Nobody likes a cheater. Such acts may stir deep feelings of loathing that erode trust and have ruinous consequences with regard to reputation and relationship. It’s one of those things that is hard to overcome. I’m not just talking about infidelity here. I’m referring to a broader type that does include infidelity, but also includes things like pilfering, speeding, lying about one’s age, and other forms of dishonesty that benefit you at a cost to someone else. Irrespective of the potential social costs, most people, given the opportunity, with little threat of detection, will and DO cheat. Be honest with yourself here. This shouldn’t be surprising. What is surprising is the fact that altruism, or selflessness, the behavioral opposite of cheating, exists at all.
By virtue of the fact that human beings are the product of millions of years of evolution by means of natural selection, we are imbued with a selfishness that is hard to deny. As distasteful as this may be, it is nonetheless true. We are compelled by our selfish genes to survive, thrive, and replicate. Within this context, cheating and selfishness make perfect sense and altruism makes little. Yet we do exhibit altruism. Why is this? Steven Pinker wrote in How the Mind Works (1997, p 337):
Natural selection does not select public-mindedness; a selfish mutant would quickly out reproduce its altruistic competitors. Any selfless behavior in the natural world needs a special explanation. One explanation is reciprocation: a creature can extend help in return for help expected in the future. But favor-trading is always vulnerable to cheaters. For it to have evolved, it must be accompanied by a cognitive apparatus that remembers who has taken and ensures that they give in return. The evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers had predicted that humans, the most conspicuous altruists in the animal kingdom, should have evolved a hypertrophied cheater-detection algorithm.
And indeed we have – this cognitive algorithm drives the emotional response we have toward cheaters. Human beings are one of the few species that engage in altruism outside of their kin. This is referred to as Reciprocal Altruism and clear links have been established between the demands of this type of social exchange and the origins of many human emotions (e.g., liking, anger, gratitude, sympathy, and guilt). Pinker (1997) notes that “Collectively they make up a large part of the moral sense.” We are inclined to engage in reciprocal altruism because we have the cognitive capacity to compute cost benefit analyses and the emotional capacity to respond in ways to encourage gains and discourage losses. We have to be able to remember favors given and received and we must effectively calibrate reciprocation. It is a delicate and intricate dance that if kept in balance does result in both individual and group benefits.
When benefits or favors are traded, both parties profit as long as the value of what they receive is greater than the value of what they give up. Because most favors are not exchanged at the same time and they likely vary in degree of effort and value, a calculus is needed to keep the exchange in reciprocal balance. This balance can tip in either direction and people “remember past treacheries or good turns and play accordingly. They can feel sympathetic and extend good will, feel aggrieved and seek revenge, feel grateful and return a favor, or feel remorseful and make amends.” (Pinker, 1997 p. 503).
It is important to note that there is a different calculus, a more flexible and enduring one that plays out in friendships and kin based, as well as intimate relationships. “Tit-for-tat does not cement a friendship; it strains it. Nothing can be more awkward for good friends than a business transaction between them, like the sale of a car. The same is true for one’s best friend in life, a spouse. The couples who keep close track of what each other has done for the other are the couples who are the least happy.” (Pinker, 1997 p. 507). Healthy close relationships come with a feeling of indebtedness and spontaneous pleasure associated with contribution instead of anticipation of in-kind repayment. This is true to a point however, and if one person takes too much, without giving back, the relationship is likely doomed. In such healthy relationships, there tends to be compassionate and enduring love, free of ledgers, time cards, and cash register receipts.
So, we are hyper-vigilant cheater detectors, and our scrutiny of others’ cheating behavior varies based on a number of variables. Certainly kinship and friendship play a part in our perception. But in addition to what we understand about reciprocal altruism and cheating, we also know that our cheater detectors tend to be finely focused on people who are different from us. Those outside our identified social groups (tribal moral communities) are scrutinized much more closely than those inside our circles – and they are examined with much more resolution than we direct toward our own conduct and toward those in the in-group.
This inclination is a byproduct of the universal and innate tendencies to be much more forgiving toward one’s own mistakes and more judgmental towards others’ transgressions. This is the self-serving bias. We also have a tendency to see exactly what we expect to see and miss or ignore things that don’t fit within our expectations. These tendencies are explained by our inclinations toward confirmation bias and inattentional blindness. Finally, there is the fundamental attribution error which leads us to blame others’ transgression on their internal personal attributes while we ignore important and contributing external environmental circumstances.
That is a lot to take in, but suffice it to say that we are much more likely to give ourselves and those similar to us, a break when it comes to cheating. We are much less forgiving toward outsiders, particularly those that seem to hold different values, norms, or customs. This is even true within a society where there is, to a substantial extent, social cohesion; but, where differences exist with regard to beliefs or ideologies. These truths are self evident – just look at the rancor between Liberals and Conservatives in the United States. But it also helps explain the racial and ethnic tensions within and across this country toward Hispanics, African Americans, Muslims, and particularly, the poor.
Currently, much blame for this country’s financial woes has been heaped onto the poor due to “entitlement spending.” These recipients of social safety net spending are often defined as cheaters and freeloaders. There is no doubt that there is, and shall forever be, a small contingent of citizens who are completely comfortable with getting a free ride. It would be foolish to argue otherwise. This is a legitimate problem.
On the other hand, I suggest that we must be willing to acknowledge the prevalence of cheating across the economic spectrum and refocus our microscope on the costs of cheating by corporations, white collar criminals, and those whom we tend to give a pass because they are similar to us. In my previous article, Crime & Punishment and Entitlements: A Deeper Perspective, I discussed the egregious costs of our prejudicial criminal justice system and the entitlement mentality rampant in corporations and those at the upper end of the economic spectrum. I submitted that article with the intent of opening eyes to the wider hypocrisy that pervades this country and the erroneously sharpened focus on a small fraction of our fellow “freeloading” countrymen. If you believe that the infamous 47% of Americans are truly freeloaders, I suggest that you take an objective look at the data from that group (from FactCheck.org):
- 22 percent [or around 47% of the 47%] receive senior tax benefits — the extra standard deduction for seniors, the exclusion of a portion of Social Security benefits, and the credit for seniors. Most of them are older people on Social Security whose adjusted gross income is less than $25,000.
- 15.2 percent [or 32% of the 47%] receive tax credits for children and the working poor. That includes the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit. The child tax credit was enacted under Democratic President Bill Clinton, but it doubled under Republican President George W. Bush. The earned income tax credit was enacted under Republican President Gerald Ford, and was expanded under presidents of both parties. Republican President Ronald Reagan once praised it as “one of the best antipoverty programs this country’s ever seen.” As a result of various tax expenditures, about two thirds of households with children making between $40,000 and $50,000 owed no federal income taxes.
- The rest [21% of the 47%] ended up owing no federal income tax due to various tax expenditures such as education credits, itemized deductions or reduced rates on capital gains and dividends. Most of this group are in the middle to upper income brackets. In fact, the TPC [Tax Policy Center] estimates there are about 7,000 families and individuals who earn $1 million a year or more and still pay no federal income tax.
According to the US Federal Budget, in 2012 we spent about $187 billion on traditional welfare programs (e.g., food and housing supplementation and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), accounting for 5% of the total $3.7 trillion budget. An additional $333 billion (or 8.9% of the budget) was spent on Medicaid (healthcare for the poor and disabled). In total about fourteen cents (14¢) of every tax dollar you pay goes to the poor.
For relative comparison, in 2012, $925.2 billion (or 25% of the 2012 budget or 25¢ of every tax dollar) went to defense, $805.6 billion (21.6% or about 22¢ of every tax dollar) went out in Social Security income for seniors citizens, $492.3 billion (13.2% or 13¢ of each tax dollar) went to Medicare (healthcare for our seniors), and $121.1 billion (3.2% or 3¢) went toward education. The remaining expenses include unemployment, building roads and bridges, government operating costs, public safety, government supported research, interest payments, and so on.
For further comparison, according to a report from the Conservative think tank The Cato Institute, in 2006 $92 billion (3.5% of the 2006 budget or about 4¢ of every tax dollar) went to corporate subsidies. This “Corporate Welfare” was defined by Cato as “any federal spending program that provides payments or unique benefits and advantages to specific companies or industries.” Cato indicated that corporations such as “Boeing, Xerox, IBM, Motorola, Dow Chemical, General Electric and others” were recipients of your tax dollars and Cato further noted that such companies “have received millions in taxpayer-funded benefits through programs like the Advanced Technology Program and the Export-Import Bank.” Additionally, it should be noted, that between 2002 and 2008, tax breaks totaling $53.9 billion and $16.3 billion in direct spending for a total of $70.2 billion were directed to companies in the fossil fuel industries (e.g, Exxon-Mobile, Shell, Chevron).
Clearly that 14¢ of every tax dollar has triggered much contempt in a significant proportion of our population. Many outspoken Conservative and Tea Party folks heavily focus on the this portion of the budget and the “entitled” individuals who allegedly, willingly and lazily, live off your hard earned money. We must acknowledge that these angered individuals are endowed with this tendency as a natural result of our altruistic tendencies and our subsequent finely tuned cheater detection neural software. And I submit, that this software has been hijacked or perhaps even hacked by the those whose gains are ignored as long as you focus your anger at the poor. It serves the very specific financial and security interests of the wealthy when Americans direct such anger toward those at the bottom of the spectrum rather than those at the top. Next time you come across an economic “freeloader” I challenge you to really think about the cheating that occurs across the spectrum, and ask yourself whether there is a chance that your anger has been manipulated and perhaps even misdirected. Coming together on this issue will likely result in more targeted and effectual reforms that will benefit us all. The splinters that currently exist keep our collective eyes off the ball. The result is an ever widening disparity between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of us.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Corporate Crime
, Socioeconomic Status
, White-Collar Crime
| Tagged: Cheating
, Confirmation Bias
, Fundamental Attribution Error
, Self Serving Bias
Do you believe that economic success is just a matter of having a good work ethic and strong personal motivation? Most people do. But in reality this is a perfect example of the Fundamental Attribution Error and the Self Serving Bias.
Attribution Error occurs when we negatively judge the unfortunate circumstances of others as being a reflection of their character traits rather than as a result of environmental circumstances (e.g., growing up in poverty). What is even more interesting is that when we mess up, we tend to blame it on environmental factors rather than accepting personal responsibility. When we are successful however, we take credit for the outcome assigning credit to internal personal attributes and devaluing environmental contributors. This latter error is the Self Serving Bias.
This erroneous thinking is universal, automatic, and it is what drives a wedge between people on different points of the socio-economic spectrum. If you believe that poor people are impoverished simply because they are lazy free-loaders, you are likely a victim of this thinking error. The same is true if you believe that your success is completely of your own doing.
I have written numerous articles on the impact of poverty on early childhood development (i.e., The Effects of Low SES on Brain Development) and the bottom line is that economic deprivation weakens the social and neurobiological foundation of children in ways that have life-long implications. In this post I will summarize a review article by Knudsen, Heckman, Cameron, and Shonkoff entitiled: Economic, Neurobiological, and Behavioral Perspectives on Building America’s Future Workforce. This 2006 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides an excellent review of the research across many fields including developmental psychology, neuroscience, and economics. It highlights the core concepts that converge with regard to the fact that the quality of early childhood environment is a strong predictor of adult productivity. The authors point to the evidence that robustly supports the following notions:
- Genes and environment play out in an interdependent manner. Knudsen et al., (2006) noted that “… the activation of neural circuits by experience also can cause dramatic changes in the genes that are expressed (“turned on”) in specific circuits (58-60). The protein products of these genes can have far reaching effects on the chemistry of neurons and, therefore, on their excitability and architecture.“ Adverse experiences can and do fundamentally alter one’s temperament and capacity to learn throughout life.
- Essential cognitive skills are built in a hierarchical manner, whereby fundamental skills are laid down in early childhood and these foundational neural pathways serve as a basis upon which important higher level skills are built.
- Cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional competencies are interdependent – all nascent in early childhood, when adverse environmental perturbations reek havoc on, and across, each of these fundamental skill sets.
- There are crucial and time-sensitive windows of opportunity for building these fundamental competencies. Should one fail to develop these core skills during this crucial early developmental stage, it becomes increasingly unlikely that later remediation will approximate the potential one had, if those skills were developed on schedule. A cogent analogy here is learning a new language – it is far easier to learn a new language early in development when the language acquisition window is open, than it is later in life when this window is nearly closed.
In my last two posts (Halting the Negative Feedback Loop of Poverty: Early Intervention is the Key and Poverty Preventing Preschool Programs: Fade-Out, Grit, and the Rich get Richer) I discussed two successful early intervention programs (e.g., Perry Preschool Program & Abecedarian Project) that demonstrated positive long-term benefits with regard to numerous important social and cognitive skills. Knudsen, et al, (2006) noted:
“At the oldest ages tested (Perry, 40 yrs; Abecedarian, 21 yrs), individuals scored higher on achievement tests, reached higher levels of education, required less special education, earned higher wages, were more likely to own a home, and were less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated than individuals from the control groups.”
These findings converge with research on animal analogues investigating the neurodevelopmental impact of early stimulation versus deprivation across species. Knudsen et al., (2006) point out that:
- There are indeed cross species negative neurodevelopmental consequences associated with adverse early developmental perturbations.
- There clearly are time sensitive windows during which failure to develop crucial skills have life-long consequences. Neural plasticity decreases with age.
- However, there are time sensitive windows of opportunity during which quality programs and therapies can reverse the consequences of adverse environmental circumstances (i.e., poverty, stress, violence).
Early learning clearly shapes the architecture of the brain. Appropriate early stimulation fosters neural development, while conversely, impoverished environments diminish adaptive neural stimulation and thus hinders neural development. Timing is everything it seems. Although we learn throughout our lifespan, our capacity to learn is built upon a foundation that can be strengthened or impaired by early environmental experiences. It is very difficult to make up for lost time later in life – much as it is difficult to build a stable building on an inadequate foundation. Stimulating environments during these crucial early neurodevelopment periods are far more efficient than remediation after the fact. These realities provide further justification for universally available evidence based early preschool services for children at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Proactive stimulation fosters stronger and more productive citizens – yet, we continue to respond in a reactive manner with remedial and/or punitive measures that miss the mark. The necessary proactive response is clear.
Knudsen, E. I., Heckman, J. J., Cameron, J. L., and Shonkoff, J. P. (2006). Economic, neurobiological, and behavioral perspectives on building America’s future workforce. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. v. 103, n. 27. 10155-10162.
We all love a good story. Children are mesmerized by them and adults, whether through books, TV, movies, sports, gossip, tabloids, or the news, to mention a few, constantly seek them out. It is core to our identity, and a vital part of our nature. It is both how we entertain ourselves, and how we make sense of the world. This latter tendency troubles me. Why? Specifically because we are inclined to value narratives over aggregated data, and we are imbued with a plethora of cognitive biases and errors that all mesh together in a way to leave us vulnerable to believing very silly things.
This may be hard to swallow, but all of us, yes even you, are by default, gullible and biased: disinclined to move away from narratives that you unconsciously string together in order to make sense of an incredibly complex world. Understanding this is paramount!
I have discussed many of the innate illusions, errors, and biases that we are inclined toward throughout this blog. I have also discussed the genetic and social determinates that play out in our thought processes and beliefs. And throughout all this I have worked diligently to remain objective and evidence based. I do accept that I am inclined toward biases programmed into my brain. This knowledge has forced me to question my beliefs and open my mind to different points of view. I believe that the evidence I have laid down in my writings substantiates my objectivity. But I am also tired, very tired in fact, of making excuses for, and offering platitudes to, others who do not open their minds to this not so obvious reality.
I am absolutely convinced that there is no resolution to the core political, economic, religious and social debates that pervade our societies, unless we can accept this reality. Perhaps, the most important thing we can do as a species is come to an understanding of our failings and realize that in a multitude of ways, our brains lie to us. Our brains deceive us in ways that necessitate us to step away from our gut feelings and core beliefs in order to seek out the truth. Only when we understand and accept our shortcomings will we be open to the truth.
Because of these flawed tendencies we join together in tribal moral communities lending a blind eye to evidence that casts doubt on our core and sacred beliefs. We cast aspersions of ignorance, immorality or partisanship on those that espouse viewpoints that differ from our own. I cannot emphasize this enough, this is our nature. But, I for one, cannot, and will not, accept this as “just the way it is.”
We as a species are better than that. We know how to over come these inclinations. We have the technology to do so. It necessitates that we step back from ideology and look at things objectively. It requires asking questions, taking measurements, and conducting analyses (all of which are not part of our nature). It necessitates the scientific method. It requires open peer review and repeated analyses. It requires objective debate and outright rejection of ideology as a guiding principle. It requires us to take a different path, a path that is not automatic, one that is not always fodder for good narrative.
I am no more inclined to believe the narrative of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi suggesting that “his people love him and would die for him” than I am to accept the narrative from Creationists about the denial of evolution or those that deny anthropogenic global warming based on economic interests. Likewise, I am not willing to accept the arguments from the anti-vaccine community or the anti-gay marriage community.
My positions are not based on ideology! They are based on evidence: both the credible and substantive evidence that backs my position and the lack of any substantive evidence for the opposing views.
Granted, my positions are in line with what some may define as an ideology or tribal moral community; but there is a critical difference. My positions are based on evidence, not on ideology, not on bronze-age moral teachings, and certainly not on fundamental flaws in thinking. This is a huge and critical difference. Another irrefutable difference is my willingness to abandon my position if the data suggests a more credible one. Enough already! Its time to step back, take a long and deep breath – look at how our flawed neurology works – and stop filling in the gaps with narrative that is devoid of reality. Enough is enough!
Posted by Gerald Guild
, Erroneous Thinking
, Rational Thought
| Tagged: Attribution Error
, Cognitive Biases
, Erroneous Thinking
, Fundamental Attribution Error
, Intuitive Thinking
, Spinoza's Conjecture
I had an interesting conversation with a close family member the other day. He was struggling to understand why people in the lower echelons of socioeconomic status do not understand or act on their ability to change their circumstances. He firmly held the belief that the drive to achieve is universal and that we all have the same potential. Essentially he was convinced that anyone can rise up by working hard in school or the workplace. Those who do not achieve, he contended, are making an explicitly different choice. Many refer to these folks as lazy, free loaders and/or cheaters. He recounted the stories from his days working at the local grocery where people would use their public assistance checks to buy beer, cigarettes and other non essential items. This is the same story I’ve heard from countless people who contend that public assistance is for lazy people content about, or highly skilled at, manipulating the system for a free ride. I had a similar conversation with another family member recently, who was enraged about Obama shoving publicly supported health care down the throats of the American tax payer.
We are inherently tribal people and part of our human nature, it seems, is to be on the lookout for freeloaders. As Jonathon Haidt’s work points out, such vigilance is inherent to various degrees in all of us, as part of the ingroup loyalty moral drive that is fundamental to social cohesion. Freeloaders detract from the viability and survivability of the group. This deeply emotional moral position has clear evolutionary roots that remain strong today.
No doubt, there are freeloaders among us. There are people who scam the system and I am guessing that there will always be those who are comfortable with, or even proud of, their ability to live off the diligence and contributions made by others. Some argue that entitlement programs enable the freeloaders among us to prosper and propagate. This may be true for some. But we need to keep it all in perspective. To do so there are a number of other factors to consider.
First, isn’t it interesting that we frame freeloaders at the lower end of the spectrum differently than we classify white collar criminals? Do they not accomplish essentially the same thing? They illegitimately acquire resources that they are not entitled to. And I am guessing that the true costs of white collar crime exceed those of “welfare fraud.” Keep in mind that the major frauds in the medicaid system are generally perpetrated by white collar criminals – Doctors or administrators billing for un-rendered services. Also think back to the impact of people like Bernie Madoff who essentially stole $21 Billion. They are criminals indeed, but their crimes do not result in all those within their income bracket as being likewise identified as untrustworthy. Granted, all crime is bad, but I have to challenge the implications of labeling an entire subset of a population as “bad” because some of them cheat.
Second, isn’t it also interesting that our hyper vigilance for cheaters targets the less fortunate among us rather than the corporations who bilk the system of billions of your hard earned dollars. Why do we turn our anger against our fellow human beings when corporations like Exxon Mobile get huge tax subsidies while at the same time they are raking in billions of dollars of quarterly profit? Then consider the financial melt down and the huge bail-outs provided to corporations deemed “too big to fail.” The costs to our society as a results of welfare cheaters are a pittance in comparison to the impact of the deregulated market-place.
Third, although nobody likes a cheater, when given a chance to do so, and a low probability of getting caught, almost everybody will cut corners or scam the system to save a buck. And everybody knows someone who works or gets paid “under the table.” Somehow these folks are given a pass and escape the wrath of the stigma of freeloader. My guess is, the proportion of people who cheat the system span all income brackets, and the actual social costs rise exponentially and commensurately with income. The disdain that we target toward the less fortunate among us, I argue, is too convenient and hugely disproportionate. Part of this may stem from the perception that welfare fraud is more visible to us than is white collar crime. And while white collar crime is perpetrated by people that look and think like we do (or by faceless corporations), welfare fraud is sometimes perpetrated by people whose faces and lifestyles are different from ours. We see these cheaters and often hear of their exploits. I contend that much of what we hear amounts to rehashed urban myths.
The stereotype that many of us hold about the poor is inaccurate and maintained both by attribution error and confirmation bias. And the belief that many white middle class college-educated people hold – that they alone are responsible for their position in life is reflective of self-serving bias. Each generation launches from the shoulders of their parents who each launched from the shoulders of their respective parents. My children are launching from a place that is exponentially different than that of a poor African American from the east side of Buffalo, New York, or a poor Latino from East L.A., or that of a poor white child raised in remote rural Appalachia, or that of white boarding school attendee from a heavily connected affluent Manhattan family. The educational, social, and economic opportunities across these launching points vary in important and significant ways that shape their perceptions, aspirations, and realities in profound ways. Heritage, and thus opportunity, play the biggest role in one’s socioeconomic status – although, “the system” benefits from people believing that it is hard work and intelligence that drives wealth distribution. Believing the American Dream keeps the masses contented. It keeps people striving, believing that they can rise up if only they are smart enough and diligent enough. A significant part of our population has figured this out – they are the disenfranchised. Without hope or opportunity it is hard to buy into the myth that one can rise out of the ghetto by working hard. It’s difficult to continually swim against the current; and for the fortunate, it is sometimes hard to see that there is in fact a current when one is floating along with it.
For nearly as long as humans have been thinking about thinking, one of the most intriguing issues has been the interplay of reason and emotion. For the greatest thinkers throughout recorded history, reason has reigned supreme. The traditional paradigm has been one of a dichotomy where refined and uniquely human REASON pitches an ongoing battle for control over animalistic and lustful EMOTIONS. It has been argued by the likes of Plato, Descartes, Kant and and even Thomas Jefferson that reason is the means to enlightenment and that emotion is the sure road to human suffering (Lehrer, 2009).
This Platonic dichotomy remains a pillar of Western thought (Lehrer, 2009). Suppressing your urges is a matter of will – recall the mantras “Just say no!” or “Just do it!” My guess is that most people today continue to think of the brain in these terms. Until recently even the cognitive sciences reinforced this notion. Only through very recent advances in the tools used to study the brain (e.g., fMRI) and other ingenious studies (e.g., Damasio’s IGT) has any evidence been generated to place this traditional paradigm in doubt. As it turns out, emotion plays a very crucial role in decision making. Without it, our ability to reason effectively is seriously compromised. I have long believed that feelings and emotions should be under the control of our evolutionary gift – the frontal cortex. Reason, after all, is what sets us apart from the other animals. Instead it is important to understand that we have learned that these forces are NOT foes but essentially collaborative and completely interdependent forces.
The implications of this recent knowledge certainly do not suggest that it is fruitless to employ our reason and critical thinking capabilities as we venture through life. Reason is crucial and it does set us apart from other life forms that lack such fully developed frontal cortices. This part of the outdated concept is correct. However, we are wrong to suppose that emotion with regard to decision making lacks value or that it is a villainous force.
Jonah Lehrer, in his book, How We Decide discusses this very issue and notes that: “The crucial importance of our emotions – the fact that we can’t make decisions without them – contradicts the conventional view of human nature, with its ancient philosophical roots.” He further notes:
“The expansion of the frontal cortex during human evolution did not turn us into purely rational creatures, able to ignore our impulses. In fact, neuroscience now knows that the opposite is true: a significant part of our frontal cortex is involved with emotion. David Hume, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher who delighted in heretical ideas, was right when he declared that reason was the “the slave of the passions.”
So how does this work? How do emotion and critical thinking join forces? Neuroscientists now know that the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is the brain center where this interplay takes place. Located in the lower frontal cortex (the area just above and behind your eyes), your OFC integrates a multitude of information from various brain regions along with visceral emotions in an attempt to facilitate adaptive decision making. Current neuroimaging evidence suggests that the OFC is involved in monitoring, learning, as well as the memorization of the potency of both reinforcers and punishers. It operates within your adaptive unconscious – analyzing the available options, and communicating its decisions by creating emotions that are supposed to help you make decisions.
Next time you are faced with a decision, and you experience an associated emotion – it is the result of your OFC’s attempt to tell you what to do. Such feelings actually guide most of our decisions.
Most animals lack an OFC and in our primate cousins, this cortical area is much smaller. As a result, these other organisms lack the capacity to use emotions to guide their decisions. Lehrer notes: “From the perspective of the human brain, Homo sapiens is the most emotional animal of all.”
I am struck by the reality that natural selection has hit upon this opaque approach to guide behavior. This just reinforces the notion that evolution is not goal directed. Had evolution been goal directed or had we been intelligently designed don’t you suppose a more direct or more obviously rational process would have been devised? The reality of the OFC even draws into question the notion of free will – which is a topic all its own.
This largely adaptive brain system of course has draw backs and limitations – many of which I have previously discussed (e.g., implicit associations, cognitive conservatism, attribution error, cognitive biases, essentialism, pareidolia). This is true, in part, because these newer and “higher” brain functions are relatively recent evolutionary developments and the kinks have yet to be worked out (Lehrer, 2009). I also believe that perhaps the complexities and diversions of modernity exceed our neural specifications. Perhaps in time, natural selection will take us in a different direction, but none of us will ever see this. Regardless, by learning about how our brains work, we certainly can take an active role in shaping how we think. How do you think?
Gladwell, M. (2005). ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.’ Little, Brown and Company:New York.
Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Adaptive Unconscious
, Erroneous Thinking
, Rational Thought
| Tagged: Attribution Error
, Cognitive Biases
, Cognitive Conservatism
, Confirmation Bias
, Erroneous Thinking
, Fundamental Attribution Error
, Intuitive Thinking
, Iowa Gambling Task
, Rational Thought
Two years ago Steven Pinker wrote an intriguing piece in the New York Times entitled The Moral Instinct. Dr. Pinker is a Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University who conducts research on language and cognition. This article in many ways stirred me and lead to a paradigm shift in my thinking about morality. I am a cognitive behavioral psychologist and my training regarding moral development looked at morality as a rationally driven developmental process (Piaget & Kohlberg). In other words, it was believed that morality developed as one’s cognitive capacity to think advanced. It also helped me to get more comfortable with letting go of the notion that religion is the sole driver of morality in society.
Pinker’s article is a long one and I cannot do it justice here, but I want to share some of his major arguments.
Morality is a complex concept shaped by evolution, neurobiology, and culture. Pinker states that “Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings. We seek it in our friends and mates, nurture it in our children, advance it in our politics and justify it with our religions. A disrespect for morality is blamed for everyday sins and history’s worst atrocities. To carry this weight, the concept of morality would have to be bigger than any of us and outside all of us.” Looking at morality from a scientific perspective causes concern in those who hold the view that it is sacred and the unique domain of religion. Regardless, Pinker urges us to step back and look at it in a systematic way. Much research has been conducted on the concept and he touches on the most important findings that have shaped the modern understanding of this topic.
Moral judgment it seems is a “switch” on a continuum of valuations we make about other’s or our own behavior. We may judge a behavior as imprudent, unfashionable, disagreeable, or perhaps immoral. The switching point on that continuum, where judgments are made that deem a behavior immoral, is in some cases universal (e.g., rape and murder); however, the line is not so clear about other acts. For example there are individuals who today may flip the switch of immoral judgment when looking at someone eating meat (e.g., an ethical vegetarian), using paper towels, shopping at Walmart, or even smoking. The zeitgeist (accepted standard of conduct and morality), certainly does shift over time. Pinker notes “…. many behaviors have been amoralized, switched from moral failings to lifestyle choices. They include divorce, illegitimacy, being a working mother, marijuana use and homosexuality. Many afflictions have been reassigned from payback for bad choices to unlucky misfortunes.” And he adds “This wave of amoralization has led the cultural right to lament that morality itself is under assault, as we see in the group that anointed itself the Moral Majority. In fact there seems to be a Law of Conservation of Moralization, so that as old behaviors are taken out of the moralized column, new ones are added to it. Dozens of things that past generations treated as practical matters are now ethical battlegrounds, including disposable diapers, I.Q. tests, poultry farms, Barbie dolls….. Food alone has become a minefield, with critics sermonizing about the size of sodas, the chemistry of fat, the freedom of chickens, the price of coffee beans, the species of fish and now the distance the food has traveled from farm to plate.”
The root of these moralzations are not rational he argues. When people are pressed for the reasons why they find a particular behavior morally repugnant they struggle. Pinker discusses Jonathon Haidt’s research that suggests that people do not engage in moral reasoning; rather they engage in moral rationalization. According to Pinker, Haidt contends that “they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.” Again when pressed for justification for their judgment of certain behaviors as immoral “many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.”
So, morality may not be a cognitive developmental progression. Well alright then, but where does it come from? Research is building toward substantiating that there are genetic implications – suggesting that it may very well be instinctual. Pinker contends “According to Noam Chomsky, we are born with a “universal grammar” that forces us to analyze speech in terms of its grammatical structure, with no conscious awareness of the rules in play. By analogy, we are born with a universal moral grammar that forces us to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness.” If this is the case then a moral sense should be universal, and in fact there appear to be five universal morals that transcend all cultures. Again reflecting Haidt’s research Pinker lists “… harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture.”
If we accept that morals are in fact universal and instinctual, then how do we come to terms with the blatant discrepancies seen across cultures? Pinker contends that culture itself is the culprit. How the five spheres are ranked in terms of importance, in and across cultures, accounts for these differences. Pinker notes:
“Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother? “
The cultural divide that exists today in the United States makes sense when we look at it from this perspective. Pinker writes:
“The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.”
When you compound these moralistically different vantage points with other common errors of thought (e.g., confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error), and a lack of rules of engagement, it is no wonder that our (US) political system is so paralyzed.
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. One side can acknowledge the other’s concern for community or stability or fairness or dignity, even while arguing that some other value should trump it in that instance.”
Pinker closes with:
“Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing. Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend.“
Again this comes down to getting away from intuitive thinking when it comes to important and complex issues. This not so simple, but very doable step, continues to stymie the best among us.
My previous posts addressed several common cognitive biases while briefly touching on their subsequent consequences. In review, the Fundamental Attribution Error leads us to make hasty and often erroneous conclusions about others’ personal attributes based on our superficial observations. Generally such conclusions are in fact erroneous because we lack a sufficient understanding of the situational or external circumstances associated with the behavior in question. One particularly counterproductive manifestation of this tendency is the prejudice many individuals have regarding the plight of the poor. The commonly held misbelief is that the poor are so, because they are lazy or stupid or otherwise worthy of their circumstance. Further, the Self Serving Bias is manifested as an overvaluation of the degree of internal attribution the more fortunate make regarding their own personal social and economic position. The reality is that our social economic status has more to do with heritage than with personal attributes such as hard work and discipline.
Confirmation Bias, like Spinoza’s Conjecture facilitates the internalization of information that fits our beliefs and leads us to miss, ignore, or dismiss information that challenges deeply held beliefs. We are thus likely to dismiss pertinent and valid information that may move us from deeply held beliefs. And, perhaps most importantly, these tendencies disincline us from taking the additional steps necessary to critically scrutinize intuitively logical information. Thus we filter and screen information in a way that sustains our preconceptions – rarely truly opening our minds to alternative notions.
These biases are evident throughout society but are plain to see in those who hold strong attitudes about issues such as religion and politics. The overarching implications are that we tend to cherry pick and integrate information in order to stay in our comfortable belief paradigms. For example, some Conservatives are reassured by watching Fox News because the information aired is presorted based on the core political ideology of political conservatism. Its viewers are presented with information that avoids the unpleasantness of having to legitimately deal with divergent perspectives. Similarly, creationists ignore or negate the overwhelming evidence that substantiates the theory of evolution.
It is interesting to me that the positions held by divergent individuals, liberals or conservatives and skeptics or believers are often quite emotionally based and staunchly guarded. And rarely are “facts” universally regarded as such. We are even more likely to cling to these attitudes and values and thus be more prone to such errors in times of distress or threat. It takes careful rational discipline on both sides to constructively debate these issues.
The tendency to firmly hold onto one’s beliefs, be they religious, political, or intellectual, even in the face of compellingly disconfirming evidence, is referred to as “cognitive conservatism” (Herrnstein Smith, 2010). Between groups or individuals with divergent “belief” systems, the entrenched rarely concede points and even less frequently do they change perspectives. The polar opposites jab and attack looking for the weakest point in the argument of their nemesis. These generally fruitless exchanges include ad hominem attacks and the copious use of logical fallacies.
This is clearly evident today in debates between Republicans and Democrats as they battle over public policy. The case is the same between skeptics and believers as they pointlessly battle over the existence of God (as if existence was a provable or disprovable fact). And it is interesting that some individuals and groups selectively employ skepticism only when it serves their particular interests. This is especially evident in those who make desperate attempts to discredit the evidence for evolution while demanding that different standards be employed with regard to the question of God’s existence.
Because it seems that we as humans are hard-wired with a default for intuitive thinking we are particularly susceptible to magical, supernatural, and superstitious thinking. Compound that default with a tendency to make the above discussed cognitive errors and it is no wonder that we have pervasive and intractable political partisanship and deadly religious conflicts. Further ramifications include the widespread use of homeopathic and “alternative” medicine, the anti-vaccine movement, racism, sexism, classism, and as mentioned previously, ideologically driven denial of both evolution and anthropogenic global climate change.
It is fascinating to me that how people think and at what level they think (intuitive versus rational) plays out in such globally destructive ways. How do you think?