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Gossiping amongst the lower ranks of early humans put pressure on high-status members to build consensus rather than rule through force. Keltner argues that emotions work to promote kindness, humanity, and respect between people, which is of immense evolutionary value.
Embarrassment is a way of restoring social order by eliciting reconciliation and forgiveness after a transgression.
Touching triggers a cascade of emotions, such as devotion, trust, and even a sense of reward. Compassion holds a special place in the canon of emotions for Darwin it was the strongest instinct.
Its physiological embodiment— via the many touch points of the vagus nerve—encompasses our communicative system, heart rate, and release of oxytocin, which sends feelings of trust, love, and warmth throughout the body. Our ability to work for the greater good comes from fundamental instincts honed over millions of years.
If Keltner is right, and I think he is, our most modern problems will be solved by our most ancient responses.
Maria Surricchio is a brand and business strategist who helps triple-bottom-line businesses grow. She was formerly director of innovation at Kraft Foods Inc. I was about to tell the experimenters that my daughter had never even seen a graham cracker and was an extremely picky eater when she grabbed the treat from the nice bunny, as most of the previous babies had done. I felt an unwarranted surge of parental pride.
I was not alone in my delight. Researchers tend to avoid that event horizon of toddlerhood, the terrible twos. Renowned for their tantrums, 2-year-olds are tough to test.
But not all researchers shun 2-year-olds. The next lab I visited was at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it has made this age group something of a specialty, through work on toddler altruism a phrase that, admittedly, rings rather hollow in parental ears.
One advantage of testing slightly older babies and children is that they are able to perform relatively complicated tasks.
The chief scientist is Felix Warneken, another young researcher, though not one whose appearance initially telegraphs baby scientist. He stands 6-foot He usually greets children from the floor, playing with them before standing up at the last possible moment.
He usually wore the same red sweater in all his experiments, because he thinks kids like it. In addition to designing groundbreaking studies, he has also dreamed up several toys to reward or distract subjects, including an ingenious device he calls a jingle box: An angled xylophone concealed in a cardboard container, it makes a thrilling sound when wooden blocks are dropped inside.
Warneken was initially interested in how little children read the intentions of others, and the question of whether toddlers would assist others in reaching their goals.
But while this was an interesting idea in principle, his advisers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany said it was quite impossible in practice.
Warneken put the notion on hold while he studied other aspects of toddler cooperation. One day he and a toddler were bouncing a ball together. His first impulse was to retrieve the toy and carry on, but he stopped himself. Instead, he stayed where he was, pretending to strain for the ball, though he was barely extending his incredibly long arms.
In the following months, Warneken designed experiments for month-olds, in which a hapless adult often played by him attempted to perform a variety of tasks, to no avail, as the toddlers looked on. Warneken showed me a videotaped experiment of a toddler wallowing in a wading pool full of plastic balls.
It was clear that he was having the time of his life. Then a klutzy experimenter seated at a nearby desk dropped her pen on the floor. She seemed to have great trouble recovering it and made unhappy sounds. The child shot her a woebegone look before dutifully hauling himself out of the ball pit, picking up the pen and returning it to the researcher. At last he felt free to belly flop into the ball pit once more, unaware that, by helping another at a cost to himself, he had met the formal definition of altruism.
Because they were manifested in month-olds, Warneken believed that the helping behaviors might be innate, not taught or imitated. To test his assumption, he turned to one of our two nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzee. Intellectually, an adult chimp and a 2-year-old are evenly matched: They have roughly equivalent tool-using skills and memories and perform the same in causal learning tests.
The first chimps Warneken studied, nursery-raised in a German zoo, were comfortable with select people. He replaced objects alien to chimps such as pens with familiar materials like the sponges that caretakers use to clean the facilities. Warneken waited in the hallway, watching through a camera, as the caretaker dropped the first object: As if on cue, the chimp bounded over and breezily handed it back. I was going crazy! So he arranged for others to conduct a version of the test at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda, where semi-wild chimps live.
The chimp has to decide whether to hand the prized possession through the bars of the cage to the vanquished party. Many did. Maybe the animals would aid people under any circumstances, assuming a reward would come their way down the line. The final step was to see if chimps would assist each other. So Warneken rigged apparatuses where one caged chimp could help a neighbor reach an inaccessible banana or piece of watermelon. There was no hope of getting a bite for themselves, yet the empowered chimps fed their fellow apes regardless.
But under what circumstances are toddlers altruistic? Warneken created a scenario in which a clueless experimenter fools around with a bunch of milk cans at a table as a 2-year-old looks on. Unbeknown to the adult, some cans start to roll off the edge. They do it voluntarily. For instance, Tasimi had a sneaking suspicion that in some versions of his puppet shows, the babies were choosing orange puppets over green ones not because they had sided with good over evil but simply because they liked the color orange.
Other critics, meanwhile, fault the developmental philosophy behind the experiments. And still other scientists think the baby studies underestimate the power of regional culture.
Joe Henrich, a University of British Columbia psychologist, says qualities like altruism and moral logic cannot be exclusively genetic, as evinced by the wide variety of helping behaviors in hunter-gatherer and small-scale horticulturist groups across the world, especially compared with Western norms. Ideas of the public good and appropriate punishment, for instance, are not fixed across societies: Among the Matsigenka people of the Peruvian Amazon, where Henrich works, helping rarely occurs outside of the immediate household, if only because members of the tribe tend to live with relatives.
Baby researchers themselves have produced interesting critiques of their work. Kids are intensely tribal: 3-month-olds like people of their own race more than others, experiments have shown, and 1-year-olds prefer native speakers to those of another tongue.
Yes, a baby prefers the good guy—unless the bad one, like the baby, eats graham crackers. If the good guy is a green-bean eater, forget it. Babies, in addition, are big fans of punishment.