14 Comments

Thanks for exploring the motivations for perverse behavior, harming or hurting or destroying "just because". I'm a retired psychiatrist who is afraid that the way "therapy culture" is headed is ignoring all that "inexplicable" behavior.... For another touchstone relevant to our human tendency to be -bad-just-because, check out Notes From the Underground, by Dostoevsky. Thanks!

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May 20Liked by Paul Bloom

Beautiful sunny day in Central Park yesterday by the model boat pond. A toddler was very upset that his shadow wouldn't stop following him. I feel his pain, metaphorically.

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May 20Liked by Paul Bloom

Loved this read on tantrums and was reminded that empathy doesn’t appear in humans until around age six; then wondered if WEIRD cultures may have delayed empathy or a lesser form. How else do we explain ongoing tantrums in Congress? By full grown adults? I digress, the idea of a toddler screaming for autonomy rings true but perhaps it’s a phase. My 19 year old grandson was raging hell on wheels at age 3. His mother called me in tears, and I’d stay on the phone with her gently suggesting strategies. He was our first grandchild and we loved him to pieces, tantrums or not. By age 5 he became the quietest, sweetest boy and still is today. Where did all of the angst go? Underground? Will it return one day? An aside is by age 9 his parents were divorced. Is it possible a two or three year old’s tantrums reflect underlying tension in the family unit? Or the lack of control (as suggested in your article) to make a difference in his world? I understand this suggests there is always tension in families with toddlers. Is it a universal case of cause and effect? One last note, a nephew was born with 6 fingers on one hand. It was a floppy finger dangling from the little finger; by age one it was surgically removed. Another WEIRD anecdote bowing to image? Thanks for your cool observations; keep going.

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May 20Liked by Paul Bloom

I offer that empathy has nothing to do with this. Toddlers are learning about the world. They are expecting one thing to be like the other (shoe with a round opening vs hat with a round opening). Frustration is caused by expecting some object or timeline to be different than it is in real life.

The classic example for adults is road rage. Drivers expecting traffic volume or road conditions to be different than reality. An adult throwing a tantrum is a lot scarier than a 3 year old.

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Agree. Empathy doesn’t develop until later. I was just trying to figure out the lack of empathy in adults (of all ages) in this country (maybe the entire world?) I was hoping someone would jump into my wheelhouse with the driver example. Surrendering to reality is harder than throwing a tantrum (scary adult sized) and takes practice. Practice is work and no one has time to do the work. Or wants to do the work. So is there regression? Toddler tantrums end and adult tantrums take over? Or is it a continuum?

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May 20Liked by Paul Bloom

What about cross-species comparisons? Do human toddlers tend to be more dissatisfied, tantrum-prone, etc. than chimp ones, etc.?

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author

great question -- I don't know!

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May 20Liked by Paul Bloom

Surely examples one and four are caused by an inability to comprehend not existing? Toddlers haven't yet grasped that the world existed before they did. Which prompts a question: when does this insight develop in a child's mind?

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May 20Liked by Paul Bloom

From Perplexity AI:

Anthropological evidence suggests that toddler tantrums are a universal phenomenon across cultures, but there are cultural differences in how they are perceived and handled by parents and caregivers.

The universality of tantrums can be attributed to the developmental stage of toddlerhood, where children are gaining autonomy and independence but lack the cognitive and emotional regulation skills to fully control their emotions and impulses. The underdeveloped prefrontal cortex in toddlers, responsible for emotion regulation, contributes to their propensity for intense emotional outbursts or tantrums.

However, cultural differences emerge in how tantrums are interpreted and managed by caregivers:

Some cultures, like the Ju/'hoansi of Africa and Mapuche of Chile, tend to ignore or minimize tantrums, allowing children to work through their emotions without intervention. This approach views tantrums as a normal part of child development.

In contrast, Western cultures often view tantrums as undesirable behavior that needs to be corrected or stopped immediately. Strategies like time-outs or reasoning with the child are more common.

Certain cultures, like the Inuit, use storytelling, games, and reenactments to illustrate appropriate emotional regulation and tantrum management.

Some evidence suggests that cultures prioritizing conformity and obedience, like certain European societies, may experience fewer tantrums due to stricter disciplinary practices.

While the underlying biological and developmental factors make tantrums a universal phenomenon, cultural beliefs, values, and socialization goals shape how caregivers perceive and respond to these emotional outbursts. Anthropological research highlights the diversity in cultural approaches to this aspect of child development.

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Don’t forget Puritanical societies prevalent in America (stricter disciplinary practices). Otherwise I agree.

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> desire for control isn’t a cultural value; it’s part of human nature.

“Control” and “autonomy” are close-but-no-cigars synonyms for the real answers here—what humans want most is 1) agency + 2) authority.

Every culture downstream of the Garden of Eden story has understood the first on an explicit level: our “original sin” is that we *demand* the freedom to make choices that can hurt us. God’s greatest gift to the world was allowing us to break his rules without becoming instantly annihilated. This understanding is carried through to the secular world via legal practices like leniency, pardoning, and inmate education courses.

The second, however, is more implied than overt: the Eden myth is used to *establish* authority over one group by another, smaller one—the ones who get to *decide what words mean*. The greatest power of all is wielded, after all, by those who get to decide the definition of “sin.” With the village patriarchy supplanted by the Church, and the Church supplanted by the Ivory Tower, and the Ivory Tower supplanted by the Successor Ideology, this truth is loosely translated as the “circulation of the elites” in modern parlance.

So all that to say: while Augustine may have made a convincing rhetorical show of obeisance to God, he was functionally indulging his Nietzschean *will to power* by expounding so eloquently on the nature and origins of “sinful conduct.” By proscribing what it was and what it wasn’t, he capitalized on his own outsized agency to wield *authority*, which could be said to be nothing more than the zero-sum transfer of freedom of one individual to another.

"Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; gaze long into the abyss and the abyss shall look deep into you.”

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Do children raised in non-WEIRD cultures have these sorts of tantrums? They sure do in East Asian cultures!

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Great post! Even if non-WEIRD children don't regularly throw tantrums, it would not necessarily be evidence against your "universal desire for control" hypothesis. Different child-rearing practices may boost the default sense of control/autonomy in children, so diminishing the likelihood of tantrums. I think that's plausible for traditional cultures that have less micromanaging than in the western parenting styles. For what it's worth, I agree that this need is deep-seated: https://thereisnoreward.substack.com/p/one-motive-to-rule-them-all

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I think this is much more complicated.The environment plays a role in this as well and I believe how the 'temper tantrum' is viewed by the adult involved is important. Understanding it as a developmental phase is important but it could also be a sign of frustration related to mastery or being punished, or tensions in the family environment. That it is related to a need to control something other than themselves is an explanation that has its roots in a belief system that we are born wanting to control something external to ourselves. Perverse or harmful behaviour in a small child towards others is more likely a result of the environment and their experience with the adults they are connected to. Guidance rather than punishment is one key. The different ways of managing a temper tantrum in different cultures would be the best way to understand why frustration turns into a temper tantrum.

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