Nature or Nurture?

Stephen DeAngelis

May 28, 2010

Human beings have wrestled with the nature of man since the beginning of history. Despite all of the advances we have made in the sciences, we still debate about what is natural and what is learned behavior. Last October, David Brooks wrote about the variety of individuals who are being attracted to “social cognitive neuroscience” in the hope that “they can help settle some old arguments about how people interact” [“The Young and the Neuro,” New York Times, 12 October 2009]. He noted that most of the people in the field seemed to be young, smart, and good looking. He writes:

“In 2001, an Internet search of the phrase ‘social cognitive neuroscience’ yielded 53 hits. Now you get more than a million on Google. Young scholars have been drawn to this field from psychology, economics, political science and beyond in the hopes that by looking into the brain they can help settle some old arguments about how people interact. These people study the way biology, in the form of genes, influences behavior. But they’re also trying to understand the complementary process of how social behavior changes biology. Matthew Lieberman of U.C.L.A. is doing research into what happens in the brain when people are persuaded by an argument. Keely Muscatell, one of his doctoral students, and others presented a study in which they showed people from various social strata some images of menacing faces. People whose parents had low social status exhibited more activation in the amygdala (the busy little part of the brain involved in fear and emotion) than people from high-status families. Reem Yahya and a team from the University of Haifa studied Arabs and Jews while showing them images of hands and feet in painful situations. The two cultures perceived pain differently. The Arabs perceived higher levels of pain over all while the Jews were more sensitive to pain suffered by members of a group other than their own. Mina Cikara of Princeton and others scanned the brains of Yankee and Red Sox fans as they watched baseball highlights. Neither reacted much to an Orioles-Blue Jays game, but when they saw their own team doing well, brain regions called the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens were activated. This is a look at how tribal dominance struggles get processed inside. Jonathan B. Freeman of Tufts and others peered into the reward centers of the brain such as the caudate nucleus. They found that among Americans, that region was likely to be activated by dominant behavior, whereas among Japanese, it was more likely to be activated by subordinate behavior — the same region rewarding different patterns of behavior depending on culture. All of these studies are baby steps in a long conversation, and young academics are properly circumspect about drawing broad conclusions. But eventually their work could give us a clearer picture of what we mean by fuzzy words like “culture.” It could also fill a hole in our understanding of ourselves. Economists, political scientists and policy makers treat humans as ultrarational creatures because they can’t define and systematize the emotions. This work is getting us closer to that.”

Brooks goes on to note that the results of studies such as those mentioned above underscore the fact that social norms do play a role and that treating “individuals as discrete decision-making creatures is nonsense.” That doesn’t mean, individuals are without “free will and control”; it simply suggests that social groups share some reactions in common. He continues:

“A study by Saaid A. Mendoza and David M. Amodio of New York University showed that if you give people a strategy, such as reminding them to be racially fair, it is possible to counteract [socially-ingrained] perceptions. People feel disgust toward dehumanized groups, but a study by Claire Hoogendoorn, Elizabeth Phelps and others at N.Y.U. suggests it is possible to lower disgust and the accompanying insula activity through cognitive behavioral therapy. In other words, consciousness is too slow to see what happens inside, but it is possible to change the lenses through which we unconsciously construe the world.”

Brooks concludes, “The hard sciences are interpenetrating the social sciences. This isn’t dehumanizing. It shines attention on the things poets have traditionally cared about: the power of human attachments. It may even help policy wonks someday see people as they really are.” Studying how social norms affect personal behavior still doesn’t answer whether humans have inherent traits that tend to make us good or bad. There is a lot of research going on in that area as well. I’d like to mention two. The first seems to indicate that we are born with a natural urge to help [“We May Be Born With an Urge to Help,” by Nicholas Wade, New York Times, 1 December 2009]. Wade reports:

“What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think many parents. But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human. The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.”

Wade reports on the findings of the studies that have resulted in the “good news” results.

“When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help, Michael Tomasello writes in “Why We Cooperate,” a book published in October [2009]. Dr. Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior. … Dr. Tomasello finds the helping is not enhanced by rewards, suggesting that it is not influenced by training. It seems to occur across cultures that have different timetables for teaching social rules. And helping behavior can even be seen in infant chimpanzees under the right experimental conditions. For all these reasons, Dr. Tomasello concludes that helping is a natural inclination, not something imposed by parents or culture.”

There is an interesting twist to this natural inclination to help — it seems to be more prevalent “outside the home” than in it. Somehow I think parents instinctively knew that! Dr. Tomasello believes this is because “in families, the competitive element is in ascendancy.” As social norms and individual learning creep into the picture, Dr. Tomasello indicates that children “become more selective in their helpfulness.” For example, he notes that “starting around age 3, they will share more generously with a child who was previously nice to them.” The article then touches on the subject discussed by David Brooks: social norms.

“Another behavior that emerges at the same age is a sense of social norms. ‘Most social norms are about being nice to other people,’ Dr. Tomasello said in an interview, ‘so children learn social norms because they want to be part of the group.’ Children not only feel they should obey these rules themselves, but also that they should make others in the group do the same. Even 3-year-olds are willing to enforce social norms. If they are shown how to play a game, and a puppet then joins in with its own idea of the rules, the children will object, some of them vociferously.”

Wade reports that Dr. Tomasello believes that children develop a sense of “group belonging” or what he calls “shared intentionality.” It is from shared intentionality, Tomasello believes, “that children derive their sense of norms and of expecting others to obey them.” He claims that parents can influence their children “by communicating with [them] about the effect of their actions on others and emphasizing the logic of social cooperation.” He concludes, “Humans putting their heads together in shared cooperative activities are thus the originators of human culture.” Wade continues:

“A similar conclusion has been reached independently by Hillard S. Kaplan, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico. Modern humans have lived for most of their existence as hunter gatherers, so much of human nature has presumably been shaped for survival in such conditions. From study of existing hunter gatherer peoples, Dr. Kaplan has found evidence of cooperation woven into many levels of human activity. The division of labor between men and women — men gather 68 percent of the calories in foraging societies — requires cooperation between the sexes. Young people in these societies consume more than they produce until age 20, which in turn requires cooperation between the generations. This long period of dependency was needed to develop the special skills required for the hunter gatherer way of life. The structure of early human societies, including their ‘high levels of cooperation between kin and nonkin,’ was thus an adaptation to the “specialized foraging niche” of food resources that were too difficult for other primates to capture, Dr. Kaplan and colleagues wrote recently in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. We evolved to be nice to each other, in other words, because there was no alternative.”

Wade concludes that “the roots of human cooperation may lie in human aggression. We are selfish by nature, yet also follow rules requiring us to be nice to others. ‘That’s why we have moral dilemmas,’ Dr. Tomasello said, ‘because we are both selfish and altruistic at the same time.'” The second article [“The Moral Life of Babies,” by Paul Bloom, New York Times Magazine, 3 May 2010] begins with a study that affirms Dr. Tomasello’s observation that “children not only feel they should obey … rules themselves, but also that they should make others in the group do the same.”

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left … who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the ‘naughty’ one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.”

Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, goes on, in a lengthy article, to examine other moral behaviors demonstrated by babies. He writes:

“Like many scientists and humanists, I have long been fascinated by the capacities and inclinations of babies and children. The mental life of young humans not only is an interesting topic in its own right; it also raises — and can help answer — fundamental questions of philosophy and psychology, including how biological evolution and cultural experience conspire to shape human nature. … From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologist have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals. One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings — social creatures who can experience empathy, guilt and shame; who can override selfish impulses in the name of higher principles; and who will respond with outrage to unfairness and injustice. Many parents and educators would endorse a view of infants and toddlers close to that of a recent Onion headline: ‘New Study Reveals Most Children Unrepentant Sociopaths.’ If children enter the world already equipped with moral notions, why is it that we have to work so hard to humanize them? A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life.”

The good professor continues by discussing the value of experiments in helping determine when good or evil is “bred in the bone.” Even if there is some inherent goodness or badness in people, he asserts that “socialization is critically important.” He believes this “because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.” He continues:

“For many years the conventional view was that young humans take a surprisingly long time to learn basic facts about the physical world (like that objects continue to exist once they are out of sight) and basic facts about people (like that they have beliefs and desires and goals) — let alone how long it takes them to learn about morality. I am admittedly biased, but I think one of the great discoveries in modern psychology is that this view of babies is mistaken. … The eyes are a window to the baby’s soul. As adults do, when babies see something that they find interesting or surprising, they tend to look at it longer than they would at something they find uninteresting or expected. And when given a choice between two things to look at, babies usually opt to look at the more pleasing thing. … Psychologists — most notably Elizabeth Spelke and Renée Baillargeon — conducted studies that essentially involved showing babies magic tricks, events that seemed to violate some law of the universe: you remove the supports from beneath a block and it floats in midair, unsupported; an object disappears and then reappears in another location; a box is placed behind a screen, the screen falls backward into empty space. Like adults, babies tend to linger on such scenes — they look longer at them than at scenes that are identical in all regards except that they don’t violate physical laws. This suggests that babies have expectations about how objects should behave. A vast body of research now suggests that — contrary to what was taught for decades to legions of psychology undergraduates — babies think of objects largely as adults do, as connected masses that move as units, that are solid and subject to gravity and that move in continuous paths through space and time.”

Bloom continues his op-ed piece by discussing studies that have demonstrated that babies could do rudimentary math and could tell the difference between people and inanimate objects. He continues:

“Babies like to look at faces; they mimic them, they smile at them. They expect engagement: if a moving object becomes still, they merely lose interest; if a person’s face becomes still, however, they become distressed. … New studies found that babies have an actual understanding of mental life: they have some grasp of how people think and why they act as they do. The studies showed that, though babies expect inanimate objects to move as the result of push-pull interactions, they expect people to move rationally in accordance with their beliefs and desires: babies show surprise when someone takes a roundabout path to something he wants. They expect someone who reaches for an object to reach for the same object later, even if its location has changed. And well before their 2nd birthdays, babies are sharp enough to know that other people can have false beliefs. The psychologists Kristine Onishi and Renée Baillargeon have found that 15-month-olds expect that if a person sees an object in one box, and then the object is moved to another box when the person isn’t looking, the person will later reach into the box where he first saw the object, not the box where it actually is. That is, toddlers have a mental model not merely of the world but of the world as understood by someone else.”

Bloom then broaches the subject at hand: morality. He writes:

“Psychologists like myself who are interested in the cognitive capacities of babies and toddlers are now turning our attention to whether babies have a ‘naïve morality.’ But there is reason to proceed with caution. Morality, after all, is a different sort of affair than physics or psychology. The truths of physics and psychology are universal: objects obey the same physical laws everywhere; and people everywhere have minds, goals, desires and beliefs. But the existence of a universal moral code is a highly controversial claim; there is considerable evidence for wide variation from society to society. In the journal Science a couple of months ago, the psychologist Joseph Henrich and several of his colleagues reported a cross-cultural study of 15 diverse populations and found that people’s propensities to behave kindly to strangers and to punish unfairness are strongest in large-scale communities with market economies, where such norms are essential to the smooth functioning of trade. Henrich and his colleagues concluded that much of the morality that humans possess is a consequence of the culture in which they are raised, not their innate capacities.”

To read more about the phenomenon of a society’s propensity to behave kindly to strangers, read my blog entitled Ethics and Trust in the Business World. Bloom continues:

“People everywhere have some sense of right and wrong. You won’t find a society where people don’t have some notion of fairness, don’t put some value on loyalty and kindness, don’t distinguish between acts of cruelty and innocent mistakes, don’t categorize people as nasty or nice. These universals make evolutionary sense. Since natural selection works, at least in part, at a genetic level, there is a logic to being instinctively kind to our kin, whose survival and well-being promote the spread of our genes. More than that, it is often beneficial for humans to work together with other humans, which means that it would have been adaptive to evaluate the niceness and nastiness of other individuals. All this is reason to consider the innateness of at least basic moral concepts. … Human babies, notably, cry more to the cries of other babies than to tape recordings of their own crying, suggesting that they are responding to their awareness of someone else’s pain, not merely to a certain pitch of sound. Babies also seem to want to assuage the pain of others: once they have enough physical competence (starting at about 1 year old), they soothe others in distress by stroking and touching or by handing over a bottle or toy. There are individual differences, to be sure, in the intensity of response: some babies are great soothers; others don’t care as much. But the basic impulse seems common to all.”

Bloom mentions Dr. Tomasello’s work and the fact that some “toddlers tend to spontaneously help, even without any prompting, encouragement or reward”; but, he asks, “Is any of the above behavior recognizable as moral conduct?” He continues:

“Not obviously so. Moral ideas seem to involve much more than mere compassion. Morality, for instance, is closely related to notions of praise and blame: we want to reward what we see as good and punish what we see as bad. Morality is also closely connected to the ideal of impartiality — if it’s immoral for you to do something to me, then, all else being equal, it is immoral for me to do the same thing to you. In addition, moral principles are different from other types of rules or laws: they cannot, for instance, be overruled solely by virtue of authority. … And we tend to associate morality with the possibility of free and rational choice; people choose to do good or evil. To hold someone responsible for an act means that we believe that he could have chosen to act otherwise. Babies and toddlers might not know or exhibit any of these moral subtleties. Their sympathetic reactions and motivations — including their desire to alleviate the pain of others — may not be much different in kind from purely nonmoral reactions and motivations like growing hungry or wanting to void a full bladder. Even if that is true, though, it is hard to conceive of a moral system that didn’t have, as a starting point, these empathetic capacities. As David Hume argued, mere rationality can’t be the foundation of morality, since our most basic desires are neither rational nor irrational.”

Bloom doesn’t leave the matter there, however. Doing so would be very unsatisfying for an article claiming to examine the moral life of babies. He continues:

“So what do babies really understand about morality? Our first experiments exploring this question were done in collaboration with a postdoctoral researcher named Valerie Kuhlmeier (who is now an associate professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Ontario). Building on previous work by the psychologists David and Ann Premack, we began by investigating what babies think about two particular kinds of action: helping and hindering. Our experiments involved having children watch animated movies of geometrical characters with faces. In one, a red ball would try to go up a hill. On some attempts, a yellow square got behind the ball and gently nudged it upward; in others, a green triangle got in front of it and pushed it down. We were interested in babies’ expectations about the ball’s attitudes — what would the baby expect the ball to make of the character who helped it and the one who hindered it? To find out, we then showed the babies additional movies in which the ball either approached the square or the triangle. When the ball approached the triangle (the hinderer), both 9- and 12-month-olds looked longer than they did when the ball approached the square (the helper). This was consistent with the interpretation that the former action surprised them; they expected the ball to approach the helper. A later study, using somewhat different stimuli, replicated the finding with 10-month-olds, but found that 6-month-olds seem to have no expectations at all. … This experiment was designed to explore babies’ expectations about social interactions, not their moral capacities per se. But if you look at the movies, it’s clear that, at least to adult eyes, there is some latent moral content to the situation: the triangle is kind of a jerk; the square is a sweetheart. So we set out to investigate whether babies make the same judgments about the characters that adults do. Forget about how babies expect the ball to act toward the other characters; what do babies themselves think about the square and the triangle? Do they prefer the good guy and dislike the bad guy?”

Despite the soap opera theory that claims girls fall for the bad boy, most adults like the good guy (be they male or female). Bloom goes on to explain how they set up an experiment to test baby morality. He continues:

“In one of our first studies of moral evaluation, we decided not to use two-dimensional animated movies but rather a three-dimensional display in which real geometrical objects, manipulated like puppets, acted out the helping/hindering situations: a yellow square would help the circle up the hill; a red triangle would push it down. After showing the babies the scene, the experimenter placed the helper and the hinderer on a tray and brought them to the child. In this instance, we opted to record not the babies’ looking time but rather which character they reached for, on the theory that what a baby reaches for is a reliable indicator of what a baby wants. In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual. This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend; just about all the babies reached for the good guy.”

Bloom notes that they were able to rule out color preferences by changing who the good and bad objects were. They were still left with the question, “did they act as they did because they were attracted to the helpful individual or because they were repelled by the hinderer or was it both?” He continues:

“We explored this question in a further series of studies that introduced a neutral character, one that neither helps nor hinders. We found that, given a choice, infants prefer a helpful character to a neutral one; and prefer a neutral character to one who hinders. This finding indicates that both inclinations are at work — babies are drawn to the nice guy and repelled by the mean guy. Again, these results were not subtle; babies almost always showed this pattern of response.”

Bloom admits that the most these experiments do is permit researchers to “safely infer … is that babies prefer the good guy and show an aversion to the bad guy.” He continues:

“What’s exciting here is that these preferences are based on how one individual treated another, on whether one individual was helping another individual achieve its goals or hindering it. This is preference of a very special sort; babies were responding to behaviors that adults would describe as nice or mean. … To increase our confidence that the babies we studied were really responding to niceness and naughtiness, Karen Wynn and Kiley Hamlin, in a separate series of studies, created different sets of one-act morality plays to show the babies. … In both studies, 5-month-olds preferred the good guy … to the bad guy. This all suggests that the babies we studied have a general appreciation of good and bad behavior, one that spans a range of actions.”

Bloom goes on to relate that they took their experiments beyond simply assessing “whether babies possess … moral capacities [beyond] … preferring good and avoiding bad.” He explains:

“Part and parcel of adult morality, for instance, is the idea that good acts should meet with a positive response and bad acts with a negative response — justice demands the good be rewarded and the bad punished. For our next studies, we turned our attention back to the older babies and toddlers and tried to explore whether the preferences that we were finding had anything to do with moral judgment in this mature sense.”

Using the same kinds of experiments described above, Bloom and his colleagues gave infants and toddlers “the opportunity to reward or punish either by giving a treat to, or taking a treat from, one of the characters.” He then provides the results:

“We found that when asked to give, they tended to chose the positive character; when asked to take, they tended to choose the negative one. Dispensing justice like this is a more elaborate conceptual operation than merely preferring good to bad, but there are still-more-elaborate moral calculations that adults, at least, can easily make. For example: Which individual would you prefer — someone who rewarded good guys and punished bad guys or someone who punished good guys and rewarded bad guys? The same amount of rewarding and punishing is going on in both cases, but by adult lights, one individual is acting justly and the other isn’t. Can babies see this, too?”

He goes on to describe experiments that tested that notion and reports “the results were striking.” Not surprisingly, toddlers preferred nice characters who rewarded other nice characters. “What was more interesting was what happened when they watched the bad guy being rewarded or punished. Here they chose the punisher. Despite their overall preference for good actors over bad, then, babies are drawn to bad actors when those actors are punishing bad behavior.” He nevertheless concludes:

“All of this research, taken together, supports a general picture of baby morality. … Babies probably have no conscious access to moral notions, no idea why certain acts are good or bad. They respond on a gut level. … [However,] the aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology.”

That doesn’t mean that our tendencies to be helpful and supportive aren’t important. It just means that morality does, in fact, require thoughts leading to actions — not merely gut reactions. Bloom notes:

“The morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with; moral actions are often of a sort that have no plausible relation to our reproductive success and don’t appear to be accidental byproducts of evolved adaptations. Many of us care about strangers in faraway lands, sometimes to the extent that we give up resources that could be used for our friends and family; many of us care about the fates of nonhuman animals, so much so that we deprive ourselves of pleasures like rib-eye steak and veal scaloppine. We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all; we see racism and sexism as evil; we reject slavery and genocide; we try to love our enemies. Of course, our actions typically fall short, often far short, of our moral principles, but these principles do shape, in a substantial way, the world that we live in.”

Although we can pat ourselves on the back for developing moral codes, we should be aware that we also develop prejudices and preferences very early in life.

“Our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions. The notion at the core of any mature morality is that of impartiality.”

As adults, we carry our biases with us — even if we fail to admit them. That doesn’t excuse us, however, for acting immorally. Bloom refers to a character in the Kingsley Amis novel One Fat Englishman, who says, “It was no wonder that people were so horrible when they started life as children.” Dr. Tomasello is more optimistic than that. He believes that we can raise children to overcome their natural selfish tendencies and there is a world full of people who prove him right. Bloom ends his article this way:

“Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.”

Henry David Thoreau encouraged people to “aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” Morality may not be in our nature, but we all have the capacity to be good for something.