04/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

'Empathic Civilization': Amazing Empathic Babies

One of the best ways of understanding human nature is to study children. After all, if we want understand who we are, we should find out how we got to be that way. Until recently most philosophers and psychologists thought that babies and young children were profoundly amoral creatures. They also thought that children were irrational and egocentric -- unable to think logically or take the perspective of others. Jean Piaget and later Lawrence Kohlberg, the founders of the study of moral development, argued that children did not have truly moral concepts until adolescence. Instead, children simply thought that whatever other people told them to do was right.

In the last thirty years scientists have completely overturned this view. Even the youngest babies imitate the facial expressions of other people and take on their emotions -- a kind of empathy. This ability is NOT just the result of the much-hyped "mirror neurons" since, for one thing, mirror neurons have been found in monkeys who rarely imitate others. But it does show that human babies, in particular, are tuned in to other people in an especially close way.

By 18 months, babies have gone beyond empathy to genuine altruism, After all empathy just means I feel your pain, altruism means I try to make you feel better even when I don't feel that way myself. Betty Repacholi and I did an experiment with 14 and 18-month-olds. We showed them two bowls of food, one of raw broccoli and one of goldfish crackers. All the babies, even in Berkeley, like the crackers and don't like the broccoli. Then the experimenter ate some food from each bowl. Half the time she acted as if she felt the same way as the babies. But for half the babies she acted as if she was disgusted by the crackers and loved the broccoli, just the opposite of the way the babies felt themselves. Then she gave the babies the two bowls, held out her hand and said "Could I have some?" The 14-month-olds gave her the crackers no matter what she did. But the 18-month-olds actually went beyond immediate empathy to something more like genuine altruism. They gave her the crackers of she liked he crackers and the broccoli if she preferred the broccoli, They understood that the other person might want something different from what they wanted themselves, and they acted to make her happy. Other experiments suggest the same thing. Felix Warneken and Mike Tomasello found that 18-month-olds will crawl across a set of cushions to get a pen for a an experimenter who drops it out of reach -- and strains to get it back. But they won't do that if he purposely throws the pen to the ground.

By the time they are three children have taken these basic impulses towards altruism and empathy and turned them into a deeper and more genuinely moral kind of understanding. Judith Smetana and her colleagues asked children as young as two and a half about two kinds of rules in the daycare -- a rule about not dropping your clothes on the floor and a rule about not hitting other kids. Children said that breaking both kinds of rules would be bad. But they also said that the teachers could simply decide to change the first rule. They could declare that a messy room was OK and then it would be OK. In contrast, even the youngest children thought that it would NEVER be OK to harm another child, no matter what the teachers said.

If children are so good, if empathy and altruism are such a deeply-rooted part of human nature, then why are adults so bad? The impulse to evil seems to be as deeply rooted as the will to do good. Early empathy and altruism emerge in the close face-to-face intimate encounters between babies and their caregivers -- the most intimate relationships we ever have. But for genuine global morality we need to extend those feelings beyond our intimates to the six billion other human beings out there.

In fact, some studies suggest that by the time they are four, children already discriminate their own group from that of others, even when the groups are as arbitrary as Hutu and Tutsi or Serb and Croat. Children who are given a blue t-shirt rather than a red one to wear will then say that that they prefer to play with other children with a blue shirt. The human impulse to depersonalize "the others" seems as deep as the impulse to care about the people closest to you. Reestablishing that sense of personal intimacy with the "others" may be one of the best ways of bringing about global moral change.