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.