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.


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?




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?

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Political Divide

17 September 2010

The state of affairs in the United States when it comes to politics seems intractable.  I used to believe that a person’s political position could be easily placed on a traditional left – right continuum.  However, if you watch the political pundits on TV, this no longer seems possible.  Apparently there are two distinct mindsets with little or no room for overlap.  The most vociferous of those on the conservative right often hold those on the left in contempt for being socialist, immoral, elitist, unpatriotic, pro baby killing, pro-entitlement, anti-gun, pro-tax, and pro-big government.  Likewise, many liberals just can’t understand the narrow-minded, selfish, corporatist, nationalist, bigoted, anti-populist platform of the right.  The folks on the right just don’t seem to understand why people on the left would see any value in “entitlements,” or support gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, Keynesian economic policies, embryonic stem cell research, or value the environment over business interests.  And the Friedman Free Market  economic policies that promote business and capital accumulation in the hands of a few just baffle many of those on the left.  The differences are vast and the emotional divide is scary deep.


When it comes to social situations, politics can be a deadly third rail.  Often, people are deeply entrenched in their ideology, and cannot find a healthy place to begin discussing diverse perspectives. The issues take on a significance much like religion.  Either you get it or you don’t.  And if you don’t, well you are an outsider.


This divide has driven much of my curiosity regarding how people think.  I know, respect, and love people on both sides of this divide.  I’ve been looking for a way to bridge the gap or at least come to terms with why such divergence exists.  I wrote a blog post earlier this year called Moral Instinct and in it I referenced Jonathon Haidt’s work.  Dr. Haidt is a Professor of Social Psychology in the  Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia.  He studies morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures.


In 2008 he published an intriguing paper called What Makes People Vote Republican?  More recently Haidt published Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations (2009).  This paper explicitly deals with, from an empirical perspective, the essence of my question.  Haidt starts his paper with:

“Political campaigns spend vast sums appealing to the self-interests of voters, yet rational self-interest often shows a weak and unstable relationship to voting behavior (Kinder, 1998; Miller, 1999; Sears & Funk, 1991). Voters are also influenced by a wide variety of social and emotional forces (Marcus, 2002; Westen, 2007). Some of these forces are trivial or peripheral factors whose influence we lament, such as a candidate’s appearance (Ballew & Todorov, 2007). In recent years increasing attention has been paid to the role of another class of non-self-interested concerns: morality. Voters who seem to vote against their material self-interest are sometimes said to be voting instead for their values, or for their vision of a good society (Lakoff, 2004; Westen, 2007). However, the idea of what makes for a good society is not universally shared. The “culture war” that has long marked American politics (Hunter, 1991) is a clash of visions about such fundamental moral issues as the authority of parents, the sanctity of life and marriage, and the proper response to social inequalities.”


Haidt’s contention is that this culture war boils down to an issue of differing moral schema. Some might argue that it is purely an issue of degree of morality – both sides can legitimately claim a moral high ground (at least from their vantage points). As it turns out, morality is nuanced and necessitates a more complex understanding than what has traditionally been understood to be a singular concept quantified by a matter of degree. So it is not as though Republicans are more moral than Democrats (or vice versa), it is that Republican values differ in emphasis relative to Democratic values.


To make this more concrete, I need to expand upon the discussion of morality.  A common conceptualization of morality from the late 20th Century was put forth by the Berkley psychologist Elliot Turiel who said that morality refers to “prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other” (Haidt, 2008).  This definition might resonate with some – particularly those with liberal tendencies, but it misses several core issues that are important to a substantial subset of the population.  Haidt (2008) notes that morality is more than the golden rule,  it has to do with “….binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.” These latter issues constitute the divide in the culture war, driving the conservative platform on issues relevant to God, Gays, guns, and immigration (Haidt, 2008).   The people on the right tend to hold a moral imperative to foster a unified and morally ordered society.


Each side of the debate holds deep convictions regarding what makes up a good society.  Liberals seem to hold morals consistent with a “contractual society” championed by John Stuart Mill, whereas a “…Millian society at its best would be a peaceful, open, and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other’s rights and band together voluntarily to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good” (Haidt 2008).


Conservatives tend to hold values more in line with sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who valued social order, restraint,  and conventions all held together by a strict authority.   “A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s group over concerns for outgroups” (Haidt, 2008).


Haidt has been conducting research into what have been identified as five universal morals (similar in concept to those laid out by Mill and Durkheim) including: (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).  Millians and 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/sancity – while conservatives value all at a uniform level.  See Figure 1 below for the distribution of values by political affiliation as reported in Graham, Haidt, and Nosek’s (2009) paper.

Haidt (2008) notes:

“In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally.”


I found that my moral value scores lined up perfectly with my political affiliation.   You can see for yourself where your values fall relative to your political affiliation by taking the Moral Foundations Questionnaire at If you look at the data you’ll see that strongly conservative folks are not more moral than strongly liberal folks, it is just that they weigh the universal morals differently.  It is these tendencies that leave individuals in both groups questioning the morals of the other group.  On all moral domains there is divergence.  If you look at the issues individually through the lenses of those with divergent perspectives it is not difficult to see how liberals could judge conservatives as amoral and vice versa.   When looking at this social divergence from the framework that Haidt puts forth, the divide becomes less enigmatic.


Go to Haidt’s website and take the Moral Foundations Questionnaire and see how your results fit with your political affiliation and then let me know how you feel about your score and the subsequent implications.  Next week I’ll delve a bit deeper into Haidt’s paper entitled Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations (2009).




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?


The Implicit Associations Test (IAT) is a very popular method for measuring implicit (implied though not plainly expressed) biases. Greenwald, one of the primary test developers, suggests that “It has been self-administered online by millions, many of whom have been surprised—sometimes unpleasantly—by evidence of their own unconscious attitudes and stereotypes regarding race, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.” (2010). It purports to tap into our unconscious or intuitive attitudes at a deeper level than those that we are able to rationally express. The best way to get an idea of just what the IAT is, is to take it. If you haven’t done so already, go to the Implicit Associations Test website and participate in a demonstration of the Race Test. It takes about ten minutes.


I tend to have a skeptical inclination. This in part stems from the training that I benefited from in acquisition of my PhD in psychology. But it is also just part of who I am. Psychology is, in itself, a rather soft science – full of constructs – and variables that are inherently difficult to measure with any degree of certainty. I learned early in my training that there are dangers associated with inference and measuring intangibles. In fact, my training in personality and projective measures essentially focused on why not to use them – especially when tasked with helping to make important life decisions. Why is this? All psychological measures contain small and predictable amounts of unavoidable error – but those based on constructs and inference are particularly untenable.


This is relevant because as we look at thinking processes, we are dealing with intangibles. This is especially true when we are talking about implicit measures. Any discussion of implicit thought necessitates indirect or inferential measures and application of theoretical constructs. So, with regard to the Implicit Associations Test (IAT), one needs to be careful.


Currently, increasing evidence suggests that our intuition has a powerful influence over our behavior and moment to moment decision making. Books like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer point out the power of intuition and emotion in this regard. Chabris and Simons in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, make a strong argument that intuition itself sets us up for errors. Gladwell perhaps glorifies intuition – but the reality is, it (intuition) is a powerful force. Gladwell uses the story of the IAT as evidence of such power. Essentially, if the IAT is a valid and reliable measure, it provides strong evidence of the problems of intuition.


I am motivated to shed some light on the IAT – not because of my personal IAT results, which were disappointing, but because the IAT has the risk of gaining widespread application without sufficient technical adequacy. Just think of the ubiquitous Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory and the breadth and depth of popular use and appeal that it has garnered (without a shred of legitimate science to back it up). Real decisions are made based on the results of this instrument and frankly it is dangerous. The Meyers-Briggs is based on unsubstantiated and long out-of-date Jungian constructs and was built by individuals with little to no training in psychology or psychometrics. This is not the case for the IAT for sure, but the risks of broad and perhaps erroneous application are similar.


The authors of the IAT have worked diligently over the years to publish studies and facilitate others’ research in order to establish the technical adequacy of the measure. This is a tough task because the IAT is not one test, but rather, it is a method of measurement that can be applied to measure a number of implicit attitudes. At the very foundation of this approach there is a construct, or belief, that necessitates a leap of faith.


So what is the IAT? Gladwell (2005) summarizes it in the following way:

The Implicit Association Test (IAT)…. measures a person’s attitude on an unconscious level, or the immediate and automatic associations that occur even before a person has time to think. According to the test results, unconscious attitudes may be totally different or incompatible with conscious values. This means that attitudes towards things like race or gender operate on two levels:
1. Conscious level- attitudes which are our stated values and which are used to direct behavior deliberately.
2. Unconscious level- the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before you have time to think.
Clearly, this shows that aside from being a measurement of attitudes, the IAT can be a powerful predictor of how one [may] act in certain kinds of spontaneous situations.

So here is one of the difficulties I have with the measure. Take this statement: “The IAT measures a person’s attitude on an unconscious level, or the immediate and automatic associations that occur even before a person has time to think.” Tell me how one would directly and reliably measure “unconscious attitude” without using inference or indirect measures that are completely dependent on constructs? I am not alone in this concern. In fact, Texas A&M University psychologist Hart Blanton, PhD, worries that the IAT has been used prematurely in research without sufficient technical adequacy. Blanton has in fact published several articles (Blanton, et al., 2007; Blanton, et al., 2009) detailing the IAT’s multiple psychometric failings. He suggests that perhaps the greatest problem with this measure concerns the way that the test is scored.


First you have to understand how it all works. The IAT purports to measure the fluency of people’s associations between concepts. On the Race IAT, a comparison is made between how fluent the respondent pairs pictures of European-Americans with words carrying a connotation of “good” and pictures of African-Americans with words connoting “bad.” The task measures the latency between such pairings and draws a comparison to the fluency of responding when the associations are reversed (e.g., how quickly does the respondent pair European-Americans with words carrying a “bad” connotation and African-Americans with words connoting “good.”). If one is quicker at pairing European-Americans with “good” and African Americans with “bad” then it is inferred that the respondent has a European-American preference. The degree of preference is determined by the measure of fluency and dysfluency in making those pairings. Bigger differences in pairing times result in stronger ratings of one’s bias. Blanton questions the arbitrary nature of where the cutoffs for mild, moderate, and strong preferences are set when there is no research showing where the cutoffs should be. Bottom line, Blanton argues, is that the cutoffs are arbitrary. This is a common problem in social psychology.


Another issue of concern is the stability of the construct being measured. One has to question whether one’s bias, or racial preferences, are a trait (a stable attribute over time) or a state (a temporary attitude based on acute environmental influences). The test-retest reliability of the IAT is relatively unstable itself. Regardless, according to Greenwald: “The IAT has also shown reasonably good reliability over multiple assessments of the task. …. in 20 studies that have included more than one administration of the IAT, test–retest reliability ranged from .25 to .69, with mean and median test–retest reliability of .50.” Satisfactory test-retest reliability values are in the .70 to.80 range. To me, there is a fair amount of variance unaccounted for and a wide range of values (suggesting weak consistency). My IATs have bounced all over the map. And boy did I feel bad when my score suggested a level of preference that diverges significantly from my deeply held values. Thank goodness I have some level of understanding of the limitations of such metrics. Not everyone has such luxury.


As I noted previously, the IAT authors have worked diligently to establish the technical adequacy of this measure and they report statistics attesting to the internal-consistency, test-retest reliability, predictive validity, convergent validity, and discriminant validity, almost always suggesting that results are robust (Greenwald, 2010; Greenwald, 2010; Greenwald, et al, 2009; Lane, et al, 2007) . There are other studies including those carried out by Blanton and colleagues, that suggest otherwise. To me, these analyses are important and worthwhile – however, at the foundation, there is the inescapable problem of measuring unconscious thought.


Another core problem is that the validity analyses employ other equally problematic measures of intangibles in order to establish credibility. I can’t be explicit enough – when one enters the realm of the implicit – one enters a realm of intangibles: and like it or not, until minds can be read explicitly, the implicit is essentially immeasurable with any degree of certainty. The IAT may indeed measure what it purports to measure, but the data on this is unconvincing. Substantial questions of reliability and validity persist. I would suggest that you do not take your IAT scores to heart.




Azar, B. (2008). IAT: Fad or fabulous? Monitor on Psychology. July. Vol 39, No. 7,  page 44.


Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., Christie, C., and Gonzales, P. M. (2007). Plausible assumptions, questionable assumptions and post hoc rationalizations: Will the real IAT, please stand up? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Volume 43, Issue 3, Pages 399-409.


Blanton, H., Klick, J., Mitchell, G., Jaccard, J.,Mellers, B., Tetlock, P. E. (2009). Strong Claims and Weak Evidence: Reassessing the Predictive Validity of the IAT. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol. 94, No. 3, 567–582


Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J., 2010. The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.


Gladwell, M. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York.


Greenwald, A. G. (2010).  I Love Him, I Love Him Not: Researchers adapt a test for unconscious bias to tap secrets of the heart. Scientific Mind Matters.


Greenwald, A. G. (2009). Implicit Association Test: Validity Debates.


Greenwald, A. G., Poehlman, T. A., Uhlmann, E., & Banaji, M. R. (2009). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: III. Meta-analysis of predictive validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 97, 17–41.


Lane, K. A., Banaji, M. R., Nosek, B. A., & Greenwald, A. G. (2007). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: IV. What we know (so far) (Pp. 59–102).  In B. Wittenbrink & N. S. Schwarz (Eds.). Implicit measures of attitudes: Procedures and controversies. New York: Guilford Press.


Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.


My wife and I recently spent some time in New York City and one of our traditions is to take in a Broadway show. This time we stepped a bit off-Broadway to see the bawdy but Tony Award Winning Avenue Q. On the surface, this show seems silly, but it actually addresses some important issues. Essentially it is about the “coming of age” of young adults stepping out into the real world. The way the show is played out is interesting in that it employs a mixture of human actors, human puppets, and monster puppets – with all puppeteers fully visible on stage. As is often the case in theater, It necessitated suspension of reality and letting go of conventional thinking.


The play itself satirized the longstanding PBS children’s show Sesame Street both in format and message. Make no mistake however, this is not a show for children, or even for folks put-off by lewd language or sexual situations. Regardless, it delves headlong into issues that challenge the teachings of Sesame Street, laying bare the notion that everyone is “special.”


I couldn’t help but hearken back to a post I wrote entitled Self Esteem on a Silver Platter, that highlights the cost of telling children they are smart. I wonder if there are similar costs to telling children they are inherently special? Obviously, the writers of Ave. Q had the same question in mind.


As Princeton, the play’s protagonist, struggled with the reality of entering the world of work and his internalized notion of his own specialness, I thought about my college age children and my own experience when I left a small town to attend college. I have to believe that my experience was not unlike Princeton’s and I’m guessing, is very similar to my children’s experiences, as they make the transition from “Big fish in a small pond – to small fish in a big pond.” It’s a humbling transition.


Some of the other issues confronted by the cast and characters include racism and homophobia. Each of these prejudices are attitudes played out in a large part by our intuitive brains. That is not to say that we are powerless over them – we can change these deep seated attributes through concerted effort and appropriate exposure. But it begs the question: “Where do these prejudices come from?” I believe the consensus is clear, prejudices are learned from, and taught by those important people around us who model and mold us throughout childhood. It is also important to understand that there seems to be a natural inclination within us to be suspicious of those who are different from us. This tribal tendency to classify outsiders as threats may stem back to our ancestral roots when outsiders were indeed threats to our very survival: and this successful propensity has carried on due to natural selection. It seems that there is a human inclination to be prejudiced. Compound that inclination with other human brain failings (e.g., confirmation bias), and minimal exposure to diversity, as well as influential bigots, and you have a near certain prejudicial clone. To make matters worse, all you have to do is turn on the TV and watch the news to feed those prejudices. Racism in our culture is not very subtle. But I digress.


The point that I am trying to make is that we all have biases, and that they are intuitive to a degree. Next week I am going to explore the Implicit Associations Test and its implications that support the notion that stereotypes or prejudices are indeed deeply rooted in our intuition. If you have not taken the Implicit Associations Test, do so, particularly the Race Test. You may be surprised by the results. I know I was. This is in fact, one of the sub-plots in Ave. Q – we are all a bit racist, and perhaps a bit homophobic too; although, I will argue to my grave that I do not value people differently based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation.


Ave. Q also deals with schadenfreude, which is the pleasure we gain from other’s pain or struggles. This is a curious proclivity, one I hope to gain a better understanding of. As I think back to childhood, I can recall experiencing a strong compulsion to laugh when a friend was injured through our mutual play. I remember knowing that this was somehow wrong and inappropriate, regardless, there was this deep urge to chuckle. Looking back, I know that it was not a rational response – it was intuitive. The reality is that most of us are at least relieved by the misery of others and we often gain some appreciation that our lives are not so bad after all. The play’s treatment of this very issue normalizes the experience and perhaps explains our societal infatuation with gossip. In my profession, on a daily basis, I see real agony in the lives of the families I work with, and thus find gossip repulsive.


One of the major goals of art is to incite thought, and Ave. Q effectively pulled this off. I’d like to say that I have no prejudices, but Ave. Q and the results of my IAT suggest that this may not be absolutely true. In reference to the work of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book entitled The Invisible Gorilla, I wonder if perhaps there is an Illusion of an Open Mind? I shall not rest comfortably with this illusion, and I am fully committed to overcoming the failings of my naturally selected and intuitive tendencies. The first step is accepting this reality.


There are many well intentioned folks out there who believe that childhood vaccinations cause Autism. Last week I covered the origins of this belief system as well as its subsequent debunking in Vaccines and Autism. Despite the conclusive data that clearly establishes no causal link between vaccines and Autism, the belief lives on. Why is this? Why do smart people fall prey to such illusions? Chabris and Simons contend in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, that we fall prey to such myths because of the Illusion of Cause. Michael Shermer (2000), in his book, How We Believe, eloquently describes our brains as a Belief Engine. Underlying this apt metaphor is the notion that “Humans evolved to be skilled pattern seeking creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants.” (Shermer, p. 38). Chabris and Simons note that this refined ability “serves us well, enabling us to draw conclusions in seconds (or milliseconds) that would take minutes or hours if we had to rely on laborious logical calculations.” (p. 154). However, it is important to understand that we are all prone to drawing erroneous connections between stimuli in the environment and notable outcomes. Shermer further contends that “The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not.


From an evolutionary perspective, we have thrived in part, as a result of our tendency to infer cause or agency regardless of the reality of threat. For example, those who assumed that rustling in the bushes was a tiger (when it was just wind) were more likely to take precautions and thus less likely, in general, to succumb to predation. Those who were inclined to ignore such stimuli were more likely to later get eaten when in fact the rustling was a hungry predator. Clearly from a survival perspective, it is best to infer agency and run away rather than become lunch meat. The problem that Shermer refers to regarding this system is that we are subsequently inclined toward mystical and superstitious beliefs: giving agency to unworthy stimuli or drawing causal connections that do not exist. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist, in his blog post entitled Hyperactive Agency Detection notes that humans vary in the degree to which they assign agency. Some of us have Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices (HADD) and as such, are more prone to superstitious thinking, conspiratorial thinking, and more mystical thinking. It is important to understand as Shermer (2000) makes clear:


“The Belief Engine is real. It is normal. It is in all of us. Stuart Vyse [a research psychologist] shows for example, that superstition is not a form of psychopathology or abnormal behavior; it is not limited to traditional cultures; it is not restricted to race, religion, or nationality; nor is it only a product of people of low intelligence or lacking education. …all humans possess it because it is part of our nature, built into our neuronal mainframe.” (p. 47).


We all are inclined to detect patterns where there are none. Shermer refers to this tendency as patternicity. It is also called pareidolia. I’ve previously discussed this innate tendency noting that “Our brains do not tolerate vague or obscure stimuli very well. We have an innate tendency to perceive clear and distinct images within such extemporaneous stimuli.” It is precisely what leads us to see familiar and improbable shapes in puffy cumulus clouds or the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. Although this tendency can be fun, it can also lead to faulty and sometimes dangerous conclusions. And what is even worse is that when we hold a belief, we are even more prone to perceive patterns that are consistent with or confirm that belief. We are all prone to Confirmation Bias – an inclination to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.


Patternicity and confirmation bias alone are not the only factors that contribute to the illusion of cause. There are at least two other equally salient intuitive inclinations that lead us astray. First, we tend to infer causation based on correlation. And second, the appeal of chronology, or the coincidence of timing, also leads us toward drawing such causal connections (Chabris & Simons, 2010).


A fundamental rule in science and statistics is that correlation does not infer causation. Just because two events occur in close temporal proximity, does not mean that one leads to the other. Chabris and Simons note that this rule is in place because our brains automatically – intuitively – draw causal associations, without any rational thought. We know that causation leads to correlation – but it is erroneous to assume that the opposite is true. Just because A and B occur together does not mean A causes B or vice-versa. There may be a third factor, C, that is responsible for both A and B. Chabris and Simons use ice cream consumption and drownings as an example. There is a sizable positive correlation between these two variables (as ice cream consumption goes up so do the incidences of drowning), but it would be silly to assume that ice cream consumption causes drowning, or that increases in the number of drownings causes increases in ice cream consumption. Obviously, a third factor, summer heat, leads to both more ice cream consumption and more swimming. With more swimming behavior there are more incidents of drowning.


Likewise, with vaccines and Autism, although there may be a correlation between the two (increases in the number of children vaccinated and increases in the number of Autism diagnoses), it is incidental, simply a coincidental relationship. But given our proclivity to draw inferences based on correlation, it is easy to see why people would be mislead by this relationship.


Add to this the chronology of the provision of the MMR vaccine (recommended between 12 and 18 months), and the typical time at which the most prevalent symptoms of Autism become evident (18-24 months), people are bound to infer causation. Given the fact that millions of children are vaccinated each year, there are bound to be examples of tight chronology.


So what is at work here are hyperactive agency detection (or overzealous patternicity), an inherent disposition to infer causality from correlation, and a propensity to “interpret events that happened earlier as the causes of events that happened or appeared to happen later” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 184).  Additionally, you have a doctor like Andrew Wakefield misrepresenting data in such a way to solidify plausibility and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy using powerful anecdotes to convince others of the perceived link. And anecdotes are powerful indeed. “..[W]e naturally generalize from one example to the population as a whole, and our memories for such inferences are inherently sticky. Individual examples lodge in our minds, but statistics and averages do not. And it makes sense that anecdotes are compelling to us. Our brains evolved under conditions in which the only evidence available to us was what we experienced ourselves and what we heard from trusted others. Our ancestors lacked access to huge data sets, statistics, and experimental methods. By necessity, we learned from specific examples…” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp. 177-178).  When an emotional mother (Jenny McCarthy) is given a very popular stage (The Oprah Winfrey Show) and tells a compelling story, people buy it – intuitively – regardless of the veracity of the story. And when we empathize with others, particularly those in pain, we tend to become even less critical of the message conveyed (Chabris & Simons, 2010). These authors add that “Even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and statistics culled from studies of hundreds of thousands of people, that one personalized case carries undue influence” (p.178).


Although the efficacy of science is unquestionable, in terms of answering questions like the veracity of the relationship between vaccines and Autism, it appears that many people are incapable of accepting the reality of scientific inquiry (Chabris & Simons, 2010). Acceptance necessitates the arduous application of reason and the rejection of the influences rendered by the intuitive portion of our brain. This is harder than one might think. Again, it comes down to evolution. Although the ability to infer cause is a relatively recent development, we hominids are actually pretty good at it. And perhaps, in cases such as this one, we are too proficient for our own good (Chabris & Simons, 2010).




Center for Disease Control. (2009). Recommended Immunization Schedule for Persons Aged 0 Through 6 Years.


Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.


Novella, S. (2010). Hyperactive Agency Detection. NeuroLogica Blog.


Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe. W.H. Freeman / Henry Holt and Company: New York.


Vaccines and Autism

13 August 2010

It is hard to imagine anything more precious than one’s newborn child. Part of the joy of raising a child is the corresponding hope one has for the future. Don’t we all wish for our children a life less fraught with the angst and struggles we ourselves endured? One of the less pleasant aspects of my job has the effect, at least temporarily, of robbing parents of that hope. This erosion occurs in the parent’s mind and heart as a consequence of a diagnosis I often have to provide. I am a psychologist employed in part to provide diagnostic evaluations of preschool age children suspected of having Autism. My intention is never to crush hope, instead it is to get the child on the right therapeutic path as early as possible in order to sustain as much hope as possible. However, uttering the word AUTISM in reference to one’s child constitutes a serious and devastating emotional blow.


Many parents come to my office very aware of their child’s challenges and the subsequent implications. They love their child, accept him as he is, and just want to do whatever they can to make his life better. Others come still steeped in hope that their child’s challenges are just a phase or believing that she is just fine. Regardless, most of them report that they suspected difficulties very early in the child’s development. For example, many note a lack of smiles, chronic agitation and difficulty soothing their child. Some children had not been calmed by being held or may have even resisted it. Some other children I see develop quite typically. They smile, giggle, rejoice at being held, coo and babble, and ultimately start to use a few words with communicative intent. The parents of this latter and rather rare subset, then watch in dismay as their child withdraws, often losing both functional communication and interest in other children.


The timing of this developmental back-slide most often occurs at around 18 months of age. This regression happens to coincide with the recommended timing of the provision of the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine. This temporal chronology is important as it has lead, in part, to a belief that the vaccine itself is responsible for the development of Autism. What these parents must experience at this time, I can only imagine, is a horrible combination of confusion and grief. They have had their hopes encouraged and reinforced only to have them vanquished. And it is human nature, under such circumstances, to look for a direct cause. It makes perfect sense that parents would, given the chronicity of events in some cases, suspect the MMR vaccine as the cause of their child’s regression.


During my occasional community talks on Autism, I often am asked about the alleged connection between vaccines and Autism. The coincidental temporal relationship between the provision of the MMR vaccine and this developmental decay leads to what Chabris and Simons in The Invisible Gorilla refer to as the Illusion of Cause. Chabris and Simons discuss how “chronologies or mere sequences of happenings” lead to the inference “that earlier events must have caused the later ones.” (2010, p. 165). By default, as a result of evolution, our brains automatically infer causal explanations based on temporal associations (Chabris & Simons, 2010).


At nearly every talk I give, there is someone in the audience who is convinced that their child (or a relative) is a victim of the MMR vaccine. Their compelling anecdotes are very difficult to refute or discuss. I find that the application of reason, or data, or both, misses the mark and comes off as being cold and insensitive.


For such causal relationships to endure and spread they often need some confirmation of the effect by an “expert.” This is where the story of Dr. Andrew Wakefield comes into play. Wakefield, a GI Surgeon from the UK published a paper in the prestigious UK medical journal, The Lancet, alleging a relationship between the MMR vaccine and the development of Autism. His “expert” opinion offered legitimacy to already brewing suspicions backed by the perceived correlates of increases in both vaccination and Autism rates, as well as the apparent chronology between the timing of the vaccines and the onset of Autism. Wakefield provided credibility and sufficient plausibility: and as a result, the news of the alleged relationship gained traction.


But hold on! There were major flaws with Wakefield’s study that were not initially detected by The Lancet’s peer review panel. First of all, Wakefield was hired and funded by a personal injury attorney who commissioned him to prove that the MMR vaccine had harmed his clients (caused Autism). His study was not designed to test a hypothesis: it was carried out with the specific objective of positively establishing a link between Autism and provision of the MMR vaccine. From the outset the study was a ruse, disguised as science.


Just this year (2010), 12 years after the initial publication of Wakefield’s infamous study, The Lancet retracted it and Dr. Wakefield has been stripped of his privilege to practice medicine in the UK. Problems however, surfaced years ago: as early as 2004, when 10 of 13 co-authors retracted their support of a causal link. In 2005 it was alleged that Wakefield had fabricated data – in fact, some of the afflicted children used to establish the causal link had never actually received the MMR vaccine!


Since the initial publication of this study, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent investigating the purported relationship between vaccines and Autism. Despite extensive large scale epidemiological studies, there have been no replications of Wakefield’s findings. Children who had not been vaccinated developed Autism at the same rate as those who had received the MMR. There is no relationship between the MMR vaccine and the development of Autism. As a result of Wakefield’s greed, hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted. Those dollars could have been devoted to more legitimate pursuits, and that is not the worst of it. I will get to the real costs in a bit.


Another aspect of the history of this controversy is associated with the use of thimerosal as a preservative in vaccines. This notion, which has also been debunked, gained plausibility because thimerosal contains mercury, a known neurotoxin. You may ask: “Why on earth would a neurotoxin be used in vaccines?” Researchers have clearly established that thimerosal poses no credible threat to humans at the dosage levels used in vaccines. However, given the perceived threat, Thimerosal is no longer used as a preservative in routine childhood vaccinations. In fact, the last doses using this preservative were produced in 1999 and expired in 2001. Regardless, the prevalence of autism seems to be rising.


It is important to understand that mercury can and does adversely affect neurological development and functioning. However, long term exposure at substantially higher doses than present in thimerosal are necessary for such impact. The mercury in thimerosal is ethyl-mercury, which is not fat-soluble. Unlike the fat-soluble form of methyl-mercury (industrial mercury), ethyl-mercury is flushed from the body very quickly. Methyl-mercury can be readily absorbed into fatty brain tissue and render its damage through protracted contact. Methyl-mercury works its way into the food chain and poses a hazard to us if we eat too much fish (particularly those at the high end of the food chain). In reality, one is at more risk from eating too much seafood (shark and tuna) than from getting an injection of a vaccine preserved with thimerosal. Yet there does not seem to be a movement to implicate seafood as the cause of Autism.


Even though the relationship between vaccines and Autism has been thoroughly debunked, there is a movement afoot, steeped in conspiratorial thinking, that alleges that “Big Pharmacy” and the “Government” are colluding to deceive the people and that elaborately fabricated data is used to cover up a relationship. This belief lives on. How can this be so? Even intelligent and well educated people I know are avoiding important childhood immunizations based on the fear and misinformation spread by these well intentioned people.


In 2003, in the UK, the MMR vaccine rate had fallen to below 79% whereas a 95% rate is necessary to maintain herd immunity. Currently, the vaccine rates are dropping in the US due to the efforts of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy who purports that her son’s Autism was caused by vaccines. McCarthy campaigns fiercely against childhood immunizations spurred on by the likes of Oprah Winfrey. Even folks like John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr have spread such misinformation. Continuing to contend that the MMR vaccine is the culprit, Wakefield has moved to the US and has risen to martyr status among the anti-vaccine folk. You need to know that just months before he published his seminal paper, Wakefield received a patent on a Measles Vaccine that he alleges, “cures” Autism. He has much to gain financially, in his attempt to scare people away from the current safe and effective MMR vaccine.


It amazes me that people do not automatically dismiss this alleged vaccine-Autism link. Wakefield’s conflict of interest and discredited research practices alone draw into question anything he has to say. The mountains of epidemiological evidence also favors rejection of a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and Autism. However, the power of anecdotes and misguided beliefs place millions of children in harm’s way.


Imagine yourself as a parent of a child who cannot get the MMR vaccine because of a serious medical condition (e.g., cancer). Such vulnerable children, of which there are millions worldwide, depend on herd immunity for their very survival. Now imagine that your child is inadvertently exposed to measles by coming into contact with a child who wasn’t vaccinated (because of misguided parental fear). Because your child’s compromised immunity, she develops the measles and gets seriously ill or dies. Such a scenario, although improbable is not impossible. It is more likely today largely due to the diminished herd immunity caused by misinformation. Whooping Cough (Pertussis) is likewise posing serious concerns (and one documented death) in unvaccinated clusters because of the anti-vaccine folk. This myth persists, in part, because of the Illusion of Cause, and the consequences have become deadly. Next week I will delve into this Illusion that sustains this erroneous and dangerous belief system.




Association for Science in Autism Treatment. (2009).  Autism & Vaccines: The Evidence to Date. Vol. 6., No. 1


Center for Disease Control. Autism Spectrum Disorders: Data & Statistics.


Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010).  The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.


Plait, P. (2010). The Australian antivax movement takes its toll. Bad Astronomy Blog.


I find myself in an untenable situation. I have plenty to write about but I am finding that the choices I am making right now, in the splendor of summer, give me limited time and energy to write. I’ve decided to take a short hiatus.


Over the last seven months my writing has been spurred on by relentless curiosity about belief systems that are held despite mountains of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This cognitive conservatism absolutely befuddles me. And I am further driven to understand why ideology carries such overwhelming power over people and how it drives people to attack evidence or science in general. In a similar vain, I struggle with politics. The efforts made by the United States on the world’s stage to me seem to be a desperate attempt to slay the Hydra by means of decapitation. People close to me, that I love and have deep respect for, look at this war and even the environment in vastly different ways than I do.


Looking back, I have learned a great deal about the thinking processes that drive these different world views. Essentially we have what Michael Shermer calls a Belief Engine for a brain. We are hard wired to believe and make copious errors that incline us to believe – even silly things – regardless of evidence. We have successfully evolved in a world for hundreds of thousands of years devoid of statistics and analysis all the while thriving on snap judgments. Evolution itself, as a process, has inhibited our ability to accept its veracity. Stepping away from the belief engine demands a level of analysis that is foreign and often unpalatable. It is hard to be a skeptic yet oh so easy to go with our hard wired intuitive thinking. If you are new to my blog look back at entries that explore erroneous thinking, rational thought, the adaptive unconscious, memory, morality and even religion.


Looking forward I plan on delving further into our enigmatic Belief Engine. I want to further explore the errors of intuition, specifically the illusion of cause, implicit associations, as well as Jonathon Haidt’s work on political affiliation. Later I hope to switch gears and delve into the unique attributes of our planet that makes it hospitable for complex life.


Surprise at Chautauqua

23 July 2010

There are moments in life when you hear something that absolutely blows you away. I experienced such a moment on July 1st at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. It wasn’t just the words I heard that touched me so. It was the words within the context, and the relative embrace of the words exhibited by the people that surrounded me.


First you have to understand the unique setting that is Chautauqua: an amusement park for the mind. It was initially built on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in 1874 as an “educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning.” Although initially the courses were for Sunday school teachers, its success and popularity precipitated a broadening of the curriulum to include academic subjects, music, art and physical education. Today on their website they note that “7,500 persons are in residence on any day during a nine-week season, and a total of over 142,000 attend scheduled public events. Over 8,000 students enroll annually in the Chautauqua Summer Schools which offer courses in art, music, dance, theater, writing skills and a wide variety of special interests.”


For those longing for intellectual and artistic stimulation in a peaceful setting, it constitutes a veritable fantasy land adorned with quaint Victorian era cottages often fronted with beautiful and pristine landscaping. Among its many homes, inns, and entertainment facilities arranged in a cozy village-like setting, are church houses where people congregate from all over the United States for religious retreats. The four pillars of Chautauqua are Art, Education, Religion, and Recreation. Needless to say, religion (particularly Christianity) is a big part of this community. But so is education and art. They have a quality symphony orchestra, a theater group, an opera company, and a dance ensemble. Nightly, they provide top notch entertainment in the sizable amphitheater.  Throughout each day, every day, there are lectures and events galore.


The last three years my wife and I have ventured to Chautauqua for science themed days where we attended lectures by people like Donald Johanson and Carl Zimmer. NASA had a mock up of a Mars Rover there last year. This year I was drawn by Alan Alda who is a true science geek like myself.


Each afternoon the Department of Religion hosts a lecture series.  Although I often miss these events for a number of reasons, this year, my innkeeper, knowing my proclivities, strongly recommended that I consider listening to this week’s speaker.  I took her advice and my wife and I skeptically sat at the Hall of Philosophy among an overflow crowd that I could only guess exceeded 1000 people. The lecturer was John Shelby Spong, a Bishop in the Episcopal Church. Rabbi Samuel Stahl introduced Bishop Spong and the Rabbi’s words drew me in, in a way that made me feel as though my mind was being read. It was a spine-tingling experience from the outset, and Spong’s words were unlike any I had ever heard from a man of God.


I certainly will not be able to capture and share in this medium the true essence of his message – but I will attempt to briefly summarize it. I STRONGLY encourage any person of faith as well as any person like myself who falls into the agnostic or atheist camp to listen to this lecture: Transcending Religion without Transcending God. You can sign up for a 15 Day Free Trial / Download Account and listen to this lecture online or pay $9.95 for a download to your iPod or MP3 player.


I’m guessing that anyone who listens to this talk with an open mind will be in some way moved by his words. I am also guessing that personal reactions will run the gamut from “this guy is a heretic” to “finally a voice of reason coming from the religious community.”  If you are likely to be among the former, Spong proclaims that he wishes to destroy no one’s faith, but boldly states that “If I can take away your God, you had very little, if you can lose it all in one hour.”


If you are religious, keep in mind as you consider listening, that this lecture was part four of a five part series. Spong had lectured in a similar vain for three consecutive days at the Hall of Philosophy to a pretty religious group of people and this day’s crowd was the biggest I had ever seen gathered (excluding events at the amphitheater).  This was not an angry or defensive crowd, but a thoughtful and attentive one.  What Spong said deeply challenged conventional definitions of religion but the people came back for more.  And if you are a rationalist, more inclined toward science than mysticism, you will be refreshed by Spong’s embrace of science and urging away from the traditional notions of religion that many find hard to accept.  Even Richard Dawkins seems to respect Spong.


Spong derides religious zealots who promote racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia based upon quotations from the Holy Scriptures.  His rational embrace of science and the realities of human suffering (often as a result of religion’s influence) have guided his journey toward a reinterpretation of the faith story.  He strongly asserts that he wants nothing to do with any institution that diminishes the humanity of any child of God. He deplores how the Bible and the Church have harbored those that have relegated blacks to subhuman status, women as second class citizens, and gay and lesbian people as essentially immoral.  He explains the human experience within a context of understanding derived from biology and anthropology. He links our instinctual drive to survive to all living organisms and with this understanding, supplants the notion of original sin.  He embraces the teachings of Darwin and reinterprets salvation – not as a rescue from the fall from perfection but as a new understanding of what it is to be fully human. After all, we haven’t fallen – we have evolved.


Salvation he argues is not to be made religious. It is not to be forced into a particular creed or to follow a particular faith story. Salvation is to be made whole – to be called beyond our limits, our fears, our boundaries, and to be called into a new consciousness, a new humanity – where we can be called beyond our selfish drive to survive, and begin to truly give of our lives and our love.


Spong challenges both the notions of a personal God with supernatural powers and the traditional Jesus story.  He derides the traditional notion that humans are inherently depraved – and looks at our understanding of human development and asks if it is a wise parenting strategy to tell a child that he is bad, evil, and depraved in an attempt to turn that child into a healthy adult. He looks at how religion victimizes its followers and how in turn its practice facilitates hate and division.


Spong provides a sobering account of religion in general – particularly the prejudicial inspiration it has historically provided and the violence it has incited in the name of one’s preferred deity. Again, rather than reject science as a threat to an ideology, he embraces evidence, and searches for a new spiritual transcendence of God – to fill what he describes as a God Shaped Whole in every living person. His ultimate mysticism is a bit of a stretch for me – but all in all – the 80 minutes required to listen to his message is indeed time well spent.  The experience itself, for me, set in the Chautauqua Institution context, was deeply moving and inspired hope that we can move away from the unnecessary corrosive derision whereby some religious zealots dumb down the masses to protect their fragile foothold or engage in promulgating the dehumanization of those who are different.  It gives me hope that those who have spiritual needs unfulfilled by the wonders of the universe can find peace with God in a way that bolsters our humanity rather than in a way that divides us. Please give Spong a listen and let me know what you experience through his message.


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In psychology there are some pretty famous studies that have penetrated popular culture. Many folks are at least familiar with Skinner’s rat box, Pavlov’s salivating dogs, Milgram’s obedience studies, Bandura’s Bobo Dolls, and Harlow’s rhesus monkeys reared by wire frame terry cloth mothers. In recent history, perhaps the most well known study pertains to inattentional blindness. If you have never heard of or seen a video of six college students, three in black shirts and three in white shirts, bouncing a couple basketballs back and forth, see the following video before you proceed.



So, of course I am referring to Daniel Simons’ Invisible Gorilla study. Just about everyone I know has seen this video, and I don’t recall any of them telling me that they did see the gorilla. I didn’t and I was absolutely flabbergasted – because I tend to be a pretty vigilant guy. This video is a graphic illustration of what Chabris and Simons (2010) refer to as the Illusion of Attention, and about 50% of those who watch the video while counting passes among white shirted players miss the gorilla.


This particular illusion concerns me because I spend a fare amount of time riding a bicycle on the roads of Western New York. So why should I or anyone who rides a bicycle or motorcycle, or anyone who drives while texting or talking on a cell phone be concerned?


The cold hard truth is that we may completely miss events or stimuli that we do not expect to see. If you don’t expect to see, and therefore fail to look for, bicycles and motorcycles, you may look right at them but fail to see them. LOOKING IS NOT SEEING just as hearing is not listening. This hearing/listening analogy is dead on.  How often have you been caught hearing someone but not listening to what was actually being said?  Chabris and Simons discuss in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, a study conducted by Daniel Memmert of Heidelberg University that demonstrated (using an eye-tracker) that virtually everyone who missed the gorilla looked directly at it at some point in the video (often for a full second). Bikers are the invisible gorillas of the roadways.


And as for drivers, if you are distracted by a cell phone conversation or by texting, you are less likely to see unexpected events (e.g., bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, wildlife).


Most drivers who text and talk on cell phones do not have problems. In fact, most driving is uneventful – as a result, most people get away with these behaviors. However, it is when there is an unexpected event that mobile phone users struggle with seeing and responding fluently to these events. You are under the same illusion as everybody else who has not been in an accident. Everyone believes, until they hit or kill somebody, that they are proficient drivers even while texting or talking on the phone.  And by the way, hands free head sets make no difference. Driving while talking on a cell phone disables you as much as does alcohol.


Think about driving down a road not seeing and subsequently hitting a young child on a bike. Think about having to live with killing a middle aged couple with three kids in college who were lawfully riding down the road on a tandem bicycle.  You hit the invisible gorilla.  Live with that!


Daniel Simons, in a recently published study, also suggests that even if you are expecting an unexpected event,  it is likely that you will miss other unanticipated events. Check out The Monkey Business Illusion video even if you have seen the invisible gorilla video. Test yourself.



I have long known that I am at risk while riding my bike on the road.  I have recently incorporated wearing bright hi-vis attire as I ride.  Doing so is completely inconsistent with my style; but I have done so in an effort to be safer.  I was surprised to learn that research shows that doing so will increase your visibility for those that are looking for you – but that it will likely make no difference at all for inattentionally blind drivers. For those drivers who do not expect to see cyclists, hi-vis clothing will not likely increase the likelihood that you will be seen.  Using head and tail lights works on a similar level.  They do increase visibility but only for those looking for such strange sights.  The best way to increase one’s safety while riding is to look like a car.


It is also important to note that riding in areas where there are more bikers helps too. Chabris and Simons (2010) noted a report by Peter Jacobson, a public health consultant in California who analyzed data on accidents involving automobiles striking pedestrians or cyclists. He found that in cities where there were more walkers and cyclists, there were actually fewer accidents. More folks walking or riding bikes seems to increase the level of driver expectation for seeing such individuals – thus making one less at risk of being victimized by inattentional blindness. It was further noted that drivers who also ride bikes may actually be more aware – if only more people would get out of their cars and get back on bicycles.


The bottom line is that our intuition about our attention is problematic. Intuitively we believe that we attend to and see, what is right before us. Research and real world data shows us that this is not the case. At the very least, when driving, we need to be aware of this erroneous assumption, and work diligently to avoid distractions like talking on the phone or texting. As for cyclists (motor powered or not) we must anticipate that we won’t be seen and behave accordingly. Although hi-vis clothing and lights may not aid in your visibility for some drivers, it will for those that are looking out for you.


Chabris and Simons contend that this illusion is a by product of modernity and the subsequent fast paced highly distracting world we live in. We have evolved for millions of years by process of natural selection in a middle sized slow paced world. Traveling faster than a few miles an hour is a relatively new development for our species. Today we travel in motor vehicles at break neck speeds. On top of that we distract ourselves with cell phones, Blackberries, iPhones, iPods and GPS units. Although the consequences of these factors can be grave – in most cases we squeak by – which is a double edged sword because it essentially reinforces the illusion and the behavior.




Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J., 2010. The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.


Simons, D. J., 2010. Monkeying around with the gorillas in our midst: familiarity with an inattentional-blindness task does not improve the detection of unexpected events i-Perception 1(1) 3–6


Imagine yourself walking down a familiar street approaching a stranger who is obviously lost, staring hopelessly at a map.  As you saunter by you provide eye contact and a look of willingness to help. He asks you for directions.  As you begin to offer your advice, you are interrupted by a construction crew carrying a large door.  They walk right between you and the stranger.  Now imagine that as the construction crew parted you visually from the stranger a new and different person covertly took on the same lost role.  This new stranger is wearing different clothes, is taller by three inches, has a different build, and different vocal qualities.  Do you think you would notice?


Chabris and Simons (2010) in the The Invisible Gorilla share the results of a study carried out by Dan Simons and a colleague where they tested whether people would notice such changes in a scenario very much like the one I just described. When the scenario was described to undergraduates, 95% believed that they would certainly notice such a change (as is likely the case for you as well). Yet when this experiment was carried out in the real world, nearly 50% of the participants did not notice the switch!


This particularly startling data is indicative of change blindness, defined by Chabris and Simons (2010) as failure to notice changes between what was in view moments before and what is in view currently. Essentially, we tend not to compare and thus notice stimuli changes from moment to moment. As a result we tend to be “blind” in many cases to pretty obvious changes. And what is equally salient is that we are unaware of this blindness. If you are like most people you said “No way I’d miss that!” Yet it is likely that about half of you would miss such changes.


Unconvinced? So were a group of Harvard undergraduates who had just attended a lecture that covered the above “door study” and change blindness. After the lecture, students were recruited to participate in further research. Interested students were directed to a different floor where they were greeted by an experimenter behind a counter. As the recruits proceeded to review and complete the necessary paperwork, the experimenter who greeted and instructed them regarding the paperwork ducked down behind the counter, presumably to file some papers, only to depart as a new and different experimenter took over the role. Even after being primed with the knowledge of change blindness, not one of the students noticed the swap! This was true even for some of the students who had just moments before boldly stated that they would notice such a change. We are in fact largely blind to our change blindness regardless of our confidence regarding our vigilance.


These results, contend Chabris and Simons, comprise conclusive evidence for the illusion of memory, (which is the disconnect between how our memory works and how we think it works).


Most of us are all too aware of the failings of our short-term memory. We often forget where we put the car keys, cell phone, or sunglasses. These authors note that we are generally pretty accurate when it comes to knowing the limits of this type of memory. License plates and phone numbers have only seven digits because most of us can only hold that much data in short-term memory. However, when it comes to understanding the limits of our long-term memory we tend to hold entirely unrealistic, fallacious, and illusory expectations.

In a national survey of fifteen hundred people [Chabris and Simons] commissioned in 2009, we included several questions designed to probe how people think memory works. Nearly half (47%) of the respondents believed that ‘once you have experienced an event and formed a memory of it, that memory doesn’t change.’ An even greater percentage (63%) believed that ‘human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp. 45-46).

They added:

People who agreed with both statements apparently think that memories of all our experiences are stored permanently in our brains in an immutable form, even if we can’t access them. It is impossible to disprove this belief… but most experts on human memory find it implausible that the brain would devote energy and space to storing every detail of our lives…” (p. 46).

So, as it turns out, our memories of even significant life events are quite fallible. Although we perceive such memories as being vivid and clear, they are individual constructions based on what we already know, our previous experiences, and other cognitive and emotional associations that we ultimately pair with the event. “These associations help us discern what is important and to recall details about what we’ve seen. They provide ‘retrieval cues’ that make our memories more fluent. In most cases, such cues are helpful. But these associations can also lead us astray, precisely because they lead to an inflated sense of precision of memory.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 48). In other words, our memories are not exact recordings, they are instead modified and codified personal replicas that are anything but permanent.


I cannot do justice to the impressive and exhaustive detailing that Chabris and Simons provide in the The Invisible Gorilla regarding the illusion of memory. However, suffice it to say, that we give way too much credit to the accuracy of our own long-term memories and have unrealistic expectations regarding others’ recall. People recall what they expect to remember and memories are modified over time based on malleable belief systems. Memories fade and morph over time depending on the “motives and goals of the rememberer.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 51).

“Although we believe that our memories contain precise accounts of what we see and hear, in reality these records can be remarkably scanty. What we retrieve often is filled in based on gist, inference, and other influences; it is more like an improvised riff on a familiar melody than a digital recording of an original performance. We mistakenly believe that our memories are accurate and precise, and we cannot readily separate those aspects of our memory that accurately reflect what happened from those that were introduced later.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp 62-63).

They detail with riveting stories continuity errors in movies, source memory errors (is it your memory or mine?), flashbulb memories, and false memories in a way that really drives home the point that our memories are not to be trusted as factual depictions of historical fact. They beg the question: Can you trust your memory?


The answer: Partially, but you must be aware that your memory is not immutable. It is erroneous to assume that your memories are factual and it is equally fallacious to presume that other’s memories are likewise infallible. Two people witnessing the same event from the same perspective are likely to recall the event differently because of their unique personal histories, capabilities, internal associations, and thus their unique internal cognitive associations, as they store into memory the bits and pieces of the event.


Isn’t it amazing and scary that we give so much credit and power to eye-witness testimony in the court of law? Such power is conferred based on the pervasive and deeply held belief in the accuracy of memory – which you must know by now is an illusion. This is just another example pertaining to the illusion of justice in this country.


On a more personal level, next time you and your significant other get into a debate about how some past event went down, you have to know that you both are probably wrong (and right) to some degree. There is your truth, their truth, and the real truth. These can be illustrated in a Venn Diagram with three circles that from time to time have various degrees of mutual overlap. We must admit that over time the real truth is likely to become a smaller piece of the story. This necessitates that we get comfortable with the reality that we don’t possess a DVR in our brains and that we part ways with yet another illusion of the importance and power of our uniquely human intuition.




Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. New York: Random House.