Politicians Really Are Big Babies

Partisanship starts in infancy, but that's no reason our elected officials can't outgrow our parochial natures

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Charles Dharapak / AP

From left: Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 16, 2013.

Democrats and Republicans are more split than anytime since the late nineteenth century, and there is no sign that things are getting better. It’s often been said that the politicians are acting like babies. I think this is literally true. I study the development of morality, and it turns out that the recent behavior of adult politicians in the House and the Senate reflects universals of human nature that we first see in babies and young children. If so, then it suggests a different approach to our political woes.

New findings show that babies are moral creatures from the start; they can judge actions as good and evil; they show glimmerings of a sense of fairness and justice, and they have sympathy and compassion. But they are also highly biased creatures—natural-born partisans, you might say—who are disposed to break the world into Us versus Them. They prefer those they are familiar with to strangers; they prefer those who speak the same language that they do (and don’t like those who speak with a foreign accent), and by the time they are about to enter school, children often prefer to interact with other individuals of their own race and ethnicity.

This bias to prefer those who are similar even extends to what we like to wear, eat and play with. Recently published experiments done in Karen Wynn’s infancy lab in Yale (full disclosure: Karen is my colleague, occasional co-author, and wife) find that infants prefer those who share their preferences for food, clothing, and toys. But what’s worse is that babies show a marked preference for those who harm those individuals who have different tastes than they do. It’s not just that they don’t want to interact with someone different. They actually like it when that different individual gets hurt.

This bias to favor one’s own group never goes away. In a classic study by Henri Tajfel, teenagers were asked to judge a series of paintings and told, randomly, that they were either “Klee-lovers” or “Kandinsky-lovers”. When later asked to distribute money to other Klee-lovers and other Kandinsky-lovers, they strongly favored their own group—indeed, they would give up money for their own group so that the other group would get less. You can get the same effect by creating the groups through the flip of a coin, and, for younger children, by randomly getting them to put on t-shirts of different colors.

These experiments created artificial groups using arbitrary distinctions. When we sort ourselves into real-world political parties that sharply diverge on principles that really matter to us, like abortion and gay marriage, us-versus-them thinking is that much more virulent. It can hardly be surprising that both politicians and voters are so sharply divided—we see in the American political scene of 2013 the natural state of man.

But it’s not always like that. We are not total prisoners to our parochial natures. Psychologists have found that certain conditions can help dissolve enmity between groups. Groups work together, for instance, when fighting a common enemy; there was far more political harmony in the United States during the years of World War II (and, for a short time, the period right after 9/11). During peacetime, bipartisan coalitions can form when a more abstract dilemma—like a ballooning deficit or a failing Social Security system—can be conceptualized as a common enemy.

What we learn from babies is that our current politicians are most likely not unusually venal or small-minded … and that wondering how we got into this mess might well be asking the wrong question. Rather, we should be looking at when and how we sometimes get things right. Periods of cooperation between political parties shouldn’t be taken for granted; they are a stunning human achievement.

In politics and in society, we can use our reason to rise above our parochial natures. Too bad that our elected officials don’t choose to do so more often.
2 comments
mssgkatz
mssgkatz

The Old New Social Evil... REPUBLICANS!

If the Republicans have their way America will go down in flames. The tender will be provided by all the destruction their policies will (and do) cause. They will willfully toss our All-American carcass into the burning flames (actually they will get someone else to do it- a hired hand probably) while they go back to the mansion on the hill and complain about the wafting smoke from barbecue blocking their view. Then have the police arrest you (the survivors) for disturbing the peace-and you will go-to-jail: remember that's been privatized too, and they will make more money off your hide and try to keep you there forever you moneymaker. It's called "free labor... Servitude... The new chattel slavery," and they want us all in it, 100% participation and doing all they can to get it that way.

I am terrified and you should be too, knowing the lengths crazy rich white men have gone to, in America's troubled past, to maintain their loop-sided advantage and sense of superiority. It should be easy to see their craziness- they leave so many clues. And these days, they are blatantly strangling our American carcass to death all the while telling us ''It's ok, you can trust me, I'm with you"- only to find them pulling the rug out from under you while preaching that it’s for your own good. You don't have to believe me. Don't take my word for it. Just look at who's taking your house or out sourced your job. Hell, in a minute you won't even be able to vote if they get their way. Which brings me to my point: What will happen if you let them go unchecked, if you keep on going around with these blinders on trying not to get involved? Read a new book called “Blue-Y” by O.D. Wells, it lays out just what it will look like in all its horrific detail. That newest Batman movie comes to my mind too, where you get to see what they went through. Yeah, yeah I know, it's just a movie- right! The future it ascribes does not go well for the rich and affluent. Based simply on what they (crazy rich white men) had already done in the past (both recent and historically) and that beckons that I recognize that I'm/we're being set-up, ripped off, played for the fool, by wealthy professional con artist, snake-oil salesman, flem-flam-men, grifters, crooks, thieves, lying ass criminals ... trying to pick the American pocket again cause they (Republicans) sees middle class and poor Americans as an easy mark to rob. It's no wonder too; they've pulled this one many times before and know it to work. It's a tried and true technique and all their friends know the steps well. I am scared, really scared. Scared that we won't be able to stop them again because they keep on using their great wealth and influence to advance their cause of keeping us under their foot, keeping us in bondage until they can get us in chains. I know what the Indians and Africans must have felt like now, watching all they have get taken away and there was nothing they could do about it. Wake up (white) America. Get it together, and get it together quickly or you too will loose it all. Speaking as someone who does not have a lot myself, I still don't want to loose the little I have either. So lets get together and work this out. And understand clearly: What’s good for Black Americans is good for all Americans. So get over yourselves and get with the country. Someone's out to get us America, and they’re wealthy white men that don’t like color, women, or the poor. Lets start by getting them out of our legislature because they are evil, and you know it! 

Openminded1
Openminded1

Politicians are big babies,especially the democrats. Cruz and Rand are more then babies they are morons, as is most of the tea party. The GOP has a few too.