Moral Foundations Theory

24 September 2010

 

Last week in my article entitled Political Divide, I introduced Jonathon Haidt’s work and the theoretical framework that attempts to explain the current pervasive and seemingly intractable political acrimony within the United States. Haidt and his colleagues offer the Moral Foundations Theory, the implications of which, suggest that this divide is a result of a moral relativism of sorts – whereas one’s moral composition essentially drives one’s political affiliation. Despite the perspective from each of the polar extremes, individuals in the opposite group are not in fact amoral, instead, Haidt et al., (2009) claim that they have different valuations of five universal morals. According to Haidt, the five universal morals include: (a) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (b) fairness/reciprocity (life liberty and justice for all); (c) ingroup/loyalty – (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (d) authority/respect (“mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates” Haidt, 2008); and (e) purity/sanctity (“related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble” Haidt, 2008).

 

From a political perspective, liberals tend to value care and fairness at a higher level than their conservative counterparts, and hold a lower valuation of ingroup loyalty, authority and purity/sanctity – while conservatives value all at a uniform lower level. Haidt’s research consistently and empirically suggests that these moral inclinations are strongly linked to the aforementioned political tendencies (2009). I thought it would be helpful this week, to look more thoroughly at the five universal morals in relation to some political hot button issues. I am interested in getting a better understanding of what morals drive the support and/or condemnation of these issues?

At the core of the divide are two foundational issues. The moral values of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity are referred to by Haidt, et al. (2009) as Individualizing Foundations where the emphasis of one’s moral imperative is on the rights and welfare of all individuals. Features of this foundation include “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm” (Haidt, 2009). The second, Binding Foundation, weighs more heavily moral issues such as ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. The implied outcome of focus on these variables is increased social cohesiveness and social order. Rather than focusing on individual equality and personal rights, the emphasis of the Binding Foundation is on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-retraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.

 

Let’s look at some of the issues and lay them out relative to these foundational issues.

 

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Those inclined to value Individualizing Foundations would be inclined to see the policy, as it stands, as ridiculous because it presumes an inherent difference in capability based one’s sexuality. The moral valuation of equality and fairness as well as distaste for discrimination drives the belief that one should not be devalued or discriminated against based on whether one is heterosexual or homosexual. Whereas one inclined to have more relative valuation of authority, purity, and ingroup loyalty, may have more concern about what religion has to say about homosexuality, sensitivity to maintaining the orderliness and comfort of an “all” heterosexual force, strong revulsion of those who engage in sexuality that is different than their own, and respect for the authority of the status quo.

 

Gay Marriage
Marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, the community, and God” is the argument made by those with stronger relative Binding Foundations. One may argue that the Bible asserts this sacred relationship as being one only between a man and a woman. Purity, sanctity, ingroup loyalty, and authority all drive this belief. But again, one with Individualizing Foundational thinking might devalue the importance of the above moral inclinations in preference of the values of fairness and equality. One might argue that love is love, and any two individuals who love one another, should have the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities of any other two humans, regardless of the gender of the individuals involved.

 

Stem Cell Research
This issue may boil down to the difference between fundamental religious beliefs driven by strong relative valuation of purity and sanctity. It also reflects one’s inclinations to believe whether one has a soul or not and when, in fact, the soul is unified with the body. The issue of the soul is a complicated one with intense importance to some and little to no relevance for others. Those who foresee the potential benefits to those who are harmed by grave diseases value stem cell research because of this potential and may be among those that are less concerned about sanctity.

 

Abortion
This highly personal issue again, in many cases, boils down to the sanctity of life. Those inclined to support a woman’s right to choose, likely value individual rights and foresee the potential harm that unwanted pregnancies may bring to a woman. They also place the important responsibility of one’s body solely in the hands of the woman. Rape or incest, as well as danger to the mother, in particular, are seen as being important situations where a woman should have the right to choose. Yet many equate abortion with murder, and for many this could not be further from the truth. There are clear and distinct differences here and both sides claim that morality is on their side.

 

Health Care Reform
One may argue that health care is, or should be, a fundamental human right: and that all people, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, race, sex, or ability should have access to medical services. Others, it seems, hold that it should be a privilege of success. The former represents morality that is based in thinking that highly values equality and fairness. The latter notion, however, is based in vigilance for freeloaders – an aspect of the Binding Foundation.

 

The Bush Tax Cuts
Those with an Individualizing Foundations mindset generally value a progressive tax structure due to the perceived fairness of it. They believe that those who hold the most wealth should bare a greater share of the burden of caring for the less fortunate among us. They also may argue that the wealthy accumulate their capital as a result of the work performed for them by those who are the less well off. The well to do also benefit from the infrastructure laid down by governments. Regressive taxes it is believed, disproportionately burden the poor with a greater share of the tax load. Diminished government spending also disproportionately affects the poor with regard to education, health care, nutrition, and housing. This cost savings to the wealthy leads to greater income divergence and as a result, subsequent increases in murder, theft, assault, school drop outs, substance abuse, spousal abuse, unwed mothers, and so on. This fundamentally challenges the notion of fairness and reciprocity. On the other hand, those with a Binding Foundational mindset recoil at the notion of freeloaders who cheat the system and are enabled by their government. They may see entitlements as fundamentally flawed handouts that encourage social decline as manifested by AFDC that encourages single parent families. There is an underlying belief that those with wealth are solely responsible for their position in life and that it is unfair for them to have to care for the lazy freeloaders among us. Part of this may stem for the increased valuation of authority and to a certain degree, ingroup loyalty. Some may believe that the wealthy have succeeded because of their internal attributes and work ethic. While the poor, may be likewise responsible for their positions in life because of their own character flaws. Purity may play a role in this.

 

Issue by issue, the Moral Foundations Theory can be used in such a fashion to account for such moral divergence. Be the issue, immigration, privatization of social security, corporate bailouts, you name it, this model helps explain it. I’m sure there are weaknesses with this model and I hope you are inclined to share your impressions. But for me, I am more inclined to look and listen more deeply knowing that opposing positions are not essentially rooted in baseless principles. How do you think?

 

References:

 

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046

 

Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

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When I hit the publish button for my last post Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing I felt a tinge of angst.  It took a few days for my rational brain to figure out (or perhaps confabulate) a reason; but, I think I may have.  Perhaps it should have been immediately obvious, but my outrage likely clouded my judgment.  Anyways, that angst wasn’t due to the potential controversy of the article’s content – I had previously posted more provocative pieces.  What I have come to conclude is that the nature of the controversy could be construed as being more personal.

 

It is not hard to imagine that there is a very real possibility that people I love may have been hurt by what I wrote.  This left me feeling like a hypocrite because what I have continually aspired to communicate is that “true morality” should promote human flourishing for everyone.  Although the overarching message was consistent with my goal, the tone and tenor was not.

 

I was inspired by a blog post written by a family member that touched the nerves of my liberal sensitivities.  Further, and more importantly, I believe that what he wrote was likely hurtful to others in my family.   A couple of my tribal communities (moral and kin) were assaulted, and I responded assertively.

 

The whole purpose of my blog How Do You Think? has been driven toward understanding such diverse and mutually incompatible beliefs that do in fact transcend my family and the world in general.  In this particular situation, however,  I placed several family members in the crux of just such a moral juxtaposition.

 

I am certain that much of what I have written over the last year may be construed as offensive to some from a variety of different tribal moral communities.  But one thing I am equally certain of, is that attacking one’s core moral holdings is not an effective means of facilitating enlightenment.

 

I responded to my relative’s pontifications with moral outrage and indignation.  I was offended and mad.  That is what happens when core beliefs are challenged.  We circle the wagons and lash back.  But this does nothing to further the discussion.  I should have known better.  And, that error of judgment may have lasting familial consequences.  This saddens me, and I am sorry.

 

So then, how are we to cope with such diametrically opposed perspectives?

 

If you have consistently read my posts you are likely to have come away with an understanding of the workings of the human brain, and as such, realize that it is an incredible but highly flawed organ.   What is more important to recognize, is that these flaws leave us prone to a variety errors that are both universal and systematic.  The consequences of these errors include Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Pareidolia, Superstition, Essentialism, Cognitive Conservatism, and Illusions of all sorts (e.g., Attention, Cause, Confidence, Memory, Efficacy, Willpower, and Narrative).  The down stream consequences of these errors, paired with our tribal nature, and our innate moral inclinations lead us to form tribal moral communities.  These communities unite around ideologies and sacred items, beliefs, or shared history’s.  Our genetically conferred Moral Instincts which are a part of our Human Nature lay the ground work for us to seek out others who share our beliefs and separate ourselves from others who do not.  This is how the divide occurs.  And our brain is instrumental in this division and the subsequent acrimony between groups.

 

This is perhaps the most important concept that I want to share.  Systematic brain errors divide us.  Understanding this – I mean truly understanding all of these systematic errors, is essential to uniting us.  Education is the key, and this is what I hope to provide.  Those very brain errors are themselves responsible for closing minds to the reality of these facts.  Regardless, the hopes that I have for universal enlightenment persist and I hope to endeavor ever onward opening minds without providing cause to close them.   I fear that I  have taken a misstep – spreading the divide rather than closing it.

 

Please know that Human Flourishing for all is my number one goal.  Never do I intend to come off as judgmental, hurtful, or otherwise arrogant or elitist.  When I do – please push back and offer constructive criticism.   We are all in this together – and time, love, life, peace, and compassion are precious.   This is the starting point – something that I am certain we share.  Don’t you think?

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Tribal Moral Community

25 February 2011

We humans are a unique species – capable of both incredible compassion and unequaled brutality.  We are also unique in the degree to which we congregate in social communities.  Social Psychologists refer to this propensity to gather as we do, as being ultra social.  Unlike other ultra social species (e.g., wasps, ants, bees, termites, and naked mole rats) who band together in kin-based groups for procreation, we humans join together for other more complex reasons. (Haidt, 2008)  Those things that bind us, it is argued, are also the things that fuel our brutality.

 

We are particularly good at joining together when in competition with other groups (Haidt, 2011).  Evidence suggests that this has been true since the very beginning of humankind, and it is evidenced today by family loyalty (e.g., I can bad mouth my brother but an outsider cannot), cliques that form in schools (e.g., jocks, heads, nerds), by community organizations (Elks, Masons, Kiwanis, Rotarians), by the spirit surrounding high school, college, and professional sports teams, as well as by Churches (e.g., Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterian, Fundamentalists, Unitarians), Mosques (e.g., Shia and Sunni), and Synagogues (e.g., Orthodox Jews, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist).  We also see this in civic pride (by town, city, region, and state) national pride (patriotism), in the gatherings of individuals by racial affiliation, by sexual orientation, by professional affiliation, ancestral heritage, and political affiliation.  We bind together and join with people who share important beliefs, values, allegiances, interests, histories, and/or symbols.

 

There is substantial evidence to believe that this proclivity to be drawn together, and at the same time, to be divided into camps, is driven by morality.  We humans have evolved, it seems, innate moral values that transcend all cultures. I have discussed this in Political Divide, Moral Instinct, Moral Foundations Theory, and Human Nature at the Core of the Political Divide in an effort to understand the vast differences in thinking evidenced within and across our cultures.  Even among my family members, all of whom I dearly love, their are vast differences that often leave me perplexed.  Jonathon Haidt’s research on Moral Foundations Theory, his talk at TED, and his recent controversial statements about bias in the social sciences inspired this post and have helped me come to grips with the deep divisions throughout society and within my family.

 

First, I must provide a brief recap of Moral Foundations Theory.  According to Haidt (based on an extensive review of the research across multiple disciplines), the five universal morals include: (1) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (2) fairness/reciprocity (equal rights, justice, and fairness for all); (3) ingroup/loyalty (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (4) authority/respect (clear lines of authority, uniform expectations, and appropriate deference to the law and authority figures); and (5) purity/sanctity (clear and pure social morals in step with piety, as well as revulsion of disgust/carnality).

 

You see, across the five universal morals, people differ in the degree to which they value each moral.   This is evidenced most clearly in Haidt’s research on the degree to which Liberals and Conservatives deviate on their weighting of the importance of each specific value.  See Political Divide for a more in-depth discussion of this topic.

Click on Figure to enlarge

 

Liberals seem to value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity above the others, devaluing ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.  They look out for the little guy and highly value equal rights for all.  They also value diversity, are open to experience – tending to enjoy creativity and novelty.  They may see harm in overreaching government intrusion (e.g., Patriot Act), danger in blind nationalism, and the injustices in puritanical religions and free market capitalism (particularly for those at the bottom – namely: women, children, and minorities).  Think of places like New York City or San Francisco where diversity and creativity abound and are in many ways celebrated. Conservatives tend to look at the social entropy and degradation in such places as evidence of immorality.

 

Conservatives tend to hold all of the values on an equal level.  They do value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity but less so than Liberals.  But unlike Liberals, they do highly value ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.   As a result they tend to value social order, restraint, and conventions all held together by a strict authority.  They value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s group over concerns for outgroups (Haidt, 2008).  Liberals tend to view such systems as repressive, invasive, and constrictive.

 

Liberals and Conservatives join together in their respective camps forming what Haidt (2011) refers to as Tribal Moral Communities.  Such banding is not unique to those with strong political affiliations – this proclivity transcends society.  And what characterizes a Tribal Moral Community is a grouping of people who rally around sacred objects and principles (e.g., the flag, patriotism, freedom, religion) in such a way that their sacralized truths render them blind to the truths held by the outgroup.

 

Conflict and brutality can arise when the people rally around the certainty that their moral position is correct.  Threats to a Moral Tribal Community tend to incite its constituents to become intuitive theologians, employing reason not to find the truth but rather to defend their moral position.  They tend to circle the wagons around their belief systems becoming rigid and impervious to input (especially facts that challenge one’s position).  (Haidt, 2011)

 

To make this more concrete lets look at a few examples of Tribal Moral Communities.  Of particular note is the conservative stand denying anthropogenic global warming because of the implications it has on their free-market ideology. Belief in an ideology blinds adherents to the evidence.

 

Lets also consider the conflict between fundamentalist Christians and Scientists who contend that, based on a huge convergence of objective evidence from astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, and paleontology, that the universe is over 13.67 billion years old, that the earth is 4.56 billion years old, and that all living organisms are interrelated, having evolved by means of natural selection to their current forms over billions of years.  Because the Bible is considered sacred text – scientific evidence that undermines the word of God is often vilified rather than objectively scrutinized.

 

And then there are the proponents of vaccines and the anti vaccine folks, Socialists and Capitalists, Free-Market and Keynesian Economists, Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choice Advocates, the LGBT Community and religious conservatives, the Hutus’ and Tutsis of Rwanda, the Zaghawa and Tama tribes of Chad, the Sunni and Shia of Islam, Al Qaeda and the US, Iran and the US, North Korea and the US, and I could go on and on.  At the core of each of these divisions is a moral divide that stirs both binding forces that fuel patriotism and in-group loyalty and blinding forces that have the potential of negating the moral standing of, or even the humanity of those in the out-group.

 

It is this capacity that has fueled humanity’s most brutal behavior.  Picture in your mind, images from Auschwitz,from the lynchings of African Americans in the South, from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and from 9/11.  All of these were fueled by moral authority.

 

Of course there are degrees of effect associated with Tribal Moral Communities.  Dr. Haidt has gone out on a limb to challenge his own professional community.  He has noted that according to Gallop polls over the last ten years, 40% of Americans consider themselves Conservative, 20% Liberal, and 38% Moderates.  Yet in the field of Social Psychology, approximately 90% are acknowledged Liberals – with less than 1% acknowledged Conservatives.  He contends that this narrow political perspective weakens the field, although he did not suggest that the research to date has been flawed.  He suggests rather, that it would likely be bettered if more conservatives were in the field to bring the richness of diversity that it currently lacks. (Haidt, 2011).

 

There are other important gradients to consider.  Here in the United States for example, rarely do Buffalo Bills fans and Miami Dolphin fans brutalize one another.  But African Americans, Gays, Jews, American’s of Middle Eastern descent, and even doctors employed at family planning clinics have not been so lucky.

 

Clearly morality binds, but is also blinds.  Every body believes that their moral perspective is the correct moral perspective, and given the brutality we see among us, it is certain that we all cannot be right.  Our certainty and righteousness unites us into teams that have the effect of amplifying that certainty and righteousness.  This binding also has the propensity to divide us and ultimately blind us to reality.  Therefore, for any sacralized issue, if we want the truth we must be willing to step away from ideology and open our minds to the possibility that we may be wrong or at least partially wrong and that the outgroup may be right or at least partially right.  That is the first step, if you are truly interested in the truth.

 

References:

 

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046

 

Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

 

Haidt, J., (2008).  The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives. A Talk at TED.

 

Haidt, J. (2011).  The Bright Future of Post Partisan Social Psychology. Talk given at the annual conference for the Sociaty for Personality and Social Psychology.

 

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

 

Pinker, S. (2008). The Moral InstinctThe New York Times. January 13, 2008.

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Although I did not make a substantial number of posts in 2013, the traffic to my site remained relatively vigorous.  Throughout 2013 my blog had 24,007 hits from 21,042 unique visitors, accounting for nearly 30,000 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the US and 158 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, Australia, India, China, and Germany also brought in large contingents.

 

Of my posts published in 2013, none made it to this year’s top ten list: five were from 2010,  four were published in 2011, and one was from 2012.  This year the top ranked article (The Moral Instinct) was a 2010 review of a very popular 2008 New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker.   This perennially popular piece ranked 5th last year, 4th in 2011 and 3rd in 2010.   Its bounce to the top this year is more of a testament to Pinker and the popularity of his piece that explores the universality of morals.  In that piece I wrote:

 

Pinker delves into the neurological factors associated with morality and the evolutionary evidence and arguments for an instinctual morality. He reviews several important studies that provide evidence for these hypotheses. But, he argues that morality is more than an inheritance – it is larger than that. It is contextually driven. He notes: “At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us. Of course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that they are beyond the pale of reason. ” He further contends “But in any conflict in which a meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground.

 

This article may have also remained popular because of its relevance with regard to the state of affairs in today’s political arena and the application of Jonathon Haidt’s increasingly popular work on the Moral Foundations Theory.  

 

The 2013 number two ranked piece Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is, is a review of one of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous articles where he argued that there is no evidence of morality in nature, that in fact “nature as it plays out evolution’s dance, is entirely devoid of anything pertaining to morality or evil. We anthropomorphize when we apply these concepts. Even to suggest that nature is cruel is anthropomorphizing. Any true and deep look at the struggle for life that constantly dances in our midst can scarcely lead to any other conclusion but that nature is brutal, harsh, and nonmoral” (Gould).  Historically this has been a controversial topic and remains so in certain circles today.  This piece has remained popular over the years – ranking 4th last year and 2nd in 2011 and 2010.

 

Brain MRI

Brain MRI

Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures – the 3rd ranking post this year ranked 2nd last year and 1st in 2011. This very popular piece takes a pragmatic, comparative, and colorful look at the various ways of measuring brain activity.  My 2012 article Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really?  is finally getting some attention.  Although it ranked 10th last year, it has climbed into the number four slot this year.  I contend that this is perhaps one of the most important articles I have written.

 

Proud as a Peacock  By Mark Melnick

Proud as a Peacock By Mark Melnick

My critical article on the widely used Implicit Associations Test ranked 5th this year, 6th in 2012, and 4th in 2011. Last year’s number one piece on Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail  is one of my favorite pieces.  It addresses our inherent drive to advance one’s social standing while actually going nowhere on the hedonic treadmill.  It delves into the environmental costs of buying into the illusion of consumer materialism and its biological origins (the signaling instinct much like that of the Peacock’s tail).

 

I am excited to report that Poverty is a Neurotoxin is also finally gaining some traction.  Published in 2011 it has never achieved a top ranking; although, in my humble opinion, it is no less important.  Rounding out the top ten of 2013, my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked 8th this year, 9th last year, and 10th in 2011. One of my all time favorite posts from 2010,  What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule made it back to the top ten list this year coming in 9th.  It was 7th in 2011 and 8th in 2010.  My 2011 post Where Does Prejudice Come From? ranked 10th this year, 7th last year, and 5th in 2011.

 

So here is the Top Ten list for 2013.

 

  1. Moral Instinct  (2010) 4182 page views since published – All time ranking #5
  2. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010) 4616 page views since published – All time ranking #3
  3. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011) 7941 page views since published – All time ranking #1
  4. Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really? (2012) 1719 page views since published – All time ranking #8
  5. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010) 2572 page views since published – All time ranking #6
  6. Conspicuous Consumption & the Peacock’s Tail (2011) 7677 page views since published – All time ranking #2
  7. Poverty is a Neurotoxin (2011) 960 page views since published – All time ranking #18
  8. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010) 1702 page views since published – All time ranking #9
  9. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule (2010) 1381 page views since published – All time ranking #12
  10. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011) 1625 page views since published – All time ranking #10

 

Rounding out the top ten All Time Most Popular Pieces are:

wicked-poster

 

These top ranking articles represent the foundational issues that have driven me in my quest to understand how people think.   This cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.

 

There are several other 2013 posts that ranked outside this year’s top ten list; regardless, I believe they are important.  These other posts include:

 

  1. get out of jail free cardMind Pops: Memories from out of the Blue
  2. Who Cheats More: The Rich or the Poor?
  3. Crime, Punishment, and Entitlement: A Deeper Look
  4. Cheaters
  5. American Exceptionalism: I’m all for it!
  6. Partisan Belief Superiority and Dogmatism as a Source of Political Gridlock

 

Maintaining relevance is an article, published in 2012, The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth: Our Microbiome, pertains to the collection of an estimated 100 trillion individual organisms (bacteria for the most part) thriving in and on your body that account for about three pounds of your total body weight (about the same weight as your brain).  These little creatures play a huge role in your physical and mental well being and we are just beginning to understand the extent of their reach.  Modern medicine in the future, will likely embrace the microbiotic ecosystem as a means of preventing and treating many illnesses (including treating some mental illnesses).  I have continued to update this piece with comments including links to new research on this topic.

Children of high socioeconomic status (SES) show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (Mark Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)

Children of high socioeconomic status (SES) show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (Mark Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)

 

Although, not among the most popular articles this year, my pieces on the pernicious affects of poverty on child development from 2011 warrant ongoing attention.  If we truly wish to halt the cycle of poverty, then we need to devote early and evidenced based intervention services for children and families living in poverty.  As it turns out, poverty is a neurotoxin.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.

 

 

The bottom line:

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human-kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions (intuitions) have sustained us, and in many ways they still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:

 

“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

 

Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort to step away from what we believe to be true in order to discover what is indeed true.

 

The Hand of God as an example of pareidolia.

The Hand of God as an example of pareidolia.

 

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Are you sick and tired of politicians and their antics throughout the United States? Regardless of your political orientation, this is likely the case.  Over the last 20 years there has been a rising tide of bitter partisanship, leaving a large contingent of US Citizens feeling frustrated and disenfranchised.  Meanwhile both parties point their fingers at their adversaries proclaiming that it is the ideological extremism of the other party causing the divide.   The liberals are accused of promoting socialistic policies while the conservatives are accused of acquiescing to religious and corporate interests.

 

Underlying this partisanship are two driving concepts, dogmatism and belief superiorityDogmatism is generally conceptualized as ideological rigidity.  This is characterized by the holding of beliefs as “incontrovertible and sacrosanct,”with a conviction that the beliefs cannot, and should not, be abandoned.  Belief superiority, on the other hand, is self defining but it lacks the rigidity factor.  One can hold a belief as being superior to the beliefs of others, but be willing to modify that belief based on evidence or changing societal values.

 

Some contend that both liberals and conservatives at the polar ends of the political spectrum are ideological extremists and thus are more likely to be dogmatic.  This position is known as the Ideological-Extremist Hypothesis.  Another perspective, held by many, is the Rigidity of the Right Hypothesis, that contends that conservatives tend to score higher than liberals on measures of dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, and closed-mindedness.  Naturally, the issue is more nuanced than this.  These issues have been studied and published in a paper by Toner, Leary, Asher, and Jongman-Sereno (2013) titled Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority.   Toner et al., (2013) contend that:

 

“Not only do individuals – liberals and conservative alike – vary in the issues about which they feel superior, but also evidence suggests that liberals and conservatives may be dogmatic about different issues.  For example compared to conservatives, liberals are more dogmatic about global warming, equally dogmatic about civil unions, and less dogmatic about affirmative action.” 1

 

Measuring both belief superiority and dogmatism, Toner and her colleagues attempted to assess the veracity of both the Rigidity of the Right and the Ideological Extremism Hypotheses.   They did this through an online questionnaire service whereby they collected data on 527 subjects (55% male, 49% with some college, ages 18-67 years with a mean age of 30.7).  Three questionnaires were completed by each participant including: 1) an issues oriented set of questions quantifying attitudes on nine contentious political topics –  thereby determining their political sensibilities on a conservative-liberal spectrum; 2) a superiority of belief measure assessing the degree of certainty of correctness on each issue, and 3) a measure of dogmatic thinking.  Co-author Mark Leary  noted that they: “… examined whether those who endorse the extremes of conservative and liberal viewpoints demonstrate greater belief superiority than those who hold moderate views.2

 

Consistent with previous research findings, those espousing more conservative attitudes scored significantly higher on the dogmatism scale.   Thus the Rigidity of the Right Hypothesis was supported while the Ideological Extremism hypothesis was unsubstantiated.  In other words, extreme conservatives scored much higher on the dogmatism scale than did extreme liberals.  With regard to belief superiority, both conservatives and liberals demonstrated this attribute, but on different topics (see Figure 2 below from Toner, et al., 2013).  Specifically, people who endorsed conservative attitudes expressed greater belief superiority than did liberals when asked about voter identification laws, affirmative action, and taxes.  Liberals demonstrated greater belief superiority on the issues pertaining to the role in government in helping the less fortunate, the use of torture on terrorists, and the basing of laws on religious teachings.  The more “extreme” one’s attitudes were, the greater their belief superiority tended to be.

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As this study and a number of previous studies have provided evidence for, dogmatism tends to be associated with those at the conservative end of the spectrum.  Meanwhile, belief superiority is more specific to the issues and is evident at both ends of the spectrum.  Toner et al., (2013) note:

 

“… belief superiority does not include the unchanging, inflexible element implied by dogmatism.  Thus, people who endorse extremely liberal views may feel as equally superior in their beliefs as those endorsing extremely conservative views, but they might be more likely to adjust their views over time with changes in evidence, social norms, or other people’s influence.”1

 

History is filled with travesties perpetrated by extremists at both ends of the political spectrum promoting egalitarian (liberal), individualistic (conservative), and/or religious agendas.   As Toner et al., (2013) suggest, strong beliefs based in evidence may be reasonable and justified.  It is dogmatism, regardless of what belief system that it emanates from, which constitutes danger. Dangerous yes, but more relevant today is the reality that such bombast results in gridlock.  These mindsets help explain the current US governmental stalemate as Toner noted in an interview for Duke Today: “These findings help to explain why politicians with more extreme views can’t reach across the aisle.  As more extreme candidates get elected to Congress, compromise becomes more difficult and deadlocks increase because those with more extreme views are more certain that they are right.”2

 

Although certainty and confidence are attractive in leaders, it is exactly these very attributes that render politicians ineffective.  Life and society are complicated.  There are no easy solutions.  What I took away from this study is that we need collaboration among diverse and intelligent thinkers who are unencumbered by dogmatism and extremist ideology.  We, as a people, must stop feeding into the vitriolic nature of politics and look for leaders who are more willing to work together to solve complex problems.  We must stop feeding the monster, before it eats us up.  One important way to end this is to stop attending to extremist political pundits who stir up hatred and polarize politics.  We all know who these pundits are.  The reality is that media driven hatred and fear mongering drives these phenomena and it is commercial Television and Radio that gives these pundits a platform.  Perhaps it is time to hit their corporate sponsors as they are complicit in spoiling the well.

 

References:

 

1. Toner, K., Leary,  M. R., Asher, M. W., & Jongman-Sereno, K. P. (2013).  Feeling Superior is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority, Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848

 

2.  Duke Today. (2013). Belief Superiority is Bipartisan

 

Also See:

 

American Exceptionalism: I’m All For It!

 

The Illusion of Punditry

 

Political Divide

 

Moral Foundations Theory

 

Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?

 

 

 

 

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Have you ever heard someone make an argument that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief?  Does it seem to you like some people are coming from a completely different reality than your own?  If so, then this blog is for you.  I have spent the last year trying to develop an understanding of the common thought patterns that drive the acrimonious spirit of our social and political dialogue.  I am continually amazed by what I hear coming from seemingly informed people.  I have assumed that some folks are either deluded, disingenuous, or downright ignorant.  There is yet another possibility here, including the reality that different moral schema or belief systems may be driving their thinking.  And if this is the case, how do these divergent processes come to be?  I  have learned a lot through this exploration and feel compelled do provide a recap of the posts I have made.  I want to share with you those posts that have gathered the most traction and some that I believe warrant a bit more attention.

 

Over the past year I have posted 52 articles often dealing with Erroneous Thought Processes, Intuitive Thinking, and Rational Thought.  Additionally, I have explored the down stream implications of these processes with regard to politics, morality, religion, parenting, memory, willpower, and general perception.  I have attempted to be evidenced-based and objective in this process – striving to avoid the very trappings of confirmation bias and the erroneous processes that I am trying to understand.   As it turns out, the brain is very complicated: and although it is the single most amazing system known to human kind, it can and does lead us astray in very surprising and alarming ways.

 

As for this blog, the top ten posts, based on the shear number of hits, are as follows:

  1. Attribution Error
  2. Nonmoral Nature, It is what it is.
  3. Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy
  4. Moral Instinct
  5. Pareidolia
  6. IAT: Questions of Reliability
  7. Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?
  8. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule
  9. Illusion of Punditry
  10. Emotion vs.Reason: And the winner is?

What started out as ramblings from a curious guy in a remote corner of New York State ended up being read by folks from all over the planet.  It has been a difficult process at times, consuming huge amounts of time, but it has also been exhilarating and deeply fulfilling.

 

I have been heavily influenced by several scientists and authors in this exploration.  Of particular importance have been Steven Pinker, Daniel Simons, Christopher Chabris, Jonah Lehrer, Bruce Hood, Carl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell.  Exploring the combined works of these men has been full of twists and turns that in some cases necessitated deep re-evaluation of long held beliefs.  Holding myself to important standards – valuing evidence over ideology – has been an important and guiding theme.

 

Several important concepts have floated to the top as I poked through the diverse literature pertaining to thought processes. Of critical importance has been the realization that what we have, when it comes to our thought processes, is a highly developed yet deeply flawed system that has been shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.  Also important has been my increased understanding of the importance of genes, the basic element of selective pressures, as they play out in morality and political/religious beliefs.  These issues are covered in the top ten posts listed above.

 

There are other worthy posts that did not garner as much attention as those listed above.  Some of my other favorites included a review of Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times (also titled Moral Instinct,) a look at Jonathon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory in Political Divide, as well as the tricks of Retail Mind Manipulation and the Illusion of Attention.  This latter post and my series on Vaccines and Autism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) were perhaps the most important of the lot.  Having the content of these become general knowledge would make the world a safer place.

 

The evolution of understanding regarding the power and importance of Intuitive relative to Rational Thinking was humbling at times and Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ book, The Invisible Gorilla, certainly provided a mind opening experience.  Hey, our intuitive capabilities are incredible (as illustrated by Gladwell in Blink & Lehrer in How We Decide) but the downfalls are amazingly humbling.  I’ve covered other topics such as  happiness, superstition, placebos, and the debate over human nature.

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to put blind-folds on adherents.  Often the blind- folds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

 

Because of our genetically inscribed tendencies toward mysticism and gullibility, we must make extra effort in order to find truth. As Dr. Steven Novella once wrote:

“We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process.”

We must therefore be humble with regard to beliefs and be willing to accept that we are vulnerable to error prone influences outside our awareness.  Recognition and acceptance of these proclivities are important first steps.   Are you ready to move forward?  How do you think?

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Are you as perplexed as I regarding the acrimony in American Politics?  The rift is peppered with claims of amorality and threats of calamity.  It’s almost as if the opposing parties come from entirely different realities.  Perhaps they do.  I have gained some insight into the liberal-conservative divide thanks to Jonathon Haidt’s work, particularly his Moral Foundations Theory.

 

Haidt contends that the political divide itself boils down to five universal and transcendent morals held to varying degrees by individuals across all cultures and civilizations.  He demonstrated how these moral values group in predictable ways.  In particular, he has identified two dichotomous groupings that had been previously discussed respectively by John Stuart Mill and Emile Durkheim.

 

Haidt describes the first cluster as the Individualizing Foundation, where the emphasis of one’s moral imperative is on the rights and welfare of all individuals.  Features of this foundation include “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm” (Haidt, 2009).  The second cluster of values is referred to as the Binding Foundation, which weighs more heavily moral issues that increase social cohesiveness and social order. Rather than focusing on individual equality and personal rights, the emphasis of the Binding Foundation is on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-restraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.

 

Haidt noted that liberals value above all the Individualizing Foundation and hold a relative devaluation of the Binding Foundation.  Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to hold the Binding Foundation as being of equal relative importance as the Individualizing Foundations.  This conceptualization helped me understand why less affluent conservatives support the Republican agenda regardless of the negative economic impact that such support bestows upon them.  They vote based on values that resonate with them.  It also helps explain how people at each extreme can take a stand that they contend is morally superior while their adversaries are viewed as being unprincipled and amoral.  The reality is that each perspective stems from a position of deeply held principles.

 

I recently finished reading Steven Pinker’s book entitled The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.  Rather than looking at this political divide in terms of morality, Pinker frames it in terms of divergent views of human nature. Underlying this political divide is a deeper and more rancorous debate about what defines human nature.  This issue is as old as civilization itself and was, for example, evident in the divergent lifestyles of the conflicted Greek City States of Athens and Sparta.  Pinker contends that the political divide really comes down to how individuals attribute the motives and behaviors of people in general. It is a very basic question of how one views the human race and what drives human behavior.

 

Pinker takes a stand against the commonly held notion that human nature is a blank slate shaped exclusively through environmental circumstances influenced by economic, political, and social forces.   The notion of a blank slate concedes social determinism, which is a position that is favored by liberals.  Evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience bring to the table substantial evidence that suggests that there are indeed genetic or biological determinants of behavior.  Accepting this reality comes with the dreadful reality that such notions guided the eugenics movement that resulted in the holocaust (and other horrible crimes of humanity).

 

As it turns out, political attitudes, for example, are largely, although not entirely, determined by heredity.  Pinker quotes a study of political attitudes among identical twins reared apart where the correlation coefficient was .62.  This suggests that genetics accounts for 38% of the determination of political attitude.  Such a notion is sacrilege to those on the left.  It is deeply disturbing for me, as one who leans heavily to the left on political issues, to learn that my inclinations to accept the findings of these increasingly powerful sciences at some level, distances me from other liberal thinkers.  How can this be?

 

You see, liberals emanate from the sociological tradition that holds the position that society “is a cohesive organic entity and its individuals are mere parts.  People are thought to be social by their very nature and to function as constituents of a larger superorganism” (Pinker, 2002 p. 284).   On the other hand, conservatives tend to hold the belief that “society is an arrangement negotiated by rational, self-interested individuals.  Society emerges when people agree to sacrifice some of their autonomy in exchange for security from the depredations of others wielding their own autonomy” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285).

 

The modern theory of evolution aligns best with the latter economic contract paradigm, where natural selection results in complex individual adaptations benefiting individuals rather than the species or community.  This theory holds that “all societies – animal and human – seethe with conflicts of interest and are held together by shifting mixtures of dominance and cooperation” and that “reciprocal altruism, in particular, is just the traditional concept of the social contract restated in biological terms” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285).  To make this dichotomy more clear it might help to think of the sociological tradition as being consistent with Marxist thinking while the social contract is more consistent with Milton Friedman’s free-market conservatism.

 

At the core of these paradigms are very different conceptualizations of human nature.  Thomas Sowell has captured this dichotomy in his book A Conflict of Visions where he delineates those visions as being either constrained or unconstrained.  Pinker adapted these labels to be more descriptive and thus refers to them respectively as Tragic (a term Sowell later adopted) and Utopian.  These visions refer to the “perfectibility of man” whereas the Tragic Vision holds that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue” and that as a result “all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits.”   This  pessimistic view of human nature, is steeped in biological determinism and the acknowledgment of self interested motives. The liberal or Utopian View contends that “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements.”  It is believed that economic deprivation elicits social depravity and that social engineering can eradicate the ills of society.

 

Sowell and Pinker suggest that these very visions of human nature shape the belief mechanisms or morals that result in divergent social policies.  For example, people who hold the Tragic Vision are more likely to support a strong military because of an inherent human selfishness and the inclination to compete for resources.  They are more likely to value religion, tough criminal sentences, strong policing, and judicial restraint because people need to be constrained in order to maintain an orderly and cohesive society.  Likewise, because of this pessimistic view of human nature, people inclined to hold such a view are likely to be censorious, meritocratic, pragmatic, and pro business.

 

People holding the Utopian View are likely to be idealistic, egalitarian, pacifistic, secularist, and more likely to tolerate homosexuality, to be in favor of the rehabilitation of criminals, judicial activism, generous social welfare programs, and affirmative action.  They are also more likely to be environmentalists. Pinker’s contention is that all these values, more or less, are heritable and that as a result, people are likely to hold them as self defining.  Subsequently, these beliefs are typically not amenable or susceptible to change because they are often held without a rationally based understanding of them.  Such deeply held (intuitive) and heritable attitudes quickly spark emotional responses when challenged and people do not move away from such notions even when reason compels them to do so.

 

So it seems, at the core of the contentious political divide there are discrepant realities pertaining to the very essence of what it is to be a human being.  And that essence is evolving regardless of the ideologies that shape the political climate.  Perhaps we can escape the gridlock by acknowledging the disconnect between ideology and reality and embrace a truer essence of humanity.  That reality, it seems, is a blend of the Tragic and Utopian Visions where human behavior is guided by both social and biological determinants.  Reality, as it turns out, is often queerer than one can suppose.

 

Breaking the chains of ideology necessarily involves abandoning and overpowering intuition, which is itself, a formidable task. But social morays have evolved over time as we have gained deeper insight into humankind. Lets hope for continued evolution!

 

References:

 

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046

 

Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

 

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

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