“Children have to navigate the moral inconsistencies of adults”

Michael Button, flickr.com, CC-BY 2.0

Psychologist and cognitive scientist Paul Bloom loves to tackle the big questions on morality: the obligation to help others, dehumanization, racism. He also wants to get to the bottom of how children’s sense of morality develops.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: You’ve been on tour with your latest book talking about the downsides of empathy. What are some of the other research topics that you’re working on these days?

Paul Bloom: One project has to do with children’s understanding of moral obligation. At what age does an understanding of differential moral obligation show up in children? What we’re finding out is far different than what we had expected [editor’s note: research in progress]: the youngest children have the broadest circle of obligation. They think we are obliged to help strangers.

The other interesting subject for me right now is dehumanization and the developmental routes to dehumanization. When do we begin to diminish others and think of them as less than human?

CSG: These two questions seem to be linked: when or how do children learn to care about others or to disregard ‘the other’.

PB: Yes, these are different ways of getting at the question of what is children’s moral sense of who matters; what are the obligations we have toward one another, both positive and negative.

Julia Marshall, a graduate student of mine, has research [editor’s note: research in progress] that suggests I was wrong in a major claim I’ve made through a lot of my work. I’ve argued that the moral circle for children starts off very small. They just care about the people around them, friends and family, and everyone else means nothing. What happens through development and society is that you start to care more and more. Julia, however, is finding that in some ways the moral circles of children, or their sense of obligation, is broader than that of adults.

This is interesting, and it’s sort of exciting to be proven wrong.

“Children make observations about those who are different without attaching any moral judgement to it.”

CSG: Are there cultural aspects to obligation?

PB: We’re now collecting data from children in Japan and children in Uganda, which might help us find out more about that. There is evidence I’ve seen in other work that children’s intuitions in India and in the US are different. Children in India – and even the adults – are more likely to see a general obligation, meaning the barrier to helping a stranger is very low.

One question that constantly comes up in our research is the extent to which the phenomenon we look at holds across different cultures. In my studies of babies with Karen Wynn, we looked a lot at universals: what we have in common. But plainly, things develop and are influenced by culture. The younger the subjects in the study, the more right you have to claim universality. But as children get older, there are differences. For example, you and I think racism is wrong, but two-year-olds don’t think racism is wrong.

CSG: Do two-year-olds know what racism is?

PB: That’s true, they don’t know what racism is so we can’t ask the question like that. But phrased another way: most cultures throughout history have no problem with identifying ‘this is my group, that is your group. I don’t care about your group and I am not sharing my group with you.’

“When we say someone is evil and we want to punish or hurt them, we’re more motivated by recognizing their humanity than by seeing them as less than human.”

Children make observations about those who are different without attaching any moral judgement to it. There’s a study where children and adults are shown an array of pictures. They are given a clue and have to find the person in the pictures, but can’t name that person. The trick is that the photos have children of different races. A four-year-old might say, “oh, he’s right next to the black kid.” But older children and adults will say that he’s two away from the kid wearing the blue shirt. They carefully avoid mentioning skin color because they think it’s wrong, and that’s an interesting part of development.

CSG: Are children being taught that some statements are not polite, or are they imitating adult behavior?

PB:  It is hard to teach, partly because we as adults aren’t consistent in talking and thinking about differences. On the one hand, I might say the color of your skin has no effect on how you see the world. But then I might also say it’s a shame that academic conferences don’t have more black people because I’d like to hear their perspective. Well, which is it? Do we have one and the same, or do we have different perspectives? If I say that men and women don’t have different styles in dealing with people, someone else might say a group would get along better if it had both men and women instead of all men. Again, which is it? Children have to navigate all that.

CSG: Coming back to the other topic you mentioned: The flip side of moral obligation might be dehumanization. We read so much about dehumanization in the context of war, or crime. How does this thinking develop in a child?

PB: I’m skeptical that we dehumanize as much as many people say we do. I think that when we say someone is evil and we want to punish or hurt them, we’re more motivated by recognizing their humanity than by seeing them as less than human. I don’t deny that there is dehumanization, but I don’t think that’s the root of cruelty to others. A lot of the cruelty we do to other people is because we see these people as being bad, which is a very human trait.

“The idea that individuals should have a right to determine their own fate is a relatively new moral thought.”

We’re just starting out with this and are doing studies with three-, four- and five-year-olds, asking what they think about other groups and what they think about bad people.

CSG: These are very heavy emotions, and rather far away from the practical intervention that dominates a lot of development research to improve children’s lives.

PB: As scholars, we’re trying to figure out problems. I think that we make real progress in the world by dealing with these more abstract questions. Like, what is it to hate somebody? What sort of obligations do we feel towards another? What distinguishes those who care about animals versus those who don’t? The idea that women and men should have equal rights is an unusual human discovery that we have not always had. The idea that individuals should have a right to determine their own fate is also a relatively new moral thought. I believe in moral progress and I’m a moral optimist, but what that means is that what we start with and what we end with turn out to be very different. What happens in between is the role of culture.

Paul Bloom is a Canadian American psychologist and the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. His interdisciplinary research explores moral psychology: looking at morality in babies, our developing intuitions about moral responsibility, and the role that anger, disgust, and empathy play in our moral lives.

Paul Bloom received the 2017 Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize in recognition of his research into the origins, nature and development of children’s moral thought and behavior.

Weekly newsletter

Newsletter icon