Empathy and Fairness

As we learn in the video, empathy is the ability to not only understand and feel bad for, but to actually share what others are going through. It’s an amazing ability – to internalize someone else’s experience – that researchers are beginning to understand better, and we will be bringing you more information on the cognitive (brain) systems underlying this ability soon.

One of the primary questions humanity has asked itself throughout time is: Are we born good? Are we blank slates, or are we innately one thing or another? For a long time, this was largely a philosophical debate. With a series of ingenious experiments, however, psychologist Paul Bloom (Yale University) and members of his lab may have begun to provide hard answers to this question [1].

Bloom’s studies used infants to assess whether people have an innate tendency to prefer helpers versus hinderers (people who hurt/work against others). In other words, do we have unlearned preferences for others (and qualities) who are prosocial, who behave positively towards and help other people, or those who are selfish, and work just for themselves—or even actively against others. Infants are a great study group for such an experiment because they have not yet been influenced by societal learning. They have no expectations of what is socially right or wrong, only automatic responses.

Now, an obvious concern here is that infants can’t tell you who or what they prefer because they can’t speak. Nor can they write.  But, as many parents or individuals experienced in dealing with babies will tell you, babies have clear ways of letting their opinions be known. They point, they laugh, they cry, their eyes light up.

In the academic world, most infant studies focus on looking time, or the attention that infants pay to a particular person or object. The thinking is as follows: infants do not need to satisfy others as they have no sense of obligation or self-consciousness. They do not get insecure or embarrassed and avert their gaze. They are discovering a new world which is rapidly expanding before their eyes, and they pay attention to the pieces that they like or that interest them. If they get bored, or upset, or confused, they look away and try to find something else to look at. Much research has confirmed this to be true. Babies, like the rest of us, are just trying to make sense of their world. The more that they like or find something interesting, the longer they pay attention to it.

Bloom showed panels of babies short presentations of ‘characters,’ or shapes anthropomorphized with eyes. In each of the presentations, one of the shapes attempts to complete a task, typically climbing up a hill. In different versions of the presentation, another other shapes either help them (push them up the hill) or hinder them (push them down). Turns out that the babies spent significantly more time looking at the shapes that helped than those that hindered, indicating that they have a preference for those helpers. This was true regardless of which shape was the subject, helper or hinderer, as the experimenters mixed up the roles in each variation of the presentation. So the babies’ preferences were not just the result of liking certain shapes or colors better than others, but rather true preference for objects (such as puppets) and people who help over those who hurt.

But the experimenters took this a step further, and performed similar experiments with puppets as well as other studies, which each supported Bloom’s conclusions.

In the puppets study, after the presentations, the babies were allowed to play with the puppets. In almost all cases, the babies significantly preferred playing with the puppets who helped. The babies, all about one-year-old, were also given an opportunity to punish one of the puppets and reward others. In almost every case, they punished the puppets who hindered and rewarded ones who helped, indicating an understanding of the social interactions and a clear preference for helping behaviors.

While these are simple (albeit brilliant) experiments, the conclusion is breathtaking: We display, even as infants, a clear understanding of right and wrong, and clear preferences for right. For fairness. For cooperation and helping. Although we cannot draw definitive conclusions from these studies, there are certainly indications that we are in fact born to be good.

Are we alone as moral creatures?

We call dogs ‘man’s best friend’ not just because they are the world’s most common domesticated pet, but because our dogs are members of our families. They celebrate with us when we’re happy, they comfort us when we’re sad, they protect us when we’re scared. They seem to be aware of not only their moods, feelings, and needs, but also of ours. As such, we see many stories like these .

The science community has also looked into these phenomena, and the results are amazing—if not particularly surprising.

There is increasing evidence, mostly in mammals but also in birds, that animals are sensitive to the emotions of others and react to distress in others by attempts to ameliorate their situation or rescue them.

Case Study 1: Many domesticated dogs can match a human’s tone (happy, sad, etc.) with the appropriate facial expression chosen from a range (happy, sad, surprised, etc.).

Case Study 2: Dogs both recognize and respond to the looks and sounds of human (and dog) distress. They can discriminate between the sounds of distress and other sounds, and in this study significantly more dogs approached those exhibiting distress than other signals.

Case Study 3: Many dogs yawn in reaction to their owner yawning. Now, yawns can be contagious, but in this study, dogs were much more likely to yawn in response to their owner yawning than a stranger. This means that it’s not the yawn itself, but the dogs attempting to be attentive and responsive to their owners. Empathy? Perhaps!

Man’s best friend is not alone in exhibiting empathy, though.

Many animals exhibit empathy, including different types of monkeys, rats, birds, and elephants. This shared biological mechanism at the very least pushes us to explore ourselves not just as people, but members of the larger animal kingdom, and consider that we are, in fact, to a greater or lesser degree, born to care about, relate to and care for each other.


Implicit in these findings is another important nugget: Human beings have an innate sense of fairness, bordering on the uncanny.  We are very aware of when we’re being hurt, or otherwise treated improperly or unfairly. We also have the ability to recognize and understand when it’s happening to others. And if Bloom’s babies are any indication, our natural tendency is to dislike like it–strongly. But there is even stronger evidence that fairness isn’t something we learn, or that society teaches us is valuable. The theory of evolution teaches us that we evolved from monkeys (to put it really, really simply). In other words, we are a more advanced – or evolved – form of monkey. So if monkeys have an innate sense of fairness, there is a biological precedent for ours.

As you can see in the video, capuchin monkeys are happy to do their task for a cucumber reward—as long as they’re both getting cucumbers. This is not something we learn, but something we are born with. And this, perhaps, provides some sort of biological explanation for the strength of the emotion known as jealousy. But that is an issue for another forum.

[1] Bloom, Paul. 2013. Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. Crown.

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