The Floating University


Hello, my name is Paul Bloom and I’m a Professor of Psychology at Yale University.  And what I want to do today is present a brief introduction to psychology, which is the science of the human mind.  

Now, I’m admittedly biased, but I think psychology is the most interesting of all scientific fields.  It’s the most interesting because it’s about us.  It’s about the most important and intimate aspects of our lives.  So psychologists study everything from language, perception, memory, motivation, dreams, love, hate.  We study the development of a child.  We study mental illnesses like schizophrenia and psychopathy, we study morality, we study happiness. 

Now, psychology is such a huge field that it breaks up into different subfields.  Some psychologists study neuroscience, which is the study how the brain gives rise to mental life.  Others, like me, are Developmental Psychologists.  We study what happens to make a baby turn into a child and a child turn into adults.  We study what makes a baby turn into a child and a child turn into an adult.  We ask questions like, how does a baby think about the world?  What do we start off knowing?  What do we have to learn?  

Other psychologists are Social Psychologists. They study human interaction.  What’s the nature of prejudice?  How do we persuade one another? 

Some Psychologists are Cognitive Psychologists.  What that means is they study the mind as a computational device looking particularly at capacities like language, perception, memory, and decision-making.  Some Psychologists are Evolutionary Psychologists, which means they’re particularly interested in biological origin of the human mind.  

There are Evolutionary Psychologists.  Evolutionary Psychologists are particularly interested in the evolutionary origin of our psychologies.  So they study the mind with an eye towards how it has evolved.  What adaptive problems it’s been constructed to solve.  

Finally, there’s clinical psychology.  For many people, this is what psychology means.  Many people associate psychology with clinical psychology, and in fact, it’s a very important aspect of psychology.  Clinical psychologists are interested in the diagnosis that the causes and the treatment of mental disorders, disorders like schizophrenia, depression and anxiety disorders.  It would be impossible for me to provide a full spectrum introduction to all of these sub fields of psychology in the time I have.  

So what I’m going to do instead is I’m going to focus on three case studies. I’m gong to focus on compassion, racism, and sex.  I’ve chosen these case studies for two reasons.  First, each of them is particularly interesting in its own light.  These are questions we’re interested in as people, as scientists, but also in our every day lives.  And I want to try to persuade you that psychologists have some interesting things to say about them.  

Second, together they illustrate the range of approaches that psychologists use.  The sort of theories that we construct, the sorts of methods we use when approaching a domain.  I want to try to give you a feeling for what psychology looks like when we actually carry it out.  

The first case study is compassion.  Compassion… by what I mean by compassion is concern for other people.  This is particularly interesting to me.  This is my own research program and my own laboratory at Yale; we look at the emergence of morality in babies and young children.  And we particularly focus on the emergence of compassion.  At what point in development do babies care about others?  At what point in development does feelings of empathy and sympathy, sometimes anger, guilt, other moral emotions.  How do they arise?  To what extent are they built in?  To what extent do they have to be learned?  

As a starting point, I have here a picture of a baby and inside the baby’s head is the baby’s brain.  The baby’s brain is an extraordinary computing machine.  

The baby’s brain is composed of neurons.  Now neurons are basic cells that process and transmit information.  They receive input from other neurons and then if the sum of the input is sufficiently high, they fire.  The brain does its work through collections of neurons, through what you would call neuro networks on neuro circuits.  

Now looked at in that way, the baby’s brain is extraordinarily impressive.  It contains roughly 100 billion neurons.  Since all of the thinking is done through connections between the neurons, what happens as the baby grows if more and more connections are made.  And by one estimate, there’s about 1.8 million connections between neurons that are created per second.  To give you a feeling of the complexity of the baby’s brain, I use an analogy from Jeff Hawkins.  Imagine a football stadium.   Fill it up with cooked spaghetti, then shrink it to the size of a soccer ball.  Then make it much, much, much denser.  And then you’ll have some understanding of how much is going on inside a brain, inside even a baby’s brain.  

Now, that much we know for sure, but where the real debate goes on concerns the nature of that computational structure.  The nature of what’s going on with all of those neuro networks and neuro circuits.  There’s one of view that is held by many philosophers and many psychologists that the brain starts off as a blank slate, what the philosopher, John Locke, called “a Tabula Rasa.”  And what goes on in development, the point of all those connections per second is learning, is sucking up information from the environment.  The baby starts off knowing nothing and turns into an adult, by virtue of absorbing information at a tremendously powerful rate.  That’s one view.  

Many philosophers and many psychologists, including me and my colleagues are more enamored of another view.  We don’t deny that learning takes place, but we would argue that in addition to that, there is an extraordinary early understanding, early specialization.  The brain could better be understood in terms of what the psychologists, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, described as a Swiss Army knife, has many different parts.  And each part is specialized for a different function.  

Now, so much of the action in psychology has been a running debate over which view is right.  So for instance, in the domain of language, many people have argued that there’s nothing special with the language.  We come to know, we come to use language because we’re just very powerful learners.  Other people, most notably the linguists, Noam Chomsky, and people have followed from his work; have argued that there is a specialized mechanism for language; language organ or language module or language instinct.  Learning needs to be done, but it’s done through this specialized system.  

Now, I’m not going to talk about language today, but there’s another debate, which I am going to talk about.  And this concerns morality, both moral judgments of right and wrong, but also moral feelings including compassion.  Many people would argue that in that regard, the baby starts off with nothing.  

Many people would agree with the classic Onion headline, a satirical newspaper, which says:  “New study reveals most children unrepentant sociopaths.”  The idea is that children start off immoral, monsters or if not monsters, at least they know not from good and evil.  This is not the view which I think is supported by the data.  I think there is now more and more data in support of a different view of compassion.  One that was nicely summarized by Thomas Jefferson.  

So Thomas Jefferson wrote:  “The moral sense or conscious is as much a part of man as his leg or arm.  It is given to all human beings in stronger or weaker degree as **** of members has given them in a greater or lesser degree.”  This claim, the idea that we grow morality, morality is part of our nature, was supported by Thomas Jefferson’s contemporary, Adam Smith, in Europe at the same time.  Sorry… was supported by Thomas Jefferson’s contemporary, Adam Smith.  And Adam gives an example of this.  He points out that it is a part of our nature to feel pain at the pain of others.  As he writes:  “When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or arm.  And when it does fall, we feel it in some measure and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer.”  And here is an illustration of this act of empathy taking place.  

Now we know this is true for children.  In fact, we know this is true for babies.  One way to make a baby cry is to expose it to cries of other babies.  There’s sort of contagiousness to the crying.  It’s not just crying.  We also know that if a baby sees another human in silent pain, it will distress the baby.  It seems part of our very nature is to suffer at the suffering of others.  

We know that young babies, as they become capable of moving voluntarily will share.  They will share food, for instance, with their siblings and with kids that are around.  They will sooth.  If they see somebody else in pain, even the youngest of toddlers will try to reach out and pat the person.  Maybe hand over a toy.  

There’s some lovely studies finding that slightly older children are able to help others when they see somebody who is unable to fulfill a goal, they’ll seek out to come to their aid.    

So one elegant demonstration of this comes from a recent set of experiments by the psychologist, Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, where they take a toddler, put him or her in a situation where an adult is in some sort of mild distress and see if the toddler will voluntarily help, even without any prompting.  And they find that toddlers typically do.  There seems to be some sort of impulse in us that’s altruistic, that’s kind, that’s compassionate.  

Now, in all of these cases; however, the kindness that we see seems to apply to people who are close to us, who are either physically in our proximity or who are our siblings or our parents or our friends.  

So the question arises, how broad does this compassion extend?  Now some people would argue that we start off with a very broad compassion, we would extend it to all individuals, to all people.  But there’s evidence support a somewhat different view, which is, there’s a moral instinct in us, there’s a moral sense in us, but it’s initially very narrow.  It’s only created by those close to us.  And our feelings towards others are in fact, not positive at all, they aren’t compassionate at all.  In fact, our natural default feelings towards a stranger, far from being compassionate, is actually some sort of mixture of fear and hatred.  

We see this in all sorts of different ways.  So in young children, we see it in what’s called, “stranger anxiety.”  At around nine months of age, babies start becoming panicked at the presence of strangers.  They fear strangers.  And developmental psychologists have helpfully called it “stranger anxiety” and it seems to capture a universal part of development where the other is thought of as dangerous.  

This sort of stranger anxiety fades in some cultures.  If you were to find yourself in an airport in a new city, you’re not likely to have a panic attack because you’re surrounded by people you don’t know, but in small scale human societies, it might never go away.  In a situation when an individual is raised with a few hundred other individuals around them, that is their circle of compassion.  And their response to others is not positive.  This is an observation that’s been made by many anthropologists who study small scale societies.  So for instance, anthropologist, Jared Diamond, talking about small scale societies in **** New Guinea writes, “To venture out of one’s territory to meet other humans, even if they lived only a few miles away, was equivalent to suicide.  Many years before, Margaret Meade was talking about the lifestyles of what were called at the time, “primitive cultures.”  And she is famously a supporter of these lifestyles.  She argues that the Western world would be much better if we were to adopt the customs and thoughts and ideas, particularly in regard to sexuality of these other societies.  But she was very honest and very blunt about how members of these societies treat strangers.
She writes:  “Most primitive tribes feel that if you run across one of those sub humans from a rival group in the forest, the most appropriate thing to do is bludgeon them to death.”  

I’ve talked about fear and hatred, but there’s a third sort of response that we often give to strangers.  This is disgust.  Disgust is what Paul Rozin described as the “body/soul emotion,” is a human universal.  Humans everywhere are disgusted by certain things.  We are disgusted by feces, urine, blood, vomit, rotten flesh, and most meat.  Disgust has a characteristic facial response and its easy part of our natures.  Now, if it was limited to food and cockroaches and that sort of thing, it wouldn’t have anything to do with my talk on compassion.  But what’s most interesting is that we’re often disgusted by other people.  But what’s most interesting is that we are often disgusted by other people.  Particularly, we’re often disgusted by strange people.   

And this is an observation that Charles Darwin, who is a wonderful observer of human nature, made.  Darwin wrote:  “In Tierra del Fuego, a native touched with his fingers some cold preserved meat and plainly showed disgust at the softness.  Whilst I felt utter disgust of my food being touched by a naked savage, thought his hands did not appear dirty.”  

We have laboratory research that explores the relationship between feelings of disgust and feelings towards out groups.  So we know for instance that people differ in how easily disgusted they are.  You do a survey of people.  You ask them questions like, how badly would this bother you.  So one of the questions might be, you have to pick up a dead cat with your hands.  And there’s some people who say, “uh, whatever.”  Some people, “Oh my god!  I’d rather die” or, you sit on a city bus seat and it’s warm from the last person who was on it.  And some people crack up, well why would that bother me?  Other people say, “That’s very disturbing.”  

People differ in how sensitive they are to disgust.  It turns out that where you stand with regard to disgust correlates with your feelings about out groups.  It correlates with your feelings about immigrants; it correlates with your feelings about sexual minorities, in particular male homosexuals.  The more easily disgusted you are, the more aversion you find to these others.  

We also know this experimentally.   We know that by making people be disgusted, we can make them meaner.  I’ll give you an example of this.  This is from a study I was involved with, with David Pizarro at Cornell University as the lead investigator.  What we did was we brought people into the lab… into a lab at Cornell.  And we asked him all sorts of questions regarding their feelings towards different groups and different policies.  What do you think of African-Americans?  What do you think of gay men?  What do you think of welfare?  What do you think of immigration?  And so on and so forth.  Half the people just filled it out and went home. 

The other half of the subjects went into the room, got the same survey.  But the difference was, before they entered the room, we sprayed the room with a fart spray.  That’s the first experiment I’ve ever been involved with that used a fart spray.  People would be kind of grossed out.  And it would make them meaner.  Not towards everything, but it would make them particularly meaner towards out groups, like male homosexuals.  And this supports the idea that there’s a connection in our minds between a visceral emotion of disgust and our feelings towards others.  

So what I’ve argued is, we do have a natural compassion, but it’s limited.  It does not naturally extend to strangers.  It does not naturally extend to others.  For them our reaction might be hatred, fear, and disgust.  But that raises a puzzle because you and me and everyone else we know can extend our compassion to strangers, to put it in the language that the philosopher Peter Singer has used, “Our moral circle has expanded.”  It might be that our ancestors, it might be the people in small scale societies only cared about their family and friends, but we have a broader circle of compassion.  We think about we care about people in other countries.  We care about people from other races.  We care about people we’ve never seen before and we never will see. 

When some sort of disaster strikes like a tsunami or a hurricane or earthquake, many of us give our resources, even our blood, to help out people we’ve never met before.  And that poses a neat psychological puzzle.  

What forces take our narrow moral circle, our narrow scope of compassion and make it bigger and expand it to care for these others?  Now I think that there are a lot of different answers to that question.  Robert Wright, for instance, has argued that one force in expanding the moral circle has been human interconnections in commerce, in international travel and so on.  The more people you know, the more people you have contact with, the more we are interconnected in the world, the more you might care about them in a sort of self-interested altruism where you care about them because they’re fates are intertwined with yours.  And I think that there’s a lot of value in that insight.  

But I want to focus on a different, maybe more psychological mechanism.  A mechanism that happens to individuals as they get older, a part of development, which is, their sympathies expand because of a certain sort of persuasion.  I want to suggest that there is psychological evidence that supports the idea that we can expand our compassion, our moral circle to far away strangers by being made to think of them as if they are individual people.  In particular, we think of them as if they’re our friends and family.  We think of them as if they are right in front of us.
Now, the importance of thinking about concrete individuals when it comes to kindness is not an idea psychologists were forced to come out with, it’s very well-known, thought of by monsters and by saints. 

Joseph Stalin famously said, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” 

And Mother Theresa presented a similar sentiment when she said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act.  If I look at the one, I will.”  

Psychologists like Paul Slovic has explored this in the lab.  So for instance, they would do a study where they would have an appeal for a charity.  And in fact, they would take the money they got and send it to the charity.  And they would, for one group of subjects, describe the problem in terms of statistics, in terms of numbers, in terms of the millions of people suffering, a sort of suffering a proportion of the population who is in desperate need. And they found that people would give say, roughly a dollar. 

For the other group, they didn’t bother with statistics at all.  They didn’t bother trying to impress them with the huge number of people suffering.  Rather, they told them a story.  They told them a story about a single individual.  They had a picture of that individual, they gave her a name.  And when you do that, you find that people are far more generous.  It’s a far more powerful effect on their compassion.  They will give, roughly, twice as much.  

Now, this is not a secret.  It is not something only psychologists know.  Charities, when they try to appeal for people’s help, won’t throw numbers at you.  They typically won’t because they know that doesn’t work.  The way to extend people’s compassion, the way to motivate altruistic action is to appeal to some very natural, very hardwired systems within us that respond to individual people.  And so charities will draw your attention, will appeal to you by focusing on the individual.  

I know this from a personal story.  When I was a graduate student, I was having an argument with a philosopher friend of mine.  And I was telling him, I was very persuaded by some stuff I read that rich Westerners don’t give anywhere near enough money to the starving millions around the world.  And I was giving him such a hard time about that.  And at some point, totally sick of me, he says, “How much do you give to charity?”  And I’m thinking, well, I’m making a theoretical point here.  **** I don’t give anything to charity.  So I figured, I felt so bad about this, I contacted one of the… a major charity, actually Plan U.S.A. and asked them for information about how to give to them.  And they sent me a packet.  And I remember opening up the packet and I remember expecting to see graphs and numbers and all sorts of information.  And they were so much smarter than that ‘cause I opened up the package and what they had sent me was a child.  They had a photograph of the child, they had a letter he wrote, and they said to me, “Look, we know that you’re not promising to give to us, you just want information, but if you were to give, it would go to that individual.  That would be the life you would save.”  It worked for me; I think it’s a tremendously persuasive way for a charity to work.  And I think more generally, as part of the story for how our compassion can get bigger and bigger.  

This really matters.  People talk about moral progress.  People like Peter Singer, Robert Wright, Steven Pinker, have argued that through our history, the circle of… our moral circles have been expanding.  It’s not just through individuals as they get older; rather societies have broader and broader moral circles.  We now live in a world where people believe we have moral obligations to other races, other nationalities that sexism and racism are immoral.  Some of us believe we have obligations toward non-human animals.  And this has been happening because of stories, because of persuasion and because people come to moral insights and use the power of stories to convey them.

Martha Nussbaum gives a historical example with regard to Greek tragedies. She writes… I have to go **** this.  “Although all of the future citizens who saw ancient tragedies were male, they were asked to have empathy with the suffering of many whose lot could never be theirs, such as Trojans and Persians and Africans, such as wives and daughters and mothers.”  

And if you were to doubt the importance of this, consider the end of slavery in the United States.  There are a lot of different factors that led to the end of slavery, but many historians would argue that one of the forces that led many white Americans to believe slavery was wrong was persuasion, in particular, it was the work of the author Harriett Beecher Stowe in her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  

In particular, it was the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe in her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  In this book, she didn’t make logical arguments; she didn’t make theological points or philosophical proposals.  

Rather, she got her readers to extend their sympathies.  And this had a profound effect.  It had a profound effect persuading them that slavery was wrong and changing the fate of the world.  

The second case study I want to talk about is racism.  And I want to begin by making a connection to a branch of cognitive psychology.  In particular the brand of cognitive psychology that deals with how we make sense of the world.  How we naturally form categories of the things we see and the things we interact with.  

Cognitive psychologists have pointed out that we… that in order to survive in the world, we have to make generalizations.  You probably have never seen those three pictures I have up here, but you immediately know that one is a dog and one is an apple and one is a chair.  You will also have intuitions about these things… you’ll make generalizations.  You’ll believe the dog can bark, the apple is something you can eat, a chair is something you can sit on.  Now, you probably also realize that there are exceptions to this.  Some dogs are silent, some apples are poisonous, some chairs will collapse if you sit on them, but still if you couldn’t make those generalizations, if you didn’t recognize that some properties tend to co-occur with some objects, you would be helpless in the world.  You wouldn’t know what to eat, you wouldn’t know how anything would react; you wouldn’t survive.  

Part of being a successful human, in fact, part of being any successful animal is being able to learn.  And a good part of what learning is is to make statistical generalizations on the basis of limited experience.  You eat a thousand apples, they all taste pretty good, you conclude, I can eat apples, apples taste good.  And when you’re hungry, you reach for the apple.  This is adaptive, it is rational, it is reasonable.  

But now there’s a twist.  The twist is that some of the categories that we form are categories of people.  We form categories on the basis of… we form categories on the basis of sex, of age, of race, profession, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, and where the person lives.  When you form a category of a person, we have a specific word for that, we often call it a stereotype.  

Now, stereotype may sound like a bad word, but there’s nothing bad about it.  For one thing, stereotypes are often accurate.  Lee Judson finds that when you ask people about their stereotypes of different groups and political groups and ethnicities and genders, people get it pretty much right.  That we’re reasonably good statistical learners, and so we tend to be reasonably accurate.  

Also, stereotypes are often positive, particularly of groups that we ourselves belong to.  Some of the statistical generalizations may be correct and may be positive as some groups have reputations for being smart, for being loyal, for being brave, for all sorts of things that are not at all negative.  And so there’s nothing inherently wrong about stereotypes.  

But there are problems with stereotypes.  For one thing, they’re reliable insofar as they’re based on a sample, an unbiased sample, of the population.  But a lot of the information we get about human groups is through biased sources like how they’re represented in the media.  And if these sources don’t give you an accurate rendition, you’re a stereotype won’t be accurate.  

For example, many Italian-Americans were upset at the depiction of Italian-Americans in a television show, “The Sopranos.”  This is because, if you are in an area where the only Italian-Americans you meet are those you see on TV and those you see on “The Sopranos,” you’re going to think they’re all mobsters.  

Many Jews historically have been troubled by Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock.  If the only Jew you know is Shakespeare’s Shylock, again, it’s going to be a very bad impression.  And so one problem with stereotypes is while we have accurate statistical mechanisms for taking in information and drawing conclusions from them, often our information isn’t reliable and often this can lead to the formation of stereotypes that aren’t right.  

A second problem is that stereotypes regardless of whether or not they’re accurate can have a negative effect on the people that they apply to.  And this is what the psychologist, Claude Steele, described as stereotype threat.  So he has a vivid example of this.  Here’s how to make African-Americans do worse on a math test.  You have the test and you put on the test that they have to identify their race.  The very act of acknowledging that their African-American when given a test ignites in them thoughts of their own stereotype, which isn’t positive, which is negative regarding academics and that makes them do worse.  Want to know how to make a woman do worse on a math test?  Same thing, get her to write down her sex.  

One recent study found a sort of clever twist on this. The study involved testing Asian-American women.  Turns out, when Asian-American women are given a test and they’re asked to mark down their race, they do better than they would otherwise do.  They’re reminded of the stereotype, but as a positive stereotype and it bumps them up.  You ask them, on the other hand, to mark down their sex, they do worse because they’re women and that’s a negative stereotype towards women.  That’s an example of how stereotypes have a potentially damaging effect on people. 

A third problem with stereotypes is, in some way, our stereotypes of human groups are like our categories of dogs and apples and chairs.  But there’s a way in which they aren’t.  We’re not dogs and apples and chairs.  But we are members of human groups.   

And by definition, any category of human individuals is something you either belong to or you don’t.  It’s either what psychologists call an in group or an out group.  And this fact of how you connect with the category has an effect on how you think of the category.  There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that when you’re a member of the category, you boost it.  You give it higher qualities.  People in your group are smarter or nicer, they’re more deserving and so on.  On the other hand, if it’s an out group, if it’s another category, particularly if it’s a category that you’re in some way competing against, the category gets denigrated.  

We see some vivid historical example of this.  In one study in 1942, Americans were asked to describe the top two features of Russians.  And they described them as brave and hard-working.  In 1948, they were asked the same question.  They described them as cruel and conceited.  The Russians didn’t change, what changed was our relationship to them over the intervening years; they went from being part of a group that we were a part of to the out group.  

More generally, we seem to react in a certain way to out groups where we seem to think of them in general as being less rich, less complicated than we are.  Several studies find that we are less likely to attribute to an out group complicated emotions.  If the out group is somebody we don’t like, that we’re afraid of, we’ll often view them as savages.  If the out group is somebody we kind of like, but we aren’t afraid of, we don’t see them as adversaries, we might view them a children.  None of this is accurate and none of this is moral.  And that’s a third problem with stereotypes.  

The final problem with stereotypes is a moral one.  Even if stereotypes are perfectly accurate, even if they’re accurate summaries of the statistics of a group, there are many cases where we believe that it’s morally wrong to judge somebody based on their group membership.  We should judge them as individuals. 

For all of these reasons, and maybe mostly for the last one, there’s an interesting tension in how we think about other groups.  On the one hand, we want to be consciously egalitarian, consciously non-racist, consciously thinking of individuals as individuals and not letting stereotypes, particularly ugly stereotypes affect our judgments.  And there’s some evidence that we succeed at this.  You look at the statistics, for instance, what you see in this graph, is there are a portion of Americans who say they would vote for a qualified African-American to be President.  And what you could see is, at a certain point by the mid-nineties, just about everybody says, that they would.  And the election of Barrack Obama shows that this wasn’t just people lying when asked questions, it really reflects an honest to god consciously egalitarian viewpoint.  

On the other hand, we also have an unconscious system.  And an unconscious system is more statistics driven, more biased and less sensitive to moral concerns.  So you get a tension between the conscious egalitarian system and the unconscious system, which is often driven by bias.  

So we think the right thing to do is to judge individuals, not on the basis of the groups that they belong to, but as individuals, as individuals in their own right.  And is this something that we consciously endorse?  Most people today or many people today in our culture are consciously egalitarian.

We want to avoid stereotypes, particularly ugly pernicious stereotypes.  We want to judge people based on their own traits, not the groups that they belong to and this shows up when you ask people.  

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