Bigoted babies? An example of troublesome research findings, incongruent beliefs, and reactions

Andy Reynolds, MSW, LCSW – Featured art by Harrison Creech

Research conducted by Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom suggests that babies are born with a preference towards those like them, and against those who are different from them. This suggests that babies – and therefore all humanity – are not merely taught to be self-centered bigots, but that it is innately wired within us.

Babies as bigots who want good for themselves and those like them, and punishment for others not like them? Too harsh, right? Something so cute can’t be like that.

I play this video summarizing Wynn and Bloom’s research in classes that I teach to my undergraduate social work students. The reaction that I get from them is overwhelmingly a chorus of disbelief. The students become outraged and dismissive of the methods the Yale research team utilizes – if only students would be so passionate about methods in my research class, but I digress – and they cannot stomach this idea of being born unfairly biased.

I always leave this class perplexed, not to mention exhausted from defending Yale researcher’s methodology to undergraduate students. Is this perhaps the highest form of peer review, that of 19-year olds and what they feel is right? Maybe so.

Why might this idea – that babies are born as self-biased people – elicit such a passionately negative disbelief?

Shame is not a good feeling

Are we frightened to see that babies are no different from the worst of us? When we appeal to our basic instincts, we focus on what is best for us, and not for anyone else. Is it too shameful to confront the fact that I am a self-seeking person?

Yes, it is too shameful.

And that shame is my self-preserving side appealing to me saying, “Don’t confront it. It’s uncomfortable, and you might be morally responsible for changing if you become aware. Go ahead and live in your obliviousness.”

That thing called society is to blame. It should change, not me.

You might be saying: No way! Babies are pure, unadulterated cuties who get corrupted by that other evil thing called society. Let’s blame society!

I think deep down that is what we want to believe. We want to believe that there is some ‘other’ out there doing the corrupting, teaching racism, modeling hate, and producing fear to this blank slated innocence.

Society doesn’t teach us to be biased, bigoted individuals. We are born that way. Besides, society does not exist independent of the collection of autonomous people who comprise it, therefore society is me, and is us.

The implications that society is not the thing that corrupts are compelling. If fear and hate of others comes from our human nature, then I have a personal responsibility to be better, not the responsibility of everyone else, and I have to fight against my instinctual behavior. Additionally, and inconveniently, I have to confront the struggle to be compassionate toward those who hold more overtly bigoted views, because their nature is no different than mine. I am just as capable of being explicitly bigoted and can be just as unaware of my bias. That’s a sobering thought.

The difficulty of intrinsic value as independent from immoral behavior

An idea that was given to me by my good friend Jordan, suggests that maybe people struggle to distinguish between someone’s intrinsic value and their immoral behavior. A person’s value is independent from their behaviors, and I’m grateful that is true, because I would not want to be known for my worst behaviors. Yet, I struggle to live that out. For example, follow any social media mentions of any person who has committed horrifically immoral acts on others. How would a social media post like the following be accepted by the blood thirsty internet public?

 

Unsuspecting Tweet: “(Person who did horribly immoral thing) is still a person of immense value, who deserves all the rights that we as a just society give to all people merely for the fact that they exist. What (person) did is very wrong, but they are human and deserve dignity as well as justice.”

 

I’d assume a post like that would be lambasted. How dare someone point out a person’s intrinsic value! The internet, and our most basic personal tendency, is to assume that for a select group of socially appointed people their behaviors reflect their intrinsic value. Ask yourself, who does our culture say it is okay to hate, or rather that we ought to hate? Interjecting intrinsic value to them, independent of their actions, is very taboo, and is very hard for people to balance the two independent ideas.

But are the research findings incongruent with what we believe or know?

Evolution and Christianity agree with the research*

From evolutionary theory, behaviors that promote survival are perpetuated through the process of natural selection. Consider that humanity has existed for hundreds of thousands of years in highly interdependent migrating tribes. When an outside the tribe individual approaches the well-defined tribe, that could cause fear and suspicion. Hundreds of thousands of years is a long time to reverse the momentum of evolutionary behavioral utility that promotes fear of the other.

In Christian ideology, we are a fallen, broken people in need of a savior to correct our selfishly bent nature. The Bible is full of stories of fear and selfishness. Individuals, and entire people groups, suspicious of the other, and even so much as leery of God. All Christian doctrine echoes the need for God to do a work of grace in our being to repair our relationship with all of God’s creation, especially the other. In effect, we are born in sin and must open ourselves to God’s grace to do a new, redemptive work in us.

So what?

When I look at my son, and consider the implications of this research, what does it call me to do… or who does it call me to be? Can I confront my own self-bias, let alone model and instruct for him that all people have immense value? I need social and divine grace for that.

Why do you think we struggle to understand the implications that children are born morally self-biased?

 

*Forgive me for only focusing on these two frameworks. I’d hope they’re sufficient enough for a blog post.

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