47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
I read Paul Bloom's Descartes' Baby: How The Science Of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human some years ago and found it an intriguing and persuasive read. This book in some ways picks up where that one left off. Descartes' Baby had the thesis that babies are born in some sense 'hardwired' for things like a very basic understanding of physics, like that objects have some sort of physical permanence and that objects that go up will come down. This book, cataloguing a host of intriguing studies, argues that babies are 'hardwired' for certain basic moral sentiments (a basic sense of justice, fairness, etc).
For instance, in some studies, infants and toddlers will 'help' a stranger by pushing a ball back to the stranger or helping a stranger by reaching for an object the stranger seems to want. In other studies, babies are shown a puppet show with two sets of puppets; in one, the puppets help each other, and in the other, one puppet does not help the other. When given a choice, Bloom reports that a statistically significant number of infants and toddlers choose to play with the helping puppet rather than the non-helping puppet.
Bloom's chapters range from exploring infants' and toddlers' sense of justice (little egalitarians, they tend to be), their sense of empathy (they generally prefer to help others, but this desire increases with age), whether their 'moral sentiments' change when dealing with members of their family or those who look like them, their sense of disgust (both moral and physical), etc. But here is where my mild complaint about Bloom's book starts. While I found the entire book well written and attention-holding, a good half of the book really is not about the moral sense of babies at all, but about what evolutionary accounts there are to humans' moral sense in general. For instance, the chapter on humans' sense of disgust was about 7/8ths a rumination on why humans have a sense of disgust and how much is cultural versus biological, and really only briefly mentioning a few studies about babies' sense of disgust interspersed throughout. Same with the chapter on humans' seemingly innate preference for members of the in-group (those who look like they do or share something in common with them): a few studies having to do with children - of many ages, not just babies - and the rest, theorizing about why we have these biases.
Not that this detracts from the book's interest... if exploring the world of moral psychology in general is your thing. But I do worry that Bloom strays a bit far from what the book is supposed to be about: babies and what kind of innate moral sense they have. Otherwise, the book is a very interesting survey of existing literature (with citations at the end for further reading!) on the world of moral psychology (with SOME emphasis on the moral psychology of babies).
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Sometimes you get more than you expected. Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil is that kind of book. It is a gold mine of ideas that will exceed your expectations. It is the kind of book that is so rich; you could read it many times and find new gems.
Paul Bloom, is a Professor of Psychology at Yale who has authored six books and numerous articles, and writes in a lively conversational and often amusing and unexpected style. He says things like, `We are smart critters' and `...It might well be that the greatest force underlying moral change in the last thirty years of the United States was the situation comedy.'
From the beginning Paul Bloom proposes that certain moral foundations are not acquired by learning, but are the product of biological evolution. Some experiments found that babies have a general appreciation of good and bad behavior. Researchers have evidence that helping others by older children is motivated by their caring for others.
Bloom presents and discusses dozens of experiments and offers many interesting quotes.
He explores the differences between compassion and empathy. `You can have compassion without empathy and empathy without compassion.' He gives examples. He says compassion is not the same as morality.
He explains the theory of mirror neurons and empathy.
There's a fascinating chapter on `Others'.
Bloom devotes this chapter to a `simple theory of the developmental origin of racism,' and cites studies of babies preferring familiar language and accents, suggesting children's preferences are driven by some degree of cultural identification. He discusses the Coalition Theory and language.
Studies show that babies have an adaptive bias to prefer the familiar. He discusses group identification and suggests it is a function of who is and isn't family for the purpose of survival.
There's a chapter about disgust which begins with the sentence, `Disgust is a powerful force for evil.' He discusses what we find disgusting, the origins of our disgust, theories of disgust and how disgusting images of others can `make us meaner' as with the Nazi's and their propaganda against the Jews.
He presents the philosophical split between the consequentialists (judge actions on the basis of their outcomes, such as whether they increase human happiness.) vs. the deontolgists (broader principles should be respected even if they lead to worse consequences.) He cites numerous moral dilemmas.
A onetime reading of this book doesn't give it justice. This is a gem of a book.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
This is a fairly easy to read book. The discussion is morality and more specifically addresses the question whether our moral senses are loearned or are innate, born into us from infancy. The author leans toward the latter and he is convincing. Obviously, not all will agree with him, but the important thing is that Paul Bloom gets us to thinking and that after all is, or should be, the primary aim of such a book. There are more questions than answers here, and that's okay. The value here is that we're encouraged to use our own grey cells and not just accept a batch of theory because it's given to us by an intellectual. Students studying human behavior will find this a very important book to include in their studies. Student or not, this is a stimulating book, stimulating to the individual reader's intellect.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Like some other reviewers, I "met" Paul Bloom through his Psych 101 lectures that appear on YouTube. As an ex-professor myself, I appreciated the clarity of his presentations and the way he interacted with his students, along with his wit and intellect.
There's much to enjoy in this book. Bloom has an engaging style of writing that can be deceptive; he's actually delivering some pretty hard-core academic material, sprinkled with references to classical sources and popular culture. He doesn't look for counterintuitive examples that make for popular discussion; in fact, in the last chapter, he specifically disavows popular theories based on emotion and passion in favor of emphasizing the importance of reason.
I especially liked Bloom's discussion of fairness and punishment. He cites studies showing that people will recommend punishment regardless of the outcome; for instance, people say a company should be fined even when the fine will destroy the company, which makes a valuable product.This finding alone deserves more attention, because it's echoed in our outrageously expensive, wasteful justice system. We put people in jail even when there's no gain to society and in fact a huge loss; an editorial in a major, generally liberal newspaper once claimed that we should not let cost deter long prison sentences. It would be hard to imagine someone saying we should not be concerned about cost when it comes to educational or health goals.
More generally, Bloom seems to be moving toward a morality based on social influence. Looking at racism, he discounts theories that racism is based on similarity and familiarity. He suggests instead the "coalition theory," i.e., the notion that racism is a powerful cue to membership in social groups. Language, he suggests, is an even stronger cue.
People tend to behave morally toward those they know and those with whom they share a community, however slight. And it appears that we learn what's considered moral in our own community, and we use what we learn to develop beliefs about what's right for everyone. Since I tend to gravitate more to social psych than developmental, I found these insights fascinating and useful.
There isn't really much about babies, although we learn that young children can make moral judgments fairly early. We learn that racial distinctions become salient as children reach six, and at a certain age children learn that they shouldn't express racist ideas even if they hold those ideas.
This book offers an excellent introduction to the psychology of moral behavior and moral reasoning. I suspect it could be used as an additional text in undergraduate classes. Additionally, it's definitely going to be on the lists of readers who like books about psychology that are both readable and scientific.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
This is an interesting read. Bloom introduces several fascinating studies aimed at judging just how inherent morality truly is to humanity. The experiments are clearly described and have come to some intriguing results. Added to this, Bloom peppers the book with research from labs other than his own, along with some philosophy and other historic perspectives as well. It is very well researched with a substantial accounting of his sources. The writing, too, displays humour that brightens the book’s overall tone.
I have never read anything quite like this before - in fact, before this, I had no idea that experiments were conducted on infants as young as five months (but I must admit, the more interesting results come from the older babies). Some of the research will feel familiar to readers who have dabbled into books that look into the morality of animals - both household and wild. But Bloom’s focus here is narrowed to humanity, though not as the title would have you believe “just babies.” The middle section in particular strays pretty far from the types of morality that can be deduced from a baby’s actions.
Still, it’s a thought-provoking read (though Bloom risks alienating his own audience in the end by bringing some light into readers and non-fiction readers in particular!). I think this will almost certainly stir thoughts, reactions and interesting discussions amongst its readers.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2013
This is a really eye opening book about good and evil. We have always been taught that undesirable behaviors are learned but this book shows us that some things are just innate. I especially loved the section about how babies perceive others- meaning that they show preference for things that are like or similar to what they know. So they are most often attracted to faces and sounds that are close to their lives.
The book is full of non invasive experiments with groups of babies that are absolutely fascinating. I really recommend reading, it's interesting and engaging.
19 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2013
I started reading this book just after 12-year old and 14-year old children were accused of killing teachers in two separate incidents. I so much want to understand such behavior, but I still don't have all the answers I want.
Although much of this book is about babies and their innate morality, it also relates to those of us who are well beyond that stage. It is written at a level easily readable by a lay person, such as I am, who is interested but not highly educated on the subject.
There were experiments done on babies, but don't worry – these are not the horrid, damaging types done in generations gone by (unfortunately, not that many generations). There were some mentions of animal experiments but not enough to be upsetting to me, even though I hate reading about animal experiments, often not done humanely or with any sense of compassion.
I learned some things that explain why I react to some situations and why other people may react the same or differently, and found the information on punishment especially interesting.
There are things I don't like about the book. In one section, the author has discussed how a horrible act of animal cruelty once was considered hilarious entertainment. The author goes on to say, “We don't do this anymore; should the next step be to stop hunting animals, eating them, and using them for medical research? Some would say yes to all of this too, but then what about the proper treatment and protection of skin cells? Personal computers? Viruses?”
Give me a freakin' break. I am one of those who wants much, much more protection for animals than they now have, and even someone like I am can understand the difference between vivisection on a dog and my personal computer. This argument was taken to such a ridiculous extreme that the author lost some credibility. Based on some of the studies, I don't necessarily agree with all the conclusions drawn by the author, but I still learned a great deal and enjoyed the book.
I was given an advance reader's copy of the book for review, and the quote may have changed in the published edition.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I majored in psychology in college, and I'm still fascinated by the science of how the human mind works. For that reason, I decided to read Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.
The author, Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, states in the preface that some of his inspiration for this work combining developmental and evolutionary psychology with moral philosophy was a book by Adam Smith which Bloom had studied in Edinburgh. Smith is more widely known for An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (often shortened to The Wealth of Nations), but the volume that concerned Bloom was The Theory of the Moral Sentiments.
In his 1749 work, Smith claimed human beings were born with a sense of morality. Bloom also brings in Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1787, "The moral sense, or conscience, is as much part of [a hu]man as his [or her] leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree."
Bloom goes on to demonstrate, using evidence gleaned from various scientific studies, that psychologists tend to favor the view that some of what we call morality is inborn to human beings. The first chapter deals explicitly with what "morality" might mean in human beings who are less than two years old. Subsequent chapters branch out into what morality means in adults, because we have to understand what kinds of behaviors we're talking about when we try to define what moral behavior is.
Overall, Bloom's evidence suggests the moral picture of the human species is a fairly optimistic one. Human beings do seem to be wired to be empathetic and helpful to one another, even when acts of kindness do not immediately reward us. Interestingly, Bloom also cites evidence of empathetic behavior in non-human animals. Even rats hate to see other rats suffering.
Even though the title is a bit of a misdirect, since the entire construction doesn't deal exclusively with infant morality, the research itself is fascinating. Not only that, but Bloom has organized it into chapters that are clear, intuitive, and readable. I don't think one would need to be a psychology major to understand this book. Like Michio Kaku, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Bill Nye the Science Guy, Bloom has the gift of translating scientific concepts into everyday language.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2014
Just Babies is not just babies. It's the story of how everyday morality comes about--kindness to strangers, taking care of family, revenge against those who have harmed you, and immoral acts that we all engage in to a small or great degree. As a developmental psychologist, the author spends much time on fascinating new research on the sparks of moral reasoning in very young children, 6 months old and less. This research tells us that some of our basic moral judgments are in place as young as babies can be tested. But some seeds of badness are there as well, including the desire for revenge and (in somewhat older children) the desire to receive more than others get. However, the book spends as much time on adult matters, including puzzles such as why people are willing to suffer in order to do harm to others or why they will demand fairness even if it costs them. Such desires make little sense in simple evolutionary or economic theory, and the book is very strong in explaining why such ordinary behaviors are in fact puzzles that need to be explained.
Although erudite in its references to experimental psychology, evolutionary theory, religion, economics, and philosophical ethics, the book is exceedingly easy to read and not at all technical. There are no quotes of Aristotle in the original Greek, nor statistical analyses of experiments. This is the kind of book you can give to your intellectually curious uncle or even bright high school student who is interested in how people become good and bad.
The final chapter, "How to Be Good" raises questions that all of us could benefit from thinking about, both as individuals and as builders of our society. The author's humane perspective on how and why we behave morally brings the book to a very fitting close, one that makes you at least somewhat hopeful about the future of goodness in our society.
In spite of the huge importance of this topic to all of us, it is enjoyable to read while remaining thought-provoking. Highly recommended.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2013
Paul Bloom provides a look into the psychology of philosophy, with discussions of many, many scientific studies. (You can check out more about Bloom by watching his TED talk on pleasure). Just Babies has 7 chapters and each chapter is partly separate, yet still connected to the rest. If you have a background in any of the topics, you are likely to find the chapter on that topic to be a review of what you already know. This is because each chapter doesn't have a great deal of depth and in many cases doesn't offer new insights, though more of that shows up in the final chapter or two. But, if you don't have a good background in a topic, there is a lot here for you. Bloom presents relevant studies and offers insight into what they mean. Very accessible, and an easy read. Reliable, as well. If you desire very deep coverage, you may find much of what you are looking for in Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which touches on many of the same topics. Bloom even references Pinker's book several times.
Bloom makes a good point about compassion and empathy in the 2nd chapter when he writes, "Now, some contemporary researchers use the terms interchangeably, but there is a big difference between caring about a person (compassion) and putting yourself in that person's shoes (empathy)." He then has an excellent discussion of this, including differences between the sexes.
In chapter 3, on "Fairness, Status, and Punishment," Bloom looks back at our hunter/gatherer ancestors and notes that the "egalitarian lifestyle of hunter-gatherers exist because the individuals care a lot about status. Individuals in these societies end up roughly equal because everyone is struggling to ensure that nobody gets too much power over him or her. This is invisible-hand egalitarianism." The chapter covers this, and more, in greater depth. Bloom discusses studies which demonstrate that some people are concerned with looking altruistic and egalitarian, even if they aren't. Even dogs have some sense of fairness, in one study cited. Bloom covers the relationship between revenge, status, and apology. Bloom shows how punishment works to motivate better behavior; and how the willingness to undertake risks in order to punish a cheater may have been selected for by evolution because people tend to like those who punish offenders. He also discusses whether or not punishment is the same thing as revenge.
In the chapter on "Others," Bloom discusses racism and how innate and learned aspects are both involved.
Chapter 5, on "Bodies," covers how physical disgust relates to moral disgust, and the bizarre ties between the two.
Chapter 6, "Family Matters," looks at what parts of morality evolved from parental care of offspring. The discussion progresses to the various foundations of morality. Anthropologist Richard Shweder proposed 3 foundations: 1 - autonomy (individual rights & freedoms), 2 - community (respect, duty, hierarchy, patriotism, etc.); and 3 - divinity (pollution and sacred order). Psychologist Jonathon Haidt offers 6 foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. Bloom offers a very interesting discussion of these.
The final chapter "How to Be Good", covers religion, among other topics. Bloom looks at many aspects of religious belief. I thought his summary was excellent, "There has to be an answer to the question of whether religion has been a net gain or a net loss for our species, but nobody knows what the answer is, and I'm not sure anyone ever will. The problem is that religion is everywhere. Right now, and for as far back as we know, most people are religious: most of us believe in one or more Gods; most believe in some sort of afterlife; most engage in some sort of religious practice. This makes it difficult to separate the influence of religion from every other aspect of being human and makes it particularly hard to assess claims about non-religious societies and individuals." Bloom then discusses the relationship between empathy and impartiality.
His concluding paragraph is also a great summary of the book, "It turns out instead that the right theory of our moral lives has two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals, equipped by evolution with empathy and compassion, the capacity to judge the actions of others, and even some rudimentary understanding of justice and fairness. But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality -- so much of what makes us human -- emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason."