November 21, 2007

The Question Isn't Why Do Babies Do It

pushing shapes.JPG

(From Nature)

The experiment is to grab a bunch of 6 month old and 12 month old babies, and show them a little wooden shape with eyes glued onto it climbing a hill.  Then, while a shape is climbing the hill, another shape either comes up behind it and pushes it upwards ("helps"), or a shape comes from above and pushes it downwards ("hinders.")

They then allowed the infants to reach for either the "helper" or the "hinderer."

12/12 six month old babies reached for the helper.  10/12 ten month olds reached for the helper. 

(Standard science disclaimers apply: further experiments showed it wasn't the shape or color; nor the direction of the movement, only the coupling of two in a helping movement that was preferred.)

So either the babies prefer helpers, or they are averse to hinderers.  To test this, they ran the experiments pairing  1) helper scenario vs. neutral, or 2) hindering scenario vs. neutral.  In 1) 7/8 babies chose the helper, and in 2) 7/8 babies chose the neutral.  In other words, babies both prefer helpers and are averse to hinderers.  Awesome.  If I need backup, I'm calling a baby.

So we have a situation where the overwhelming number of babies prefer "helping" and like to avoid "hindering."  Is this innate?  The age suggests it may be (and the same team has similar data on 3 month olds), though at least one psychologist that Yahoo! asked said they more than likely learned these behaviors from observing adults, etc.

But the question isn't why do babies choose this way.

We have to assume these are randomly selected babies, and they overwhelmingly and homogeneously chose helping.   The real question is why, if presented with a similar choice, do random adults not overwhelmingly choose this way?  If it's innate, why do adults lose it?  If it's learned, why did they forget?  If these are indeed random babies, then presumably all/most humans were once like this.   It's possible that some babies never learned it-- they lived in households were helping wasn't rewarded or modeled, etc.  But what about everyone else who chooses the bad guy?  The most likely explanation is that we learned it, but ignore or overrule it.  Make choices based on other reasons instead.

You can imagine a billion different "reasons:" the guy wants to appear tough/cool.  (Like cheering for the bad guy.)  Deep jealousy or envy over anything symbiotic. Paranoia about anyone "pretending" to be a helper.   Double bind.  A will to power.  Whatever.

But what becomes clear, if you work it through this way, is that whatever the reason, it was a reason chosen.  There was no compulsion, anymore than one is compelled to choose pizza over pasta-- it is a preference born of a myriad of factors, but a preference nonetheless.  You were someone, and you become someone else.

Inevitably and unfortunately, you get to pick who you are.