The Human Journey
Introduction to Intercultural Understanding and Empathy

Creating a Sustainable Future

Intercultural Understanding and Empathy


Pages 12

According to Bloom our natural moral endowments include four capacities:

1. a moral sense some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions

Kindness to kin has been noted in many species of the animal world, because it quite obviously ensures the survival of parental and family genes: we take care of our own first. But, even in rats and certainly in our primate ancestors, acts of kindness have been seen to include others outside the immediate group, and even towards another species.

3 babies

Unsurprisingly infants’ sensitivity to “badness” is more powerful and emerges earlier than their sensitivity to “goodness.” It pays to be warned about a potential threat. Karen Wynn, director of the Infant Cognition Center at the Yale Baby Lab, has run repeated experiments with 3- and 5-month-old children and established that the overwhelming majority of them – more than three-fourths of babies tested – recognize and show preference for nice actions over mean actions, leading them to prefer nice individuals over mean individuals. Just about all the 6- and 10-month-old infants prefer the helpful individual to the hindering individual. “Study after study after study, the results are always consistently showing that babies feeling positively towards helpful individuals in the world. And disapproving, disliking, maybe condemning individuals who are antisocial towards others,” she says.

Infants at the Yale Baby Lab are given a puppet show featuring a gray cat who attempts to open a big box but can’t. Along comes a bunny in a green T-shirt who helps kitty get into the box. The same scene is repeated only this time a bunny wearing an orange T-shirt rudely slams the box shut.

Baby study

The conclusion: Green bunny is good. Orange bunny is bad. Then a staff member, who doesn’t know which bunny is good or bad, will present the bunnies to the baby. In over 80% of the responses, babies pick the good bunny. Surprisingly, in three-month olds the positive response bumps up to 87%.

Human babies are born with innate indiscriminate cooperative and helpful tendencies. As early as six months old, children begin to help spontaneously, and the degree that they do so goes up in the following years, but with friends and family, rarely with total strangers. A toddler of one or two years old will help a relative stranger open a door, for example, and do so without encouragement or praise – though it’s unlikely that he will do so for a complete stranger before the age of 4. 

Three-year-olds are more likely to help someone whom they have seen help others, and less likely to help someone who has been unkind to another person. They really are motivated by genuine care since they actually get involved in accomplishing the goals of the person they help, and act with that person’s interests in mind, not their own. For example, if asked to pass a cup so that someone can pour water in it, they will make sure that the cup is not damaged, even though it was previously selected by the experimenter.

2. a rudimentary sense of fairness a tendency to favor equal divisions of resources

At fifteen months old, a child will look longer at an unfair division, suggesting that he/she found it surprising. (A control study ruled out the possibility that they just look longer at asymmetric displays.) By sixteen months, babies prefer a puppet who is seen to act fairly by dividing resources equally between two other puppets; at nineteen months old, when two toddlers clean up a room, they expect equal reward even if the effort was unequal.  But, between six and eight years old, children amend their view of equal division if told that one person did more than another. Six- to eight- year-olds prefer to throw out an extra item rather than have one person get more than another, unless, again, the circumstances are explained and there is a justification for giving more to that person. If there is an odd number of resources and they don’t have the option of throwing one away, even three-year-olds will prefer to give more to siblings and friends than to strangers; or give the extra one to someone who they have previously seen act generously to a third person.

children playing

Although they are sensitive to inequality, children of five or six are just like our simian relatives – they get upset about it only when they are the ones getting less. In fact, they would rather get nothing than have another child, a stranger, get more than they do; and half of the young children tested of this age chose not to give away candy to strangers even if it costs them nothing. Interestingly, young children focus primarily on social comparison and routinely choose to get less for themselves from a number of options offered if this means getting more than the other party. However, once children are seven or eight years old, about 80% of them will give candy to someone they don’t know; by around 8 years old children tend to act fairly; and by 9 or 10 – by which time they have been acculturated and educated – they may deliberately give the other person more than they take themselves.

3. a rudimentary sense of justice a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished  

A number of studies indicate that babies not only have a sense of fairness but also a strong belief in punitive action when it’s deserved. For example, a bunny puppet steals a ball and runs away. But in the next scene this same bunny tries to open a box to get a toy, but another bunny slams the box shut and prevents him from doing so. 81% of babies preferred the bunny who “punished” the ball thief. “What we're finding in the baby lab, is … that 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,” says Paul Bloom. By eight months old, babies preferred a puppet who was mean to a “bad” puppet over the one who was nice to it.

Bloom’s explorations led him to conclude that “We have evolved a tendency to retaliate against those who harm us and who harm the people we love because by doing so we deter such behavior in the future.” Because we empathize with others, we extend these sentiments to our larger community. Third-party punishment appears to be revenge plus empathy: “what would I want if I were the victim?” There appears to be an intimate connection between judging others and judging ourselves. We feel more guilt if we harm someone with whom we empathize and our ability to emphasize is biased towards those whom we perceive in a positive light.  If someone treats us or our group badly, we will have no, or much less, empathy for him, particularly if we are male. It turns out that females tend to respond empathetically regardless of how they have been treated.

4. empathy and compassion suffering at the pain of those around us and the wish to make this pain go away

crying babies
Photo credit: Mary Kate Gulick

Babies will cry at the sound of another baby crying and can identify the difference between this and a computer-generated noise at the same volume or the cry of another species: say a chimpanzee. Animals, such as rats or monkeys, react to others of their species expressing distress and psychologists suggest that we all may have evolved to find another’s distress unpleasant – even sometimes overwhelming. This is described as “emotional contagion” and may indicate a basic feeling of empathy but does not mean that we feel compassion.  We don’t necessarily care about a person but we still can empathize: we can put ourselves in that person’s shoes.

Even in the first year of life babies show distress if they harm someone; and one- or two-year-old babies – particularly girls – will try to sooth someone in pain and to comfort someone in distress. Similar behavior in other primates have been noted by Frans de Waal and others. Additionally, Bloom suggests, over time altruism evolved because cooperative individuals were rewarded while those that go against the community were punished or avoided.

As mentioned, babies are aware of good and bad acts long before they are capable of acting themselves and it seems that we gradually develop a moral sense of self, which is manifested in guilt, shame and pride. Bloom quotes an experiment conducted by the psychologist Charlotte Buhler back in 1935, which demonstrated that one- and two-year-olds don’t immediately understand that a rule set by an adult applies once the adult leaves their sight. An adult and child were in a room together and the adult forbade the child to touch a toy, easily within reach. Once the adult leaves the room the child immediately plays with the toy. But when the adult suddenly returns, 60 percent of the sixteen-month-olds and 100 percent of the eighteen-month-olds “show the greatest embarrassment, blush, and turn to the adult with a frightened expression,” indicating that they do self-evaluate; and, in this instance, experienced some form of guilt or shame.

one child comforting another
Photo credit: Mary Kate Gulick

It’s important to realize that emotions can override moral actions, particularly when they are activated in a group situation. As individuals, once we adopt another’s perspective, we are more likely to favor that person over others; we might favor a suffering girl whose story we know ahead of everyone else waiting for care, rather than adhere to objective and fair procedures. Bloom suggests, therefore, that part of being a good person involves being able to override one’s compassion where necessary, rather than cultivate it.

We empathize most with those around us. Consequently, in a group situation, the beliefs and biases of the group tend to influence our behavior, often in ways that as an individual we might abhor.  As Bloom notes “for every in-group there is an out-group, and that’s where the trouble lies. We would have no Holocaust without the Jews and Germans; no Rwandan massacre without the Tutsis and Hutus.” Since we are evolutionarily biased to belong in a group, we tend to create groups based on any number of reasons: age, sex, race, religion, or ethnicity among them; and sometimes for very trivial reasons like the color of a T-shirt. But even then our behavior within such groups can become extreme – as we know from the news – and you can be killed because your T-shirt is the “wrong” color.

poster for The Wave
The Poster for the film LESSON PLAN The Story of The Third Wave

In spring 1967, in Palo Alto, California, history teacher Ron Jones conducted an experiment with his class of 15-year-olds to sample the experience of the attraction and rise of the Nazis in Germany before World War II. In a matter of days the experiment began to get out of control, as those attracted to the movement became aggressive zealots and the rigid rules invited confusion and chaos, as the film based on the event shows.

We are endowed with a flexibility of mind that has enabled us not only to survive anywhere in the world, but to move beyond our inheritance. At the same time, as we have seen throughout our violent history, in a group situation, this same ability to adapt can quickly distort our innate morality and lead us to reprehensible behavior. As social psychologists have shown in a number of studies – especially in the work of Drs. Phil Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram – we are particularly vulnerable if the situation is institutionalized: if we, or someone, wear uniforms, there are implied or explicit official rules from above, etc. Described as a celebration of the human mind’s capacity to make any of us kind or cruel, caring or indifferent, creative or destructive, villains or heroes, the TED talk by Zimbardo graphically demonstrates this tendency, some of its recent consequences, its implications and solutions.

Philip Zimbardo’s TED talk on the psychology of evil.

The power of the situation is revealed in many aspects of our society. Studies suggest that behavior is often influenced by factors that have less to do with altruistic and egalitarian motives and more to do with looking altruistic and egalitarian. In experiments or games where generosity is tested, the more observable one’s act is, the more one gives. Even pictures of eyes on a wall or computer screen make people kinder, behave more honorably.

This idea of “the other” watching or knowing what we do and think has been with us since at least Paleolithic times. It is inherent in the way we see the world: in our three-tiered consciousness. Upon this fundamental scaffold and paired with our inherent characteristics, religions, cultures and civilizations were built and their ideas transmitted.



The Wave Home

The building blocks of morality are in apes. Mourning, hugging, kissing. We evolved to be moral. We are group animals and groups that work well together we survive longer:

Experiments with altruism in children and chimps. A series of experiments testing altruism in both very young children and chimpanzees. From the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

The Heroic Imagination Project was founded by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University. HIP is a research-based organization which provides knowledge, tools, strategies, and exercises to individuals and groups to help them to overcome the social and psychological forces which can keep them from taking effective action at crucial moments in their lives.