There was a funny, clever piece in the Onion several weeks ago that compared young children to unrepentant sociopaths. They repeatedly demonstrate an utter lack of empathy and a willingness to exploit anyone and everyone to satisfy their own selfish desires for a Snickers bar or an Iron Man Electronic Repulsor. What made the piece funny is how accurate the comparison was. What made it not so funny is how similar descriptions portray the level of brain development for many people in positions of power in education, business and government. (Dr. Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP is a prime example. In the wake of one of the ugliest man-made environmental disasters in history, Tony’s publicly-stated main concern is “to get my life back”).

The Triangle is a Jerk – The  Sweetheart is a Square

Professor Paul Bloom

But it wasn’t always like that. A recent New York Times article by Yale developmental psychologist Paul Bloom, presents compelling evidence that these power brokers actually beamed in with a pretty highly developed sense of morality. In one scenario babies were exposed to short plays where a square with a face drawn on it helps a circle; a triangle, also with a similar face drawn on it, thwarts the circle. When presented with an opportunity to choose either shape immediately afterward, babies overwhelmingly chose the helpful square.

Here’s Professor Bloom in the New York Times with a summary of his infant morality studies:

All of this research, taken together, supports a general picture of baby morality. It’s even possible, as a thought experiment, to ask what it would be like to see the world in the moral terms that a baby does. Babies probably have no conscious access to moral notions, no idea why certain acts are good or bad. They respond on a gut level. Indeed, if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don’t act like impassive judges — they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events. The babies’ experiences might be cognitively empty but emotionally intense, replete with strong feelings and strong desires. But this shouldn’t strike you as an altogether alien experience: while we adults possess the additional critical capacity of being able to consciously reason about morality, we’re not otherwise that different from babies — our moral feelings are often instinctive. In fact, one discovery of contemporary research in social psychology and social neuroscience is the powerful emotional underpinning of what we once thought of as cool, untroubled, mature moral deliberation.

Morality Gone Wrong

We apparently come pre-wired for empathy and morality. So where do things go wrong? USC professor Antonio Damasio offers some pretty compelling evidence in answer to just that question. The culprits according to Damasio are Somatic Markers. In his books, Decartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain and The Feeling of What Happens, he posits that fear, pain and pleasure experiences condition our brains such that under stress, or when we’re confronted with chaos or confusion, emotions operating outside the bounds of awareness work to powerfully influence our decisions. That would be fine, except for one thing: fear and pain experiences exert a much more powerful experience in the brain than pleasurable experiences do.

(I’m guessing many of us can readily recall our very first sexual experience. How has that experience worked to operate in our lives with every sexual experience that has followed? If it was sweet and tender, we probably can recall it with some ease. But if it was abusive and traumatic, how has that influenced us subsequently?).

Anchors Aweigh

The first experience our children have in virtually every area of life, continues to shape subsequent thoughts and experiences ever after  through a process known as anchoring. Anchoring is the equivalent of one-trial learning and it shapes us for better or worse.  Such learning, especially around threatening events, is essential for survival. We don’t get many second chances to walk out into the street without looking both ways. So, that’s the good news.

The bad news is that if this early conditioning is aversive,  instilled by anchoring and somatic markers, it can work to compromise empathy and morality when real world events tend to confuse or frighten us. One way to counteract the fundamentally flawed ways that somatic marking and anchoring intrude into our lives, is first to realize and understand that these processes actually are real, and that the past unquestionably influences the present and the future. Starting from such awareness, we can then begin to build our own greater capacities for flexibility and resilience in times of stress or uncertainty. And when we can’t, when we don’t know what to do, don’t.

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