Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Babies and Stories: The Dirty Harry Effect

A rather long article in the New York Times Magazine discusses recent research on the moral sense, if you can call it that, of infants. The psychology of babies is a fascinating but relatively new field. (Q: Do I get points for not calling it an "infant" field? A: No, not if I go ahead and say it anyway in this parenthetical.)

I don't plan to summarize the whole of the article. Instead, I want to concentrate on how babies' innate moral senses affect our sense of satisfaction with stories. (As to how babies preferences are determined in this research, you'll have to follow the link and read it there.)

The basic setup is this: Babies are shown a character attempting to do something. Two additional characters are then introduced: one who assists the character ("the helper"), and one who does things that frustrate the character in achieving its goal ("the hinderer").

First result: Babies tend to like the The Helper and to be repelled by The Hinderer. Simple enough. Surprising to those who think babies have no real consciousness, perhaps, but not to the rest of us.

To complicate matters, now introduce two other characters: The Rewarder and The Punisher. (These two characters either provide or take away treats from other characters).

Second results: Babies prefer The Rewarder to the Punisher. Again, not surprising. The Rewarder is being nice. The Punisher is being a bit unpleasant. The Rewarder is like The Helper, and the The Punisher is like the Hinderer.

But now it gets more subtle. First, let The Rewarder and The Punisher interact with The Helper. One might easily predict the outcome. The baby likes The Helper, and is also biased to like The Rewarder and dislike The Punisher, so naturally the baby approves of The Rewarder's actions, and is repelled by the unfair Punisher. Stands to reason: who's gonna like somebody who is mean to the nice one?

But the results are much more interesting when The Rewarder and The Punisher interact with The Hinderer. In this case, babies prefer The Punisher to The Rewarder. Even though they don't like The Punisher much as a character, they want to see The Hinderer punished (and, presumably, are driven a bit daffy if they see The Hinderer being rewarded).

I think of this as "The Dirty Harry Effect," from the iconic Clint Eastwood movies. Harry Callahan isn't anybody you might like, much less anybody a baby might like. He's brutal, breaks the law whenever his sense of justice demands it, and is about as far from being The Rewarder as one might imagine.

When the movie Dirty Harry first hit movie screens in the US, pundits attributed its popularity to many factors: The growing insecurity of white males, the sense of chaos in our urban centers, the frustration with the ineffective and uneven adminstration of criminal justice. Some even warned that the movie would spawn a wave of vigilantism in the country. (I think it had much the opposite effect; as with pornographic movies of the day, I suspect the viewers, erm, got it out of their systems in the theater.)

This new research shows that the appeal of the Dirty Harry setup runs deep. Even babies want to see the bad ones being punished--even though they are instinctively repelled by The Punisher. This appears to be innate in the human personality rather than something that is taught.

In some ways, this research is inspiring, suggesting a deep sense of justice and fairness in human nature. Before we break out the champagne and start toasting ourselves, however, other baby research reveals some rather disturbing further information. All things held equal, babies prefer others who are similar to themselves. As the article reports:

There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

At an abstract level, we like justice; at a more concrete level, our reaction is to side with our tribe in the most simplistic ways, and justice be damned. Hello, Lord of the Flies.


Jen said...

This has nothing to do with anything, but: You're an oil man. There's been a big oil-related incident in the Gulf. The news covers issues of unimaginable complexity in two sentences. So, as fodder for future blog posts, what really happened out there? Could anything have prevented the accident? What do you think of BP's response thus far? I ask these questions both to flatter your ego and because I can't stand not knowing what's really going on. Yes, I lose a lot of sleep. You're welcome.

David Isaak said...

Ah, alas, I'm not an expert on the drilling side of things. BP's handling of things has been utterly incompetent at least form a management point of view.

Also, methane hydrates may be involved in this particular problem. Big swatches of the seabed are filled with methane-water crystals, which are stable only under certain pressure-temperature conditions, but potentially explosive--and vast. If you want an environmental disaster scenario, just let a small fraction of the methane in the seabed vent into the atmosphere...

I will venture to say that from what I know, most offshore systems do not have enough extra redundancy built into them. One thing that makes me impatient with certain environmentalists is that they focus too much of their effort on stopping things, and not nearly enough on shaping guidelines for how things are done.

Too often the environmentalists set up legal battles as the only and last line of defense, and don't worry about what will happen if that line of defense is overrrun.

This isn't the approach of all groups. Some of them will say, "We'll support expanded or continued drilling in this area, IF you do the following..." This has been done very successfully and quietly by the Nature Conservancy in a number of fragile locations.

Some of the best habitat for the endangered Kit Fox here in California is inside active oil production areas in the Central Valley. But those areas are managed so as to provide safety and habitat for the foxes.

The oil companies probably wouldn't have taken the habitat and logistics measures to benefit the Kit Fox were it not for the environmentalists. But they probably wouldn't have taken them if the environmentalists had simply sued to shut down oil production--and then lost. The time to negotiate terms is before, or as an alternative to, a decisive battle. If you lose a decisive battle, you've lost all your negotiating leverage, right?