Virtue, Flourishing, Culture and the Evolved Nest


We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Darcia Narvaez is Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame.

If we are going to discuss virtue and happiness, we must take into account the life world in which we exist. We must take into account the totality of flourishing. We must ask and find answers to who we are, where we are, where we have been and where we are going. The dominant culture that is decimating the earth relies on a reassuring narrative of human superiority, progress and future reward while denigrating humanity’s past and alternate, more sustainable cultures. The deep irrationality of the dominant cultural mindset represents a self-disinterest and is shaped by disrupted connection from birth which influences everything on the planet, fostering viciousness, dystopia and eco-disaster. The destruction and disconnection are rationalized with theories that claim there is no alternative path. How do we shift to a rational self-interest and to a sense of self that includes the entire biocommunity? We must shift both bottom-up practices and the top-down narratives we deploy.

Interview with Elise Murray, Summer Session Participant


This post is part of a series of interviews with our participants for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Elise Murray is earning her PhD in Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Elise Murray: I hail from Lancaster, Pennsylvania originally–Amish Country, born and raised. I am more recently coming from Boston, where I am in the PhD program for Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University.

VW: Tell me about your research.

EM: My research areas fall under the general umbrella of character virtue development, by taking a holistic approach to understand the bidirectional relationship between an individual and his or her context as it pertains to how virtues develop across time and place, within and between various individuals. My work has focused more specifically on theoretically and empirically investigating intellectual virtues, in particular, intellectual humility, its psychometric properties, and its intersections with other various character virtues.


Long-term, as a doctoral research assistant, I am working with a larger group of senior researchers and professors, investigating the developmental trajectory of character at the United States Military Academy as part of a longitudinal, collaborative project between Tufts University and the United States Military Academy, Project Arete, funded by the Templeton Religion Trust. This work is both important and engaging for me because character virtues are vital for developing personal strengths and encouraging positive engagement with others and our communities, skills that we must continue to cultivate and facilitate in college. Intellectual Humility, in particular, is important for positive, civil discourse, as well as intellectual growth, which are, again, valued skills in the college context. As such, I am passionate about finding ways to best serve college students by way of promoting character virtues in the collegiate environment.

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

EM: I am a huge sports fan, and love any Notre Dame sporting event, as that is my alma mater (Go Irish!). I am a big fan of the beach (and the occasional long walk on one), hiking, running, comedy (Mike Birbiglia or Jim Gaffigan, don’t make me choose), and performing and listening to music. I like to keep my hand in a little bit of everything!


VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?

EM: Attending the seminar will allow me to engage in an intensive, interdisciplinary environment to augment my current research on virtues as a whole. This provides an opportunity to supplement my conceptualization of virtues with resources from domains outside of psychology, and improve the dialogue between science and the humanities around the topic of virtues. I also hope the seminar experience will forge interdisciplinary collaborations that may result in future research and publications pertinent to the study of virtues, and potentially, more specifically, intellectual virtues and intellectual humility.



When babies identify meaningful cultural differences

Note: This piece first appeared in the New York Times on August 19, 2016 as “Babies Watching People Eat”.

You may not be surprised to learn that food preference is a social matter. What we choose to eat depends on more than just what tastes good or is healthful. People in different cultures eat different things, and within a culture, what you eat can signal something about who you are.

More surprising is that the sociality of food selection, it turns out, runs deep in human nature. In research published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, my colleagues and I showed that even 1-year-old babies understand that people’s food preferences depend on their social or cultural group.

Interestingly, we found that babies’ thinking about food preferences isn’t really about food per se. It’s more about the people eating foods, and the relationship between food choice and social groups.

While it’s hard to know what babies think before they can talk, developmental psychologists have long capitalized on the fact that babies’ visual gaze is guided by their interest. Babies tend to look longer at something that is novel or surprising. Do something bizarre the next time you meet a baby, and you’ll notice her looking intently.

Using this method, the psychologists Zoe Liberman, Amanda Woodward, Kathleen Sullivan and I conducted a series of studies. Led by Professor Liberman, we brought more than 200 1-year-olds (and their parents) into a developmental psychology lab, and showed them videos of people visibly expressing like or dislike of foods.

For instance, one group of babies saw a video of a person who ate a food and expressed that she loved it. Next they saw a video of a second person who tried the same food and also loved it. This second event was not terribly surprising to the babies: The two people agreed, after all. Accordingly, the babies did not look for very long at this second video; it was what they expected.

But when the babies saw the second person do something less expected — when this second person instead hated this same food that the first person loved — the babies looked much longer.

In this way, we were able to gauge infants’ patterns of generalization from one person to another. If babies see someone like a food, do they think that other people will like that food, too? And if so, do they think that all people will like the same foods, or just some people?


We found some surprising patterns. If the two people featured acted as if they were friends, or if they spoke the same language, babies expected that the people would prefer the same foods. But if the two people acted as if they were enemies, or if they spoke two different languages, babies expected that they would prefer two different foods.

It was as if cultural lines were being drawn right in the laboratory. And in the babies’ minds there seemed to be something special about the link between culture and food: When the babies saw people liking and disliking inedible objects, we didn’t observe the same patterns of results.

One thing you may be wondering — and we were, too — is whether this is all about the foods people like. Whether you like grits or kale may depend on cultural identity. But there are some things that are disgusting to all humans, regardless of culture. Do babies intuitively know this?

Indeed, they seem to. When the babies in our studies saw a person act disgusted from eating a food, they expected that a second person would also be disgusted by the same food — regardless of whether or not the two people were in the same social group.

We also discovered something interesting about what babies identify as meaningful cultural differences. Babies from monolingual English-speaking homes saw language as a marker of different cultures; as noted above, if two people spoke two different languages, babies expected that they would prefer two different foods.

In contrast, babies from bilingual homes assumed that even two people who spoke different languages would like to eat the same things. Thus babies have the potential to learn different things about the foods and people around them, depending on their social environments.

Parents of young children may want to take note of our findings. Infants are not just learning to eat the foods they are given; they are also learning by watching adults eat, and figuring out who eats what foods with whom. By introducing babies to social contexts in which adults make healthful food choices, parents may help children learn the cultural norms of healthful eating themselves.

Katherine Kinzler is an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Multilingual exposure improves children’s social abilities

speaking spanish and english

Note: This piece first appeared in the New York Times on March 11, 2016, as “The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals”.

Being bilingual has some obvious advantages. Learning more than one language enables new conversations and new experiences. But in recent years, psychology researchers have demonstrated some less obvious advantages of bilingualism, too. For instance, bilingual children may enjoy certain cognitive benefits, such as improved executive function — which is critical for problem solving and other mentally demanding activities.


Now, two new studies demonstrate that multilingual exposure improves not only children’s cognitive skills but also their social abilities.


One study from my developmental psychology lab — conducted in collaboration with the psychologists Boaz Keysar, Zoe Liberman and Samantha Fan at the University of Chicago, and published last year in the journal Psychological Science — shows that multilingual children can be better at communication than monolingual children.


We took a group of children in the United States, ages 4 to 6, from different linguistic backgrounds, and presented them with a situation in which they had to consider someone else’s perspective to understand her meaning. For example, an adult said to the child: “Ooh, a small car! Can you move the small car for me?” Children could see three cars — small, medium and large — but were in position to observe that the adult could not see the smallest car. Since the adult could see only the medium and large cars, when she said “small” car, she must be referring to the child’s “medium.”


We found that bilingual children were better than monolingual children at this task. If you think about it, this makes intuitive sense. Interpreting someone’s utterance often requires attending not just to its content, but also to the surrounding context. What does a speaker know or not know? What did she intend to convey? Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others: They have to think about who speaks which language to whom, who understands which content, and the times and places in which different languages are spoken.


Interestingly, we also found that children who were effectively monolingual yet regularly exposed to another language — for example, those who had grandparents who spoke another language — were just as talented as the bilingual children at this task. It seems that being raised in an environment in which multiple languages are spoken, rather than being bilingual per se, is the driving factor.


You might wonder whether our findings could be explained as just another instance of the greater cognitive skills that bilingual children have been observed to have. We wondered that, too. So we gave all the children a standard cognitive test of executive function. We found that bilingual children performed better than monolingual children, but that the kids who were effectively monolingual yet regularly exposed to another language did not. These “exposure” children performed like monolinguals on the cognitive task, but like bilinguals on the communication task. Something other than cognitive skills — something more “social” — must explain their facility in adopting another’s perspective.
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In a follow-up study, forthcoming in the journal Developmental Science, my colleagues and I examined the effects of multilingual exposure on even younger children: 14- to 16-month-old babies, who are hardly speaking at all. In this study, led by Zoe Liberman and in collaboration with Professor Keysar and the psychologist Amanda Woodward, babies were shown two versions of the same object, such as a banana, one of which was visible to both the infant and an adult, the other visible to the baby yet hidden from the adult’s view. When the adult asked the baby for “the banana,” the baby might hand her either object — both were bananas, after all — yet if the baby understood the social context, he would reach more often for the banana that the adult could see.


We found that babies in monolingual environments reached equally often for the two bananas. Babies in multilingual environments, including those who were exposed to a second language only minimally, already understood the importance of adopting another’s perspective for communication: They reached more often for the banana that the adult could see.


Multilingual exposure, it seems, facilitates the basic skills of interpersonal understanding. Of course, becoming fully bilingual or multilingual is not always easy or possible for everyone. But the social advantage we have identified appears to emerge from merely being raised in an environment in which multiple languages are experienced, not from being bilingual per se. This is potentially good news for parents who are not bilingual themselves, yet who want their children to enjoy some of the benefits of multilingualism.

Katherine Kinzler is an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Virtue Talk podcast: “Early learning about food is really learning about people” – Katherine Kinzler

virtuetalklogorsClick the link below to hear our scholar and Associate Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Cornell University Katherine Kinzler discuss her work in child food preferences (with collaborators Zoe Liberman, University of California, Santa Barbara; and at the University of Chicago, Samantha Fan, Amanda Woodward, Boaz Keysar); and how working with scholars in our project across the fields of psychology, philosophy, and theology has impacted her approach to thinking about her research.

Next week on The Virtue Blog, we’ll post related writing by Kinzler.

Katherine Kinzler | Virtue Talk

WGM June 2016_20160608_2839
Katherine Kinzler (left) with Candace Vogler at our June 2016 working group meeting.

Katherine Kinzler is Associate Professor of Psychology and Associate Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. Read more here.


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How to raise kids well in the age of Trump

This post is an excerpt from “A Cornell psychologist explains how to raise kids well in the age of Trump” by our scholar Katherine Kinzler, originally published on Quartz. Click here to read the full piece.

children diversity

Like many, I hope to seek goodness amidst chaos. Regardless of who leads our nation, what can we do—individually and collectively—to inspire virtue in the next generation of children?

Encourage children to think independently. Psychology researchers used to reduce young children’s morality to their ability to follow authority. Fortunately, there is now good evidence that children can engage in their own moral reasoning. They can understand that just because an authority figure says that a negative action is permissible, it may nonetheless be morally wrong. Now is the time for us to encourage children to discover and evaluate evidence for themselves. We can remind them that just because a person is in power, their ideas are not always right.

Discuss the value of a democratic system. Legal scholar Tom Tyler and developmental psychologists Alex Shaw and Kristina Olson have shown that young and old people alike care about a fair decision-making process. People like it when they get their way, sure. But they also value a fair system.

Many Hillary Clinton supporters feel disappointed that Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election because of the electoral college. But while there may be good reasons to consider amending our system for the future, the fact is that Trump won under the system we have in place now. Children are smart enough to understand this. They can respect the process of a fair election, and they can also brainstorm how they might improve the procedural system used in the future.

Watch our own language. The psychologist Marjorie Rhodes has shown how quickly language can inadvertently transmit bias. When we talk about whole groups of people as being a certain way, it is very easy for children to learn biased feelings toward that group—and to think that members of that group are all the same. We should try our best to refer to people as individuals, not as members of racial, ethnic, or religious groups. It is also important to combat cultural notions that “boys play with trucks” or “girls like pink.” The more children hear about boys and girls as being two distinctly different kinds of groups, the more easily they pick up gender stereotypes.

Lead with actions, as well as with words. Children pick up on the nonverbal cues that we send them. This is true about learning racial prejudice and about learning adults’ views of who is high and low status. We can engage in simple acts of kindness and humanity, displayed toward people of all different groups. Invite friends who are different from you to your home. Smile at people who are different from you and sit next to them at the playground. Children are watching.

Expose children to diversity. In my own research, my colleagues and I have found that being exposed to multiple languages increases children’s abilities to take the perspective of others. Likewise, studies of children in racially heterogeneous schools suggest they are more egalitarian than children in racially homogeneous schools. Often, it is difficult to disentangle the effects of parents’ interest in diversity from the impact of the exposure itself. So cover your bases. Be the kind of parent who values diversity, and let your children enjoy the potential benefits of intergroup exposure.

Remind children that most people aren’t all good or all bad. Social psychologists Adam Waytz, Liane Young, and Jeremy Ginges have shown that different groups—including American Democrats versus Republicans and Israelis versus Palestinians—think their own groups’ aggressions are motivated by love for one another, whereas the other group’s aggressions are motivated by hate. In other words, an Israeli is likely to write off a Israeli’s hostility toward a Palestinian as being motivated by love of Israelis, whereas the same Israeli would think that a Palestinian’s hostility is owed to hatred.

It is easy to lapse into this kind of polarized thinking, which misattributes people’s motivations. Adults and children alike can be reminded that often what we perceive as negative or hurtful acts do not stem from equivalently negative or hurtful intentions. It is never a bad idea to consider how you or a loved one might feel if the tables were turned.

If you’re a woman, consider getting into politics—and encourage girls to do the same. In a university setting, we often worry about the dearth of women in math and science fields. But in multiple levels of American politics, there is also an underrepresentation of women. Building a pipeline for female governance will be difficult without sufficient role models for girls to follow. Women who want to help can consider getting involved in politics themselves and by making themselves visible and accessible to a generation of girls who will be inspired to join them.

Together, people of all backgrounds can encourage their children to help build a nation that prides itself on embracing difference.

Katherine Kinzler is Associate Professor of Psychology and Associate Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.