What’s a baby brain to do? We come pre-wired for detecting when we’re being treated unfairly – We know this because of how primates react.
See this video (It’s less than 60 seconds)
Here’s a picture from the video of the monkey having a tantrum because she just realized her friend is getting a juicy delicious grape in exchange for a rock, and she’s only getting a lousy slice of cucumber. If you didn’t watch it, really, you should. It will make you laugh.
Researchers with primates and babies (at the Yale Baby Lab) recognize that we do seem hard-wired for fairness, and for spotting “moral” behavior. That’s a good thing, right?
When we’re a year or so old, we start being told, “Share your toys! It’s only fair!”
Okay. We get that – We may not like it, and we may not do it, but we get it. We like things to be fair. It upsets us when things aren’t fair.
And then, about a year later, we hear something completely different. We want a cookie NOW, and we’re told “No, eat your peas first.” And we yell “That’s not FAIR!” And we are horrified – HORRIFIED to hear in response, “Life isn’t fair.” What? Wait just a minute here! We’ve been told to share, because that is fair, and now no cookie until we eat our peas, which we do not like? Who made the rules here?
So, another adjustment.
Adjustments are not easy for our brain. And understanding that we may be prewired for “fair” and “right” doesn’t mean we are born committed to justice. We have these mirror neurons that have to come on-line, through being “mirrored” ourselves in a caring relationship. Then we start taking another’s perspective. And then, more experiences, watching and observing, and we realizes that sometimes it is in our longer-term interests to act fairly. That takes delayed gratification. (Think, the marshemellow test. Here’s a clip if you aren’t familiar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QX_oy9614HQ
And then, true maturity: We are wired for community, but we’re also wired for “us-them” dichotomy, and to look out for “us.” We are capable of expanding “us” to include “them,” but we need to be taught. Religion is great at this:
Love your neighbor. Love your enemy.
Be generous, and ready to share.
If someone is in need of a coat, offer them your shirt as well.
Every time you were kind to the stranger, you were kind to me. (jesus)
(These aren’t direct quotes, just good summary snippets.) And it seems pretty obvious to me that the wiring for spotting injustice may already be there, at least when we’re the ones being injured. But it may take some careful guidance and experiences to learn how to spot injustice when it’s our sibling – Then we need to be taught how to work for justice for our clan, and then taught that every person is in our clan. And then the real leap, in some ways right back to where we began: That even other creatures, indeed all creation, is in our clan. And deserve justice.
As my faith tradition begins the season of Lent, I think about God’s invitation to us to use what we’ve been given in these amazing brains. Practice sharing. Practice giving. Practice spotting injustice (it isn’t always easy because we’re blinded by what already is.) We may be hard-wired for fair and right, but those neurons won’t get us very fair until we use them regularly.