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Yale lab calls babies bigots- a worrisome interpretation

Posted by Claudia M Gold  November 24, 2012 02:00 PM

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A CBS 60 minutes segment: Born good? Babies help unlock the origins of morality is getting a lot of attention. The opening observation that babies are in fact not blobs is certainly apt. Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton has been telling us this for over 40 years, since he developed the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale that clearly shows babies as young as a few hours having complex capacities for communication. When I teach pediatric residents I show them a 2-minute video clip of a three-day-old baby following my gaze and moving his mouth as if in conversation with me. Clearly not a "blob."

However, when the researchers at Yale went on to interpret their findings as indicating an innate capacity for bigotry, I became alarmed. Certainly their research results are robust in showing a baby's preference for stuffed toys that exhibit behavior that is "like them." Researcher Paul Bloom states in the program:

If you want to eradicate racism, for instance, you really are going to want to know to what extent babies are little bigots, to what extent is racism a natural part of humanity.
Here is Webster's definition of bigot:
A person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices. 
Using such a negative word to describe a baby feels a bit like a prejudice itself.  Elizabeth Young Breuhl in her book Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, describes prejudice as projection of bad feelings from inside out on to another person.

At another point in the interview Bloom suggests that there might be sets of genes and areas of the brain responsible for such things as resilience and morality.  This rings of the approach of "biological psychiatry" with its history of placing complex developmental/relational problems squarely within a child.

I wonder if another interpretation of the results is in order. I immediately thought of Daniel Stern, a brilliant child psychoanalyst who recently passed away. In his book The Interpersonal World of the Infant he points to the explosion of infant research as evidence of an emerging sense of self in early infancy. He writes:
Recent findings about infants...support the view that the infant's first order of business, in creating an interpersonal world, is to form the sense of core self and core others. The evidence supports the notion that this task is largely accomplished during the period between two and seven months.
So these 3-5 month old babies in the Yale lab, shown out of relational context in interaction with a toy, are in the heart of this process of developing a sense of self in relation to others. An adult, who has a fully developed sense of self, must exercise extreme caution in interpreting their behavior using negatively charged words such as bigot and racist. The behavior must be interpreted in the context of this complex developmental task.

In keeping with the subject of sameness and difference,  the day that I learned of the CBS program I read a review of the new book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.  The book explores the issue of individual differences, and the complex interplay of genes and environment, through extensive interviews with families of children with various forms of difference or disability. Author Andrew Solomon is not a scientist, but a father and a writer who has done an enormous amount of research.  Though I have only read the first few pages of the over 900-page tome, I am already captivated. On page one he writes:
Our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. And yet we are our children; the reality of being a parent never leaves those who have braved the metamorphosis. The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott once said, "There is no such thing as a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone but is essentially part of a relationship."
 New York Times reviewer Julie Myerson writes of the book:
 This is a passionate and affecting work that will shake up your preconceptions and leave you in a better place.
This book seems an appropriate bookend to the Yale research, with all of the extensive research at the interface of neuroscience, developmental psychology and genetics on how a person develops a healthy sense of self in relation with other people in between.
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »

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