Paul Bloom | Rational Compassion (Episode 551)

Paul Bloom | Rational Compassion (Episode 551)

Paul Bloom | Rational Compassion (Episode 551)

Paul Bloom (@paulbloomatyale) is a developmental psychologist and author of the upcoming Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. He joins us to talk about the evolution of innate morality and what we as modern humans can do to overcome this programming.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Do we learn good and evil as we grow up, or are they hard-wired into us by evolution?
  • Are we all just closet racists (with some of us just more closeted than others)?
  • How can we scientifically test biases in babies who seemingly only express themselves by cooing and pooping?
  • Good news: innate moral sense exists. Bad news: innate moral sense exists, but is limited. The goal of a modern culture is to make it a bit less limited.
  • What can we do to change the us vs. them monologue with which we’re born?
  • And so much more…


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Is morality hard-wired into us as a species? Can you point to your conscience? Is it cynical to notice the bad behavior we exhibit and ignore the good — or is it just realistic? How do we face the fact we all have prejudices — whether we choose to acknowledge them or not — and what can we do to lessen their irrational impact on our actions?

Developmental psychologist and author Paul Bloom joins us for this episode of The Art of Charm, and he’s here to answer these questions and more. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. His newest book — Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion — will be out this December and is now available for pre-order. Enjoy the episode!

More About This Show

“Sometimes the question comes up: are we naturally good, or naturally evil? And to me, the answer to that question is yes,” says Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil and the upcoming Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. “There’s a lot of evidence for a natural goodness and natural kindness, but then there’s also a lot of evidence that our very worst traits — our very most ugly and malicious tendencies are also there from the start. So there’s a fundamental duality to human nature which shows up, I think, as young as you look.”

Paul agrees that the notion of an innocent infant who doesn’t do much (beyond cooing, eating, and pooping) manifesting any moral knowledge seems ridiculous to many. When it comes time to put this “ridiculous” idea to the test, how can a scientist like Paul go about identifying what babies really know?

One of these ways is by studying where babies look and for how long — which gauges their expectations. Another is by observing what they reach for — which gives scientists insights into their preferences. By the time they’re a year old, they begin to exercise their (albeit limited) ability to reward and punish those they encounter.

“This is the specific study that got us going,” says Paul. “What we do is we show babies a one-act play. And in this one-act play, there’s a character struggling to make it up a hill. And another character gently helps it up the hill. But then a third character shoves it down the hill. Now if you were to see this, you would say ‘The guy who helped is a nice guy — a mensch. The guy who pushed down is a jerk. It turns out that babies seem to have the same intuitions. So they prefer to reach for the good guy; they avoid the bad guy. And when given the opportunity to punish somebody, they’ll punish the bad guy.”

While this is just one example of a very simple study, it suggests that some of our basic moral understandings exist innately — before they can be taught to us.

“I think…moral capacity is bequeathed to us by evolution,” says Paul. “As biological creatures evolved to get along with others and live in small social groups, we’ve evolved some moral capacity to detect when people are being kind, and when they’re being cruel. We’ve evolved some moral propensities to help others…when they’re in pain — and that’s the good news of what evolution has given us.”

Then there’s the bad news.

“The bad news, I think, is that this moral capacity we have is tragically limited,” Paul continues. “It’s limited just in the ways you’d expect it to be from an evolutionary point of view. So babies don’t care at all about those who aren’t part of their in group — who are strangers. They have strong biases to favor those who look like them, who have interacted with them. Moral notions that you and I have, such as notions of equal rights or the idea that someone in a faraway land has just as much right to live as somebody close to you isn’t something we’re born with. That is a cultural accomplishment.”

In further tests, Paul’s colleague (and wife) Karen Wynn found that babies would show preference for puppets who made selections that mirrored their own — choosing graham crackers over cereal, for instance.

“If the puppet makes the same choice, babies like the puppet. But if the puppet makes a different choice, they avoid the puppet. And later on, when the [dissenting] puppet gets beaten upon by another puppet, they like the puppet who beat upon the puppet! They dislike the idea of somebody being of a different group so much that they’re happy if somebody assaults them!”

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about why humans would evolve to exclude those who exhibit seemingly inconsequential differences, why the concept of equal rights transcends our programming, the place of modern culture in expanding the good news about innate moral sense, what we can change about the us vs. them monologue we’re born with (and what we can observe about its recalibration by social constructs like sports teams and the military), how people with nefarious agendas try to co-opt this data (“I get my share of weird emails,” says Paul), how Internet trolling is a natural (and terrible) by-product of evolution, why “the successful psychopath” is a myth, why Paul thinks Jordan has a weird brain his colleagues would like to study (not such a surprise to some of us!), how our reactions to biases are more telling than the biases themselves, if Paul Bloom has something against kittens, what’s wrong with empathy, and lots more.


If you enjoyed this session with Paul Bloom, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:

Click here to thank Paul Bloom at Twitter!

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