Summary of Just Babies by Paul Bloom

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Just Babies by Paul Bloom

What makes someone a good person? Or a bad person, for that matter? Our morals are not exactly universal and what you may perceive as good morals may not be the same for someone else. In fact, moral standards differ greatly amongst different countries and are also dependent on our upbringing. However, babies show that they also have some moral preferences long before they even realise it. How can this be?

Well, as much as we develop our morals over time there is an emotional aspect attached to moral reasoning. It is actually quite fascinating to learn how it all comes together. 

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • The innate moral judgement of babies and children
  • Compassion and empathy
  • Revenge and disgust 
  • The preferences we have

Key lesson one: The innate moral judgement of babies and children

Most parents often wonder what their babies are thinking about. Turns out, so do researchers – which is why they have come up with some interesting ways to find out. One such method is to make educated guesses about the judgements of babies. Experiments were developed for 9-12-month-old babies that entailed showing them images of a ball trying to get up a hill. The ball was either helped or hindered by a square and triangle respectively. They then showed the babies the ball heading toward either the square or the triangle. Both experimental age groups stared at the images longer when the ball approached the triangle or the shape that hindered the ball. Researchers concluded that this indicated that the babies had developed an expectation of how the ball would react. 

The experiment was further developed by adding characteristics to the shapes so that they would resemble people. The thinking behind this was they would be able to determine if the babies could make a social judgement about the triangle. However, it was then debated whether this would show true moral judgement or just the fact that the babies had developed an expectation of what would happen. Thus, the experiment was changed and puppets were instead used to help or hinder the ball. Then, instead of analysing what the babies looked at, they instead looked at which puppet the babies reached for. The experiment showed that almost all the babies reached for the helpful puppet which showed that they had a sense of good and bad. 

But moral judgement is not the only thing babies are capable of. Babies tend to respond to the pain of others as well. This occurs just a few days after birth and is seen when they cry in response to another baby’s cry. Researchers have tested whether this is just the result of the noise and have played computer-generated sounds to induce crying in babies but it has not worked. Even a recording of a baby’s own cry resulted in them crying less than when exposed to another crying baby. This clearly showed that the crying was in response to another person’s suffering. In addition, this response continues when they get older. Young children also try to soothe others when they sense their distress. It does not always work but they attempt to help others feel better like when another person falls and scrapes their knee. Researchers have said that this could be something we inherited from our primate ancestors. Chimpanzees are also known to soother other chimpanzees that have been attacked or injured. Another experiment involving young children that showed their want to help others involved an adult walking into the room with their arms full and attempting to open a door. Without any cues or suggestions approximately half the children got up to help open the door. 

These experiments clearly show that young children have the ability to make moral judgements from an early age. They also display clear equality bias, allocating the same resources to everyone when asked to share. 

Key lesson two: Compassion and empathy

Compassion is required for moral judgements. However, compassion alone does not make one moral. It is quite possible to act compassionately and immorally at the same time and this was confirmed by psychologists. To give you an example, imagine you are a doctor in charge of the transplant list. There is a number of people on the waiting list but you hear a heart-wrenching story of a child in need of a transplant. Your compassion for the child would make you prefer that she would receive her transplant before the others on the waiting list before her which would be immoral. 

Empathy also helps us be moral. When we feel the emotions of others, it makes us kinder. We are able to understand how they feel and are more likely to offer comfort. However, just like compassion, just because one possesses empathy does not mean they are automatically moral. An example of this comes from a woman who lived close to the death camps in Nazi Germany. She witnessed prisoners being shot and left to die, sometimes taking several hours. Having to watch the people die upset her so she requested that they either stop shooting people or do it somewhere else where it could not be seen. This showed that she had empathy to acknowledge these inhumane deaths but she could not be bothered if they continued as long as she did not have to see it.  

Key lesson three: Revenge and disgust 

Revenge also plays a part in regards to our morals. Generally, if we feel cheated or wronged by someone, we would try to seek revenge in some form. This desire is even present in young children. When shown a puppet show depicting one puppet helping and another hindering and asked who deserved a treat, the kids always rewarded the helping puppet. In addition, they asked which puppet to punish by taking away a treat and they all took the treat away from the hindering puppet. This means that they had a desire to punish the one they saw as bad. If this desire is already present in young children, it indicates that it is important to our moral feelings as humans. 

Disgust also plays a part in our moral judgements. It tends to make us meaner and harsher than we would usually be. Once again using Nazi Germany as an example, Jewish prisoners were forced to relieve themselves on train tracks as they denied them access to toilets. German passengers of the train were so disgusted by the sight that they believed the Jews to be animals and deserving of their fate. This was further proven in modern experiments that used hypnotism to invoke disgust at the sight of certain words. When later reading stories about a mild moral transgression, those that came across the trigger word judged the transgressions harsher than those that did not. 

Key lesson four: The preferences we have

Right from the beginning of our life, we have preferences. To be more exact, we prefer our own families over others and this is something that is rooted in our evolution. Parents care for their offspring, often making great sacrifices to ensure their wellbeing. This behaviour is both altruistic and also ensures the successful continuation of one’s genes and therefore, themselves. The emotional bonds between family members are also seen as morally right. If we had to witness parents ignoring their children or treating them like they were not related, we would see that as immoral behaviour from the parents. Even as a way to strengthen relationships, we refer to others as kin. Friends become our brothers or sisters as a way of showing how strong the social bond between them is. 

One of the most interesting experiments conducted involved taking 22 fifth graders and diving them into 2 groups. The boys all came from white, middle-class families and were sent to a summer camp where each group did not know about the other group’s existence. For one week, the groups remained separated and their cohesion was fostered by activities. After that, the groups went up against each other in a tournament. The fifth graders all made sure that the differences between the groups stood out. They came up with their own flags, vandalised and stole from the opposing group’s dwellings and even hurled racial insults at each other even though everyone was white. This experiment showed just how easy it was to form enemies or warring communities just to feel like a part of a group.

Babies also tend to prefer others who are of the same ethnicity as their parents over others. This does not mean babies are racists but more that they have a preference for what is familiar to them. It only turns into racism if it is reflected in their environments. For example, if children attend schools that have mixed races they are less likely to be racist. However, if schools are mixed but children stick to their own race groups all the time, then it becomes a problem.

When it comes to morals, society has a large influence on them. Even if you look at what was morally acceptable a few decades ago to now, you will see that as the customs of society change, so too, do our morals. For example, is it okay for parents to hit their children? Today it isn’t, but not so long ago it was an acceptable form of discipline. 

Likewise, different countries and cultures have different feelings about morality. It was famously documented when the Greek historian Herodotus told the story of how the Greeks met with Indians who ate the bodies of their dead fathers. The Greeks were horrified by this custom. Likewise, the Indians were horrified by the Greeks who burned the bodies of their dead fathers. Each believed that the other was wrong simply because they only considered their own custom as right. 

The key takeaway from Just Babies is:

Most of our morals are developed as we grow although babies already possess some innate traits indicative of moral judgement. There are a number of factors that can influence our morals from the environments we grow up in to the acceptable customs of our society. What is clearly evident though is that moral judgements differ globally and has a tendency to change over time. Which makes one think about what the future holds for us.

How can I implement the lesson learned in Just Babies:

Now that you know what you do about moral judgements and how it is influenced, don’t be so quick to judge the actions of others. They may have grown up differently from you and have a completely different perspective. Instead of writing them off, take the time to understand where they are coming from. This will lead to you meeting new people and being exposed to different things which will only enrich your life further.

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