Recently, a professor expressed the opinion that the purpose of social psychology is to publish first-rate research in journals. Personally, I do not feel that social psychology is an end, in and of itself, but rather a means. It is true that one of the primary means that psychology gets disseminated is through journals, but that is certainly not the only way to disseminate ideas. Social psychology is especially interesting to me, in that it is applicable to the average undergraduate student's daily life and so the teaching of social psychology becomes one of the most important ways that ideas are disseminated. Social psychology hopefully contributes toward more worthy ends by teaching students about their world.
One exercise we use to teach undergraduates is one where we ask students to list reasons why they might want to be the opposite sex. Below is the number of reasons that students listed in a recent exercise, divided by gender.
What exactly does this mean? We use this to teach the students about sexism. Somehow, it is just easier for women to think of reasons why they want to be men rather than for men to think of reasons why they want to be women. There are several explanations for this. It could be that women simply write more. It could be that this accurately reflects society and there are more reasons in society to be a man than a woman. Or it could be that women are more comfortable thinking about being masculine compared to men thinking about being more feminine. This last hypothesis is supported by the below graph where we see that men were much more likely to fold their paper in half when turning it in, indicating that they perhaps wanted to hide their answers.
Some sample responses?
Reasons women thought it might be easier to be a man: less attention to appearance, capable, menstruation, less drama, physical abilities, aging not a big deal, less prejudice, & giving birth.
Reasons men thought it might be easier to be a woman: free drinks,nicer, don't neccesarily have to get a job, socially acceptable to go to bathroom in groups, don't have to fight wars, & easier to get dates.
A current hot topic in the news is this story of Keith Bardwell, a Louisiana justice of the peace who refused to marry an inter-racial couple. His stated reason is that "my main concern is for the children", meaning that the children may not be accepted by either racial group. Further, he claims that he is not a racist as proven by the fact that he regularly performs ceremonies for black couples in his house.
I obviously have never spoken to Mr. Bardwell, but I would speculate that his reasoning is a classic case of moral confabulation. He believes that interracial marriage is wrong and he believes that the children would be hurt. But I would contend that he believes the children would be hurt because he believes interracial marriage is wrong while he has confabulated a story with reversed causality, whereby he believes interracial marriage is wrong because the children would be hurt. If there were no potential harm to children (for example, if the couple is sterile), would he marry the couple or would he spontaneously confabulate a new reason for being unable to marry them? My guess would be the latter.
A group called J Street has recently sought to question the wisdom of military action by the Israeli government. Their influence is supposed to be a counterbalance to the traditionally hawk-ish Israel lobby embodied by AIPAC. Many lobbying groups which oppose military action by Israel identify with the groups that Israel has conflicting interests with or inherently believe that war is a terrible thing. J Street is unique in that it is pro-peace AND is pro-Israel, taking the stance that the best way to support Israel is by taking a pro-peace stance. In taking this stand, they are questioning one of the most powerful implicit arguments for military action....that support for military action is related to being patriotic. As a result, groups like the Weekly Standard have been questioning just how pro-Israel J Street really is.
Is it possible to be both pro-peace and pro-Israel? What part of this is simply the moral confabulation of believing that your side (liberal or conservative) is correct and that the other side MUST be unpatriotic? Sometimes we might dislike the opposing viewpoint so much that we question not just their wisdom, but their motives.
To help answer this question, I analyzed some of our data from yourmorals.org to see how identification with one's country (measured using questions like "How much do you identify with (that is, feel a part of, feel love toward, have concern for)...people in my country?") is related to attitudes toward peace (measured using questions like "Peace brings out the best qualities in a society.") and attitudes toward war (measured using questions like "War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict."). It is worth noting that attitudes toward war and attitudes toward peace are not necessarily the same thing. They are highly correlated (r=-.68) in our sample, but the correlation is not perfect (-1 or 1 would be a perfect correlation).
At first glance, it seems that being pro-peace might be incompatible with identifying with one's country. Consider the below 2 graphs. Attitudes toward peace aren't really related to patriotism. Attitudes toward war are related to patriotism in that people who identify with their country more seem to be slightly more likely to be more sympathetic to the need for conflict.
Given that the distinction between pro-peace and anti-war is difficult, it is unsurprising that from the simple relationships, people are suspicious of people who are both pro-peace and patriotic. However, these relationships are not large and there are many confounding variables, the most obvious of which are your political leanings. Much research in political psychology concerns our motivated reasoning to support our political party's position on any given issue. If we look within each political party, the relationship between being pro-peace and pro-country changes as shown in the below two graphs.
The confusing purple lines above are self-identified libertarians. Let's deal with them later.
The main result if we look at everybody else is that we see that identification with one's country is actually associated with being pro-peace WITHIN each political group. In contrast, in the first set of graphs, being pro-war was associated with identification with one's country when collapsing across all political groups. The results suggest that identification with country is independently associated with being pro-peace if we control for being liberal, conservative, or libertarian. If we control for the variance associated with political ideology, it is not patriotic to be anti-war or pro-war. It IS patriotic to be pro-peace....and the reason people who are pro-peace are characterized as not being patriotic is because the doves and the hawks reside on opposite sides of the partisan divide. This partisan divide also predicts identification with country (conservativism correlates .29 with identification with country). But if we take out the variance due to ideology, peace is indeed patriotic.
Put in the context of the political issue of the day, there is nothing so abnormal about being pro-peace and pro-Israel, but it is unsurprising that critics of J Street are unable to disentangle their partisan leanings from their opinions about the group given the simple pattern of what we see in society. It is worth noting though that questioning the motives rather than the wisdom of the opposing position is not something that is limited to conservative groups like the Weekly Standard. J Street characterizes the Weekly Standard's actions as "thuggish smear tactics", "swift boat" moves, and "unhinged" which is surely a caricature of their true motivations. My advice to J Street would be to avoid such confrontational language as it only exacerbates the partisan divide and makes it more unlikely that others might actually see resonance in their pro-peace, pro-Israel stance.
There is one group for whom being pro-peace is more diagnostic, libertarians. Libertarians make up 10-15% of the population according to recent surveys and 7% of our sample, but it is worth speculating about why group identification is so diagnostic of war and peace attitudes for this group. Using Moral Foundations Theory, war and peace attitudes are predicted by both the ingroup/loyalty foundation and the harm/care foundation. Similarly, patriotism and identification with one's country is a blend of concern about loyalty to one's group and care for those group members. Libertarians score lower on the moral foundations questionnaire on both the ingroup and harm foundations. My hypothesis would be that for libertarians, identification with country is more a function of group loyalty rather than care for other group members (see Ayn Rand's virtue of selfishness). Indeed, the correlation between Moral Foundations Questionnaire-Ingroup scores and Identification with Country scores are higher for libertarians than for every other group (r=.56 for libertarians, .37 for conservatives and .38 for liberals). I would speculate that the fact that libertarian patriotism is more loyalty than care based is the reason why libertarian patriotism is more highly related to pro-war/anti-peace attitudes. More on libertarians to come as I'm working on a paper on libertarian psychology.
Facebook just launched a gross national happiness index which uses analysis of words used in Facebook posts to measure the country's mood. I'm sure those who study the taxonomy of emotion would love to see more complex measures included. However, this is a potentially wonderful tool and the fact that Facebook is willing to publish this data means that someday they could end up allowing the research community to examine their data. The possibilities are endless.
Some interesting trends from their limited graph....
Thanksgiving (2 years running) is the most positive day of the year...social pressure to be thankful? Does it mean people are happier or not?
Why is the day after Father's day the least positive day (they have separate indexes for positivity and negativity)?
Why is the 4th of July the least negative day?
In a sense, academics have been 'crowd sourcing' for years. The first documented case of peer review was in 1665 (according to wikipedia), though this only became a standard in the later part of the 20th century. Peer review refers to the process whereby other academics review the work of potential authors of new knowledge to insure that this work is of sufficient quality. Peer review spreads the work of editing a journal among a wide array of researchers and also allows for editors to forward papers anonymously, allowing the works of nobel prize winners and humble graduate students to stand on their own merits. It's a system with many virtues that has served academia well.
Still, technology has changed the way we communicate in almost every arena and the pace of that change seems to be accelerating. Will the peer review system survive? If not, what will take it's place? I don't know the answer to that question, but perhaps examining some of the areas where the current business of psychology and the current world don't match will lead us to some answers.
- It's slow for authors - Peer review is already derided as a slow process and given the pace of the modern world, it seems inevitable that change needs to occur in this area. There are too many researchers producing too much work for unpaid experts to keep up willingly. This will only get worse as online sites like Facebook produce mountains of data that should be analyzed.
- It's binary - What makes matters worse about the speed of the process is the fact that decisions are binary. You either are accepted (rarely in social psychology) or you are rejected. Yet papers exist on a continuum and some research gets cited hundreds of times while most research never gets cited at all...which is a chilling fact given how much effort and time went into it. All that work that reviewers do in their expert review of the research gets lost in the binary nature of their result and the fact that their comments are never revealed to the public.
- It's slow for readers - Invariably, the research that is most interesting is the research that is going on right now. How are discoveries expected to be made if cycles of research are delayed for years by inefficiencies in sharing information?
- It's static - Most papers in psychology contain a review of current literature and a discussion which talks about why the paper helps advance current knowledge. Unfortunately, that information becomes outdated soon after it is written and is even more outdated by the time it is published.
- It confounds praise with publicity - Having your article published serves two purposes. It helps you get a job in that it proves the worth of your work. It also allows other people to read your work and build upon it. However, these two things don't necessarily need to go together. 'Unsuccessful' research needs to be shared as 'failure' can be very instructive. Meta-analyses and other research aggregation techniques require that information.
- It is inefficient for authors - In most businesses, people specialize in certain tasks. In order to be a standout psychologist, you need to be able to be able to combine knowledge of psychology with writing skills and knowledge of statistics and increasingly, technical knowledge to collect data online. Few people can do all of these things well.
What kind of systems should stand in place of the current peer review journal article system? I don't have the answer to that, but I hope to talk about ideas for how technology may change the peer review system in successive posts. The problems of information overload facing academics is the same problem which everyone has these days. And people are continually improving systems which address this problem through innovations like crowd-sourcing (digg), leveraging social networks to filter information (facebook), collaborative writing (wikipedia), and sharing data across data sources (semantic web and freebase).
I'll write more in successive posts about specific solutions, but I think an ideal system would be one where all data is published, but the prestige that comes from a publication is awarded by crowd-sourced ratings and reviews, not by the act of being published. The publishing of a paper is the beginning of a conversation with the world, not the end. I say data, because I think people should be able to publish data or literature reviews or a combination...but that it should be possible to publish data for others to analyze, just like people publish theories for others to test. Analyses and literature reviews should be separate as analyses should remain relatively static while literature reviews and conclusions will inevitably change and should be updateable by the original authors (eg. see Psychwiki). Any review of a paper should include semantically tagged ratings of the research so that others can combine these ratings into meta-analyses. Indeed, eventually all data should be semantically tagged such that the aggregation of data points, not just studies, is possible.
I know that is a dense paragraph and I know I'll want to change it as soon as I hit publish....and the beauty of the internet is that I can. But rather than pretend I have the answer (I don't), I'll try and blog about innovations to the publishing process and the business of psychology in later posts, all in the business of psychology category of this blog.
Posts in this category:
- Big Data Stocks? Invest in Data, not in Tools.
- The Open Semantic Future of Psychology & Social Science
- When should we believe social science findings?
- Big Data Should Measure Value Fit
- Five ways that technology will democratize social science
- The importance of wisdom in social science research
- Does social psychology try too hard to be perceived as a “science”?
- Psychology is generally Continuous, not Categorical
- Can liberal academics study conservative ideology?
- Intrinsic, not Extrinsic Motivation Leads to Greater Reward – 2 Theories
- What can psychology tell us about moral reasoning that literature and the humanities cannot?
- Wanted: Motivated Academic Writers to Help Publish Our Data
- Can open government data inform voters in the 2010 election?
- Book Reviews – Consilience between psychology and books I read.
- How to publish a Replication of Disgust & Big Five Personality Trait Correlations
- Nate Silver and Veronique de Rugy demonstrate how a more modern peer review process could work.
- The Business of Psychology: Will the peer review journal article system be changed by technology?
Given the fact that the term is not widely used and that this site now is the first google entry for "moral confabulation" (not that there is any real competition), the responsible thing to do is to properly define moral confabulation and summarize previous research.
What is moral confabulation?
Confabulation is a well studied phenomenon in psychology. It refers to the formation of false beliefs or perceptions due to some "imperfection" of the brain. I put "imperfection" in quotes because psychology is consistently proving that confabulation is the norm, not the exception. Rational beliefs that we have reasons for may be considered more legitimate, but irrational beliefs may actually be more psychologically functional. Given how negative emotion is stronger than positive emotion, it is not necessarily functional for us to see the world as it truly is. Consider this video on synthetic happiness by Dan Gilbert:
Synthesizing happiness, even if it's a trick of our minds, works. Confabulation often serves the purpose of helping us synthesize happiness. We synthesize beliefs that may not accurately reflect reality, but which feel good. Our moral intuitions are part of this "emotional immune system" which keeps us happy and functional.
Psychologist Geoffrey Cohen illustrated this in the moral/political realm in a 2003 paper where he surveyed liberals and conservatives as to their preference for generous or stringent welfare policies. In the absence of knowledge about whether the policies were supported by Democrats or Republicans, liberals supported generous welfare policies and conservatives supported stringent welfare policies. However, a liberal who learned that Democrats supported stringent policies was likely to support the stringent policy and a conservative who learned that Republicans supported generous policies was likely to support generous policies. Further, they confabulated (synthesized or made up) the reason for this support as being based on the details of the proposal or their philosophy of government rather than on the fact that this was their parties' belief.
What if we didn't confabulate? A person would be left with the correct but disturbing belief that they blindly follow their party. While it might be true, that belief isn't very complimentary and we have a word for people who don't avoid having these emotionally negative beliefs....the word is depressed.
Moral confabulation is simply the study of confabulation in the moral realm. We are constantly making judgments about things as morally good or bad, right or wrong. However, we sometimes don't actually know the real reason why we make these judgments.
Why does it matter?
One could study food confabulation and the fact that people believe things taste good or bad when 80% of taste is actually a result of smell. However, somehow I don't think many people would care why food really tastes good or bad as there are no consequences of taste, unless you are a food manufacturer.
On the other hand, moral confabulation has important negative consequences.
- Increased Group Conflict - It feels good to bolster your group and feel morally superior to the other group. Fighting the cold war feels better when you can think of the USSR as the evil empire. Liberals enjoy demonizing conservatives and vice versa. It's fun...but the conflicts continue and lead to bad policy (due to liberal vs. conservative acrimony) and bad lives (oppressed Palestinians and insecure Israelis).
- Poor Choices - It is easy to confuse the policy choice which feels good with the policy choice that leads to the best outcome. Consider a hypothetical case where 10 terrorists kill 1000 Americans. These 10 terrorists then decide to hide in a village which we can bomb, killing the 10 terrorists, but also 3 innocent villagers. These 3 villagers have 30 relatives who will then become terrorists if we do this. Depending on your emotional makeup, it may feel especially wrong to let these 10 terrorists go unpunished or it may feel especially wrong to kill 3 innocent villagers. But the important thing to notice about this scenario is that your feelings have nothing to do with making America safer. However, I'm betting that if you are honest with yourself, you are much more susceptible about arguments to justify why reducing terrorism depends upon whichever choice seems less 'wrong' to you. It is moral confabulation to believe that your decision is based on reducing terrorism and not on following whichever moral intuition feels most just. In cases where the prudent decision is the decision which is also unjust, moral confabulation is bound to lead to poor choices.
Our hope is that popularizing the term will allow it to go from being an academic term to one which enters regular culture. Perhaps conscious awareness of the phenomenon will lead to less division in the world and more prudent choices, as people consciously attempt to avoid the phenomenon. It is neither a liberal or conservative phenomenon and anyone who makes judgments routinely confabulates. You can help in this effort by mentioning the term to your friends or writing about it on your facebook page or blog.
What previous research exists?
I did not invent the term moral confabulation. I don't think even the people who first used the term moral confabulation invented it as moral confabulation is implicit in the study of processing biases, intuition, ingroup bias, balance theory, cognitive dissonance, and numerous other areas of social psychology that are as old as the discipline itself. However, I would point the reader to this article by Jon Haidt (with Selin Kesebir), whose moral intuitionist perspective is well cited in current moral psychology research. It's a fairly current overview of much of the research on this topic in psychology.
Posts in this category:
- In Defense of Akin: Moral Coherence is common.
- Hypermoral Debt Ceiling Quotes
- Oregon’s Medicaid Experiment vs. Motivated Reasoning
- Jon Kyl’s Moral Confabulation is something we all do.
- Sarah Palin confabulates that “Jewish people will be flocking to Israel”
- Is Keith Bardwell confabulating his reason for being against interracial marriage?
- J Street vs. The Weekly Standard: Is it possible to be pro-peace and pro-Israel?
- Moral Confabulation: What is it and why does it matter?
- Moral Confabulation: Glenn Beck says Obama is a racist, Liberals compare Bush to Hitler
- Moral confabulation: when you dislike something so much that you make up stuff