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We Know What We Know (Even When We Don’t Want To)

Northeastern psychology professor Iris Berent studies how humans pick up something as complex as language. She’s not alone. For decades, researchers like Noam Chomsky have argued that, despite our obvious need for grammar lessons to refine our speech and writing, the potential to speak and write at all must be something we’re born with. How else would you explain children forming new sentences, ones they’ve never heard verbatim?

10/03/19 - BOSTON, MA. - Northeastern Professor of Psychology Iris Bernet poses for a portrait on Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern psychology professor Iris Berent studies inborn knowledge, such as the ability to learn a language. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

But for as long as Berent has explored the possibility of language intuition from birth, people—strangers, friends, and fellow scientists alike—have had a hard time believing such an intuition is even possible.

Berent was stumped. Why wouldn’t people entertain the idea of knowledge from birth? As it turns out, it wasn’t their fault. In a new study, Berent and her co-authors show that people are biased against accepting that knowledge can be inborn.

In one of eight experiments, Berent and her co-authors asked participants to think about what it’d be like to grow up on a deserted island, speculating which traits might spontaneously emerge in someone who hasn’t had a chance to observe them in others. In another experiment, they asked participants which traits might spontaneously appear in birds; in another, they asked the same question about aliens.

Time after time, people were more likely to reason that the only traits that would appear would be motor skills and emotions—not cognitive skills, or “knowledge”—even when the researchers made reference to real-world experiments that showed the contrary.

“This is a thing—people actually are biased,” Berent says. “Something is very wrong in how we reason about our own human nature.”

We are, as Berent puts it, “innately antinativist”: unable to accept that we’re born with certain ideas, precisely because we’re born with certain ideas that make that reality seem impossible. Now, she’s trying to identify which specific ideas are causing the problem.

Here’s her theory.

Of the certain principles that help us make sense of the world, one is believing that the “essence” of an object is at its core and is tangible: Research has shown that children assert that a brown dog’s offspring is also brown because a tiny piece of matter transfers from the former to the latter. This suggests that kids have a grasp of inheritance even before they’re taught as much.

However, imagining inheritance as a physical process competes with another principle: thinking of the mind and body as separate (even though science tells us otherwise, notes Berent). For example, if your hairdresser wants to pick up his pair of scissors, no one needs to push his hand for him to do it; if he has the physical ability to pick it up, he need only decide to pick it up, and the hand moves—by shear will, so to speak. His mind acts, and his body follows.

But when we think of inheritance as physical, while also thinking of the mind as its own, free-floating, immaterial entity, it seems illogical to us that we could physically inherit something that manifests in the mind. Of course, science tells us that many “intangible” things, like post-traumatic stress disorder, are indeed related to genetics. But, Berent says, that doesn’t change our sense that we shouldn’t be able to inherit immaterial things at all, which might explain why people refuse to accept that babies are born with any kind of knowledge.

That’s right—what’s preventing people from accepting that knowledge can be innate is itself innate.

At this point, Berent has yet to confirm the exact reason for this bias; however, that a bias exists at all was, at first, only a hunch. But this hunch rematerialized as proof, as Berent and her co-authors sought to verify a human resistance to the idea of innate ideas—and did.

The irony is, a person who has read the study still may not believe the finding. Good thing other researchers corroborated this work in the same issue of the journal in which Berent just published. This is the kind of finding you do need to be told twice.

This story was originally published on News@Northeastern on October 17, 2019.

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