oppressed and or harmed specific marginalized populations throughout the world can thusly be created. The implications of said research can also explain why racial persecution continues today within the 21st century. In addition, scholars within the field would be able to add another layer of explanation as to the motivation for the precursors to said policies.

Next, by investigating the nurturing aspect of specific people and or groups responsible for the oppression of others could lead to a better understanding into the actions of man. Moreover, by applying the findings of Yale’s baby lab, researchers are able to explain the differences in our social, economic, and educational realms. Most importantly, I feel it also sways a large degree of responsibility back, not only onto the self in regard of self-control and rectification, but also onto those within our individual environments.

I know history is full of examples of man’s innate sense, and consequential actions to protect and favor those like themselves while oppressing other. But this still gives me some sense of hope. Some…


  1. cordoba blue

    Just an interesting note. My little grandson is in day care. He is 7 1/2 months old. The day care has white children, Asian children, Latino children and African American babies. He is in the 6 month to 12 month room.I visit him every day there between tutoring jobs. I usually spend 2 to 3 hours there so I have a pretty good opportunity to watch the kids interact.There are 9 kids in one room with 2 caregivers. And it is fascinating!
    Well, my grandson does not seem to distinguish at all between the ethnic background of any of the babies. None of them do, as far as I can see. They make each other laugh (even at this early age) by smiling at each other. They do have little spats over toys I notice. If one baby has a toy, another baby will eye the toy and and just try to take it away. They are too young to “ask”. Then there’s a little baby tug-of-war so to speak.
    They also crawl over another baby’s legs if a toy is just beyond their reach. “The toy’s the thing” seems to be the motto. But I have not witnessed any innate racism, and I have looked for it. In other words, I have not witnessed “preference among playmates”. They don’t seem to favor one playmate over another, which I would interpret as a baby form of racism in that they want to be with other kids “like themselves”. Interesting.

  2. cordoba blue

    Just a thought to extrapolate on my baby observations. What motivated the children? They were territorial. They each wanted toys, and the persuit of toys (as I observed at this early age) was their absolute prime motivation in a group of other children. They did not have to compete for food because they were all well fed. Thus, it was the toys that motivated them.
    In the animal kingdom, animals are always competing for land/habitats, food, shelter, and mates. Millions of species, literally, of male animals habitually fight other males for female mates.
    One of the best books I ever read was The Territorial Imperative by Robert Ardrey: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations. Ardrey offers various examples of how animals in the animal kingdom are constanty competing with each other.He then extrapolates how and why men compete. He suggests that some forms of competition are instinctive, not learned.
    Now does this have any correlation to racism? Provocative question. But, what we do know is that it is innate that organisms compete. When I teach my students (even at the 5th grade)science, and the organization of organisms regarding an individual organism, a population of the same organism, a community (different organisms living together) and an ecosystem (all the abiotic and biotic aspects of a habitat) and a niche, every page discusses competition.
    Plants in the food chain (plants are the only organism that can make their own food via photosynthesis) compete for sunlight and water, organisms who eat plants (herbivores) compete for those plants, organisms who eat other organisms (carnivores) compete for the edible organisms etc. The point is we must accept that competition is genetic to a certain extent. Thus, how can we correlate this to racism?

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