Are You Good or Evil?

Thanks to the social networking wonder that is Facebook, I was recently introduced to a series of studies currently underway at Yale University. A video recently posted on the BBC website (and my Facebook page) summarizes the research of Paul Bloom, Ph.D., a professor at Yale, who studies the etiology of morals and our development of ethics. The video focuses on a new study that tests the researchers’ hypothesis that infants, and therefore humans of all ages, have an innate tendency towards either good or evil.

In the study, infants (just under one year old) watch two short puppet plays. In one play, two of the puppets roll a ball back and forth cooperatively. In the other, the second puppet takes the ball from the first and runs away with it. Following the plays, the children are presented with both the “nice” and “mean” puppets and given the opportunity to choose, via reaching, which puppet they like best. Approximately 70 percent of children choose the “nice” puppet.

It seems to me that the potential implications of this study require quite a bit of faith. As someone who has five brothers under the age of 12, I have plenty of experience with small children. I can honestly say that I’m not sure that even my nine-year-old brother has the attention span required to complete such a task with any moral concepts in mind (i.e. picking the “nice” puppet because of how it behaved). However, previous studies do show with consistency that infants as young as three months show a preference for prosocial versus antisocial behavior. It makes sense that humans, even infants, would prefer helpful or positive individuals to withdrawn or antagonistic ones—we are, after all, a social species. The reason this study struck me so strongly is that it attempts to make, in my opinion, extremely bold claims using very basic scientific findings.

“We want to see what people start off with: Do they start off with a moral stance? Do they start off with good impulses or with evil impulses?” Dr. Bloom says in the video. To approach philosophical questions like these ones with a task like the one described above is to assign a deep and potentially dangerous meaning to basic actions (i.e. picking puppets). Imagine being the parent of a child who reached for the “mean” puppet and later learning that the researchers are implying that he or she has an innate bias towards evil. Even if such results are indicative of preferences for good or evil, is that something we really want to be testing? Wouldn’t the end result of deeming some kids inherently evil just be a self-fulfilling prophecy?

But I may be very wrong. I am, after all, both enthralled by and terrified of such scientific experiments. What do you think? Are people born good or evil? Were you born good or evil? Maybe you hate puppets altogether. I wonder what that means…

–Caitlin Schneider

Source: Hamlin, J.K., Wynn, K., and Bloom, P. (2010). Three-month-olds show a negativity bias in their social evaluations. Developmental Science, 13(6), 923-939.

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