Babies and Boxes And Bias And Such

At my school right now, the staff is doing deep and powerful work on the subject of unconscious bias–the things that operate on us below the surfaces, shaping our views of ourselves and those around us.

Because it isn’t enough for us, as teachers, to repudiate racism in the words we speak out loud.  In order to truly be effective in our diverse society, we have to carefully examine our unspoken assumptions, our subconscious beliefs–the shadowy stuff that we don’t even put words to, because the act of actually even thinking those words might appall us.

To delve into the roots of bias, we watched a 60 Minutes segment about research conducted by the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University. The essential question: in untaught, unspeaking, tottering babies, can we find the roots of the prejudices we recognize in adults?

Enter: The Baby Lab.


The researchers put on a little morality play.  The curtain rises: we see a tiger puppet struggling to open a clear plastic box with a toy inside.  Alas! He cannot do it.  Just when all hope is lost, a helpful puppy puppet in a yellow shirt steps in to lend a hand.  The curtain falls.

Again!  But this time, as the tiger wrestles with the box, a puppy in a blue shirt scrambles out from the background and jumps decisively ON the box, slamming it shut and sending the tiger flying.  Curtain.

Time to meet the actors: the baby is then offered both puppy puppets, at equal distance on either side of the baby, and humanity holds its breath as we wait to see who he grabs.  Across dozens of babies (and yes, many varying presentations of positioning and shirt, as well as double-blind controls to ensure that nobody anywhere near the baby knew which puppet did what in the earlier play), the verdict rolled in: 3 times out of 4, infant morality leads us to prefer the nice puppet.

Unless!  The next Little People Morality Play has three parts.  First, the hapless tiger tosses a ball to a bunny puppet, who catches it, makes taunting puppet gestures with the ball, and scampers away.  Afterwards, the baby sees the same two scenarios from the first experiment, with the bunny struggling to open the box–once helped, once clobbered.  This time, 80% of babies reached for the mean puppy righteous dispenser of universal justice.

For researcher Paul Bloom, little scenarios like this say big things about who we are as a species.   “There’s a universal moral core that all humans share.  The seeds of our understanding of justice, our understanding of right and wrong, are part of our biological nature.”

The hand of Leslie Stahl shoots up at this point in the lecture.  If babies are, then, intrinsically moral creatures, what’s up with all the bad stuff?  What can babies teach us about, say, genocide?  Or war?

Actually, quite a bit, if you strip it down to…graham crackers.  The next installment of Moral Baby Dinner Theater involves, well, dinner.  Or, at least, a little offered snack.  Once the baby asserts her own preferences between graham crackers and cheerios, two adorable kitten puppets show up: one likes the same snack as the baby, and the other likes something else.  Most babies, given a choice of puppets to grab afterwards, go straight for the kitten who likes what they like–in the same way that Baby Lab director Karen Wynn notes, “adults will like others who share even really absolutely trivial similarities with them.”

I watch the chubby baby reach adoringly at the orange kitty who also likes cheerios, and I think of what Wynn said about our preference for those like us.  This, I realize through the voiceover, is a part of why it matters that we work with our students on developing at least a glancing familiarity with the interests of their peers.

It’s one thing, an understandable thing, to prefer the puppet who likes what we like.  But the next installment of Moral Puppet Theater has some chilling implications, for me and the work I do, and for humanity as a whole.

Curtain rises: the puppet who does not like OUR favorite snack is struggling with the box.  The same two scenarios play out: one puppet obligingly lifts a paw, the other jumps on the box.  87% of the babies preferred the puppet who acted cruelly towards the puppet who was “different”.

Is this a part of why Saleem struggles so much?  Suddenly, all the tattles, all the snubs, make a kind of perverse sense.  I look differently at the kid who sits alone in the cafeteria, understand a little better why it’s so hard sometimes to recruit peers for my students who act most atypically.  It isn’t fair; it isn’t right.  But it seems like it’s one of the stronger, baser parts of our human nature: the love we feel for those who are like us has a Janus-face of dislike for those we don’t relate to.

I remember what my colleague said about the day she first met Finn.  He was three at the time, enrolled in private preschool: he hadn’t been diagnosed yet, but the director suspected that something was up.  As a Program Specialist at the time, one component of Tricia’s job was Child Find: to get the word out to folks with, um, atypical kids.  Finn bounded out of the cheerful preschool classroom, past the stuffed zebras and non-interlocking puzzles and toy kitchen stuff.  “My name is Finn!  I love vacuums and keys!”  Child Find accomplished, with three hours to go.  Finn has struggled, throughout his life, in connecting with his peers.  I look now at chubby puppets, and I understand more, why.

It’s not about better, or worse, exactly.  It’s about similar, and different, and unfortunately, it’s about how awful damn much that matters when you’re young.  It’s the conversation I’ve had with the parents of a pre-teen with intellectual disability about the importance of moving past the Barney backpack, even when the child will may never, himself, age out of loving Barney. It’s why I sometimes make a pact with Finn: you talk with that kid over there about soccer for 2 minutes, and I’ll let you talk just that long about Microsoft Open Office or electronic cattle prods.  There are differences that will never be within the control of my students–and for those, we need to draw on the innate kindness of their peers.  But if that kindness is somehow fostered by trivial similarities…well if I can pretend to be interested in Hannah Montana, I’m pretty sure Saleem can learn to say something about race cars.  There’s a line that I use, sometimes, when I am pushing a parent outside of their comfort zone, trying to make something happen that is difficult and necessary. “You’ve got to give your child his best available chance.”

Babies and boxes, bunny puppets, revenge.  The moral universe inhabited by school-aged children is so much more complicated than what we see in the Baby Lab, but it has its roots in exactly those responses–how right and wrong begin within us and develop over time.  The 60 Minutes special goes on to examine a study in how altruism unfolds.  Children of different ages are given scenarios in which, each time, their choice gives them one quantity of tokens paired with a different quantity for “someone else”.  Younger children typically choose a smaller number for themselves if it means that the “other kid” will get even fewer–they’d rather have 5 if he gets 4 than give everybody 6.  As children age, though, they shift from this hyper-focus on more-for-me and into an understanding of “plenty for everyone”–many older kids even deliberately, repeatedly, choose more for the unknown child, smiling to themselves at the idea of that kid’s happiness.

Was that kind of generosity inside the baby, waiting?  It’s impossible, really, to know.  But, like any good scientist, I have a theory.

I base it in Paul Bloom’s words, as he explains to Lesley Stahl why the babies seem to enjoy the suffering of puppets who don’t share their opinions about snacks.

I think to some extent, a bias to favor the self, where the self could be people who look like me, people who act like me, people who have the same taste as me, is a very strong human bias. It’s what one would expect from a creature like us who evolved from natural selection, but it has terrible consequences.

Self vs. other–the central human schism.  We are programmed, it seems, to want good things for the people we identify with…us.  And over time, when kids grow in an environment which both fully meets their own needs and encourages them to consider the needs and wants of others, they reach a place within themselves where that generosity is possible–where that generosity can extend itself in perhaps surprising ways.

And there’s the promise, to me, of inclusion.  The work we can do to help children really understand and accept human differences, so that even in the most atypical “other”, they can see their own “self”.  The way that unfolds in these kids over time, starting in kindergarten, moving on through the world.  So much human pain is so deeply rooted in the idea that different people deserve to be treated different ways.  What happens if we just stop buying that premise?

In the Baby Lab, I see the challenges.  But I also see the potential.  And, sitting in a staff training on a Wednesday afternoon, I am grateful for a chance to be exactly where I am–surrounded by people who are poised to make this work.

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