Your salary is only acceptable if it’s higher than your neighbour’s. At least that’s what Yale cognitive scientist Paul Bloom’s research might suggest.
On March 11 he gave a talk at The Bell House in Brooklyn for the Secret Science Club. In the talk, Bloom gave some short highlights from his book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, which looks at where our sense of morality comes from.
During the talk, Bloom made it clear just how badly humans want to get the upper hand over our neighbours, even at a young age.
We have an “exquisite sensitivity to getting less,” Bloom said Tuesday.
He described one experiment, in which researchers let kids from four to seven choose between two options: The kid and a stranger could both get a large number of poker chips that could be exchanged for toys (the “fair option”), or the kid could get fewer chips, but their partner would get an even smaller number (“the relative advantage option”).
The children preferred getting fewer chips as long as they still have more chips than their partner.
“They don’t care about fairness. What they want is relatively more,” Bloom said in an interview with 60 Minutes. We can see this in our evolutionary cousins, the capuchin monkeys in the video below. They are perfectly happy getting cucumbers as treats, until their neighbour got ahold of some tasty grapes.
Then, they went berserk because of the extreme unfairness, even tossing the cucumber at the experimenter:
But luckily for society’s peacefulness, it seems that we train ourselves not to think this way as we age.
When Bloom and his colleagues tried the experiment again with older children, they found the reverse. By around eight, more children began choosing the fair option (six chips for me and six for you) rather than the relative-advantage option (four for me, but two for you). By nine or ten years of age, children would even take a lower reward in order to give the other person more.
“They have been educated. They have been acculturated. They have had their heads stuffed full of the virtues that we might want to have their heads stuffed with,” Bloom told 60 Minutes.
Even as adults, we know that we are influenced by natural biases and we work hard to subvert them. For example, the constitution was designed to block our worst impulses, Bloom suggested Tuesday. “We are smart enough to create social institutions like blind auditions to override the parts of ourselves we hate the most” he said.
For more on his work, check out the 60 Minutes interview with Bloom below:
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