Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Oh, baby! How we’re wired for stories

It's books for Max, not TV

I spent the weekend with a brilliant and beautiful baby. His parents (once brilliant and beautiful babies themselves) don’t let him watch television, since screen-watching delays cognitive development in children under the age of two.

But I’m significantly older, and while Max wasn’t looking, I learned a few things over the weekend about babies (and the rest of us) from a Sixty Minutes segment featuring research on babies, ages three to six months, that proved how deeply, and in what ways, we’re wired for stories.

In the studies, babies watched puppet shows—and boy, were they captivated. There were bad guys and good guys, puppy puppets, some dressed in red, some in blue. There were acts of kindness and mean behavior. There was vengeance.

Here, what I learned from the diaper brigade:

  • Everybody loves a hero. At the ripe old age of three months, babies favored good guy (who helped a puppet open a box) over the bad guy (who bounced the puppet off the box). The writer’s takeaway: Remember Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat? We like characters with redemptive qualities.
  • We like moral justice. Babies liked to see bad guys get the what-for, favoring the puppets that punished the meanies. The writer’s takeaway: When justice is at stake, readers respond.
  • We like people who are like us. Babies who favored Cheerios over other snacks repeatedly chose puppets who demonstrated the same preference. The writer’s takeaway: Those relatable characters you’re always hearing about? Those roots run deep.
  • Social learning overrides our natural selfishness. Presented with tokens they could either keep or share, young children kept all they could. But at about age ten, they began keeping fewer tokens for themselves and leaving more for others, even for people they’d never met. The writer’s takeaway: In every culture, stories are part of our social learning, nudging us to transcend what comes naturally.