Can technology make us wiser? There is something to be said for taking a theory as far as you can go with it and pushing it's boundaries, as the process is educational. Other people have taken the "technology is making us dumber" meme and pushed it and so Marc Prensky's book, Brain Gain, provides a nice counterpoint to such arguments, illustrating the myriad ways which technology enables people to process more data, faster, with fewer errors. As someone who uses technology in almost everything I do, I'm the natural audience for the benefits of technology.
However, I don't think technology can make us wiser. In Brain Gain, Prensky talks about "digital wisdom" and how technology can help us achieve it by allowing us to process complexity better. Part of my difference with Prensky is in the definition of the word "wisdom". In the book, he goes through several definitions and settles on a definition that is fairly convenient for arguing technology's impact, which is "the ability to find practical, creative, contextually appropriate, and emotionally satisfying solutions to complicated human problems." This may just be semantics, but I would define wisdom as being closer to the idea of knowing what's important, and certainly there is an important element of judging what "ought" to be that is a part of the common idea of wisdom. It is this "ought" that I believe technology cannot help us with. Technology can help us know what "is" in the world and process what "is" better. But deciding what "ought" to be is an entirely different question.
Simply put, technology can help us achieve our goals, but it cannot tell us what our goals ought to be. It is a distinction that I feel that many people who try to "systemize" the world fail to appreciate. Perhaps technology can free us from certain tasks, enabling us to humanize our remaining time such that we can concentrate on what is important. But figuring out what is important and what is not, is a process that we humans will likely have to do ourselves.
- Ravi Iyer
One of the pitfalls in doing political psychology research is that it is tempting to define an ideology using the perspective of whatever you study. Researchers necessarily (and I'm sure I do this too) talk about the novelty and uniqueness of their findings in order to convince editors of journals of the objective importance of their work. In my technology career, we often think of connected variables as part of a "graph", indicating that any individual finding is likely part of a larger pattern. I believe that there are a number of psychology findings and news stories about conservatives that are actually part of a larger pattern, where each finding is actually an example of how conservatism can be defined by a desire for greater coherence.
What is coherence? It is an idea that grows from the common psychological finding that cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, so people seek to create the absence of dissonant thoughts, beliefs, and emotions in their lives. This absence of dissonance is what we can call coherence. My graduate school advisor, Stephen Read, has studied it extensively in a variety of contexts, and, in a project led by my colleague Brian Monroe, modeled a variety of social psychological findings about attitudes. My suggestion in this blog post is that, in a similar fashion, a large number of observations about conservatism can be explained by the idea that conservatives seek more coherence than liberals. Below, I will list these observations and you can judge for yourself whether there is a broader pattern.
- Psychologists have found that conservatives are more likely to create coherence between their factual beliefs and their moral beliefs. While "moral coherence" can be found in liberals and conservatives alike, conservative moral coherence is readily apparent in the news (see Akin, Todd).
- A lack of coherence is unpleasant and greater coherence may explain why conservatives are happier than liberals. This article comes from the perspective of systems justification theory, which has shown rather convincingly that conservatives are more likely to make coherent attributions of wealth (e.g. people who are rich did good things) and justice (e.g. people generally get what they deserve). It is not hard to imagine why people who walk around thinking that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people are less happy than people who think the opposite, an intepretation consistent both with systems justification theory and this article.
- A fair amount of research connects meaning to coherence, and our yourmorals data (in the below graph, using Steger's Meaning in Life Questionnaire), indicates that conservatives report more meaning in life..
- A lot of political psychology work concerns liberals greater "cognitive complexity". A quote from this paper: "There is both survey and content analytic evidence that liberals rely on more integratively complex cognitive strategies in reaching policy conclusions than do conservatives (Tetlock, 1989), suggesting that liberals may be more tolerant of cognitive dissonance...liberals receive higher scores on measures of tolerance of ambiguity..(Stone & Schaffner, 1988)." In political discourse, you can see this division played out in terms of conservative ridicule of Kerry's "for it before I was against it" in favor of the Texas straight shooter. Note that cognitive complexity can be thought of as both an indication of intelligence and an indication of lack of core beliefs.
- It is certainly more coherent to think that the group that you belong to does good things, rather than bad things, and conservatives are more likely to be more patriotic (see their identification with country results in this paper) and display more ingroup bias. In contrast, it would generate cognitive dissonance to believe that your group should apologize for past bad actions and conservatives do not seem eager to apologize.
- There is work suggesting that conservative judgments are more likely to be consistent/coherent with their emotional reactions. Jesse Graham has a number of working papers showing how conservatives are more likely to make moral judgments that are consistent with their emotional reactions, while liberals may at times, override their gut reaction with an intellectual judgment. In the news, we often see conservatives use their gut intuitions, even as liberals second guess basing judgments on coherence with the gut.
It bears noting that most of the above differences can be framed as positive or negative, depending on one's ideological desires. Coherence, by itself, is neither good nor bad, and can be both adaptive and maladaptive in different situations. One of my colleagues once said that there is value in reviewing research from a particular perspective and pushing that review as far as one can go, even if one might be wrong. There is certainly a ton of research I am unaware of and perhaps there is research showing contradictory evidence for my conclusion that conservativism is defined by coherence. Or alternatively, perhaps readers are aware of more research on liberal-conservative differences that can be explained through the lens of coherence. I would appreciate either type of information via comment or email.
- Ravi Iyer
Like this if you are registered to vote, share it if you want to see which of your friends are registered.
The title of this post is a blatant attempt to go viral, though hopefully for a good cause. A new study recently published in Nature estimates that a similar viral message touting voting behavior, led to 340,000 more votes in the 2010 election. Human beings are naturally social creatures and if we see our close friends doing something, we're more likely to do that too. It's actually an old, well researched topic in social science, so it's not so surprising that social influence works, but what is great is that in the new modern connected world, we can actually consciously create benevolent social influence and measure it's actual impact. You've always seen it in fundraisers where people ask their friends to help them run a race for charity or in telethons, but Facebook opens up entirely new possibilities, including using social influence to get your friends to register to vote (and hopefully vote, though I'm pretty sure Facebook will have that covered again this time). Such is the purpose of this blog post or feel free to create your own version as there is nothing magical about this post. Any post with a similar title will work. Or you can make up your own title for some other pro-social cause, harnessing the power of social influence for good.
So like this post if you are registered to vote, and share it with your friends if you want to see which of them are registered! And if you don't know who to vote for, check out or Obama vs. Romney quiz at VoteHelp.org.
- Ravi Iyer
The recent killing of Americans in Libya by a mob of protestors who were responding to an intentionally offensive youtube video, created by Sam Bacile and friends, illustrates a fundamental truth. Extremism begets extremism. Killing begets killing. Violence begets violence.
It is a truth that directly relates to the cycles of incivility that we see in American politics and a truth that social psychologists often study, because group level reactions to conflict, extremism, violence, and incivility/demonization are fairly predictable; they incite more of the same. Indeed, there is clear evidence that Sam Bacile, Terry Jones, Osama Bin Laden, Charles Manson, and other extremists understand this implicitly and commit their extremist acts with the idea of inciting a wider war. In this case, a desire for a wider conflict is what the Libyan Mob and Sam Bacile have in common. Psychology research backs their methods.
- Interviews in Rwanda illustrate how the humiliation of some led to a desire to counterhumiliate others and ultimately to genocide. (Full article here)
- A large body of research shows that being threatened by reminders of one's mortality leads one to want to punish and derogate those who have a different worldview.
- Threat and mortality salience also increases the tendency to stereotype outgroups.
- When violence occurs between groups, members of a harmed group can be motivated to retaliate against innocent members of the perpetrator's group, leading to cycles of violence and vicarious retribution. (also see here)
Given the reliability with which extremists can create cycles of violence, it remains imperative that those of us who want reduced extremism, incivility, and violence realize the situational causes and consider how to frame things as a cooperative goal of moderates vs. extremists, instead of a Muslims vs. the West frame that extremists on both sides would prefer. It's an imperative that Martin Luther King put as follows:
Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love... Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. … Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. crossposted from civilpolitics.org
In 2008, I co-founded VoteHelp.org as a way to help people with the question "Who should I vote for?" In 2008, it served over 500,000 people, but we didn't get any demographic information at the time, so, while valuable, I couldn't answer many of the questions I wanted to answer about the use of "candidate calculators", which is a name sometimes given to sites that allow you to enter your political opinions into a website, which then attempts to match your opinions to those of political candidates. In 2012, I added a few optional questions to the end of the quiz that asked the age, gender, political ideology, and planned candidate choice of quiz takers.
Right now, we rank #2 or #3 (I've seen both) for the search query "who should I vote for" on Google and according to Google, about 15,000 people have searched for that query over the past 30 days, with about 5000 clicking on VoteHelp.org. Some number of people do not fill out our surveys (25% bounce rate) and of those, only 30% or so fill out our optional demographics questions. Browser referral information isn't always sent, so I can only identify 470 who definitely typed in "who should I vote for" into Google to come to our site during the 2012 election, the bulk of which occurred in the last 30 days. Still, I think it's perhaps indicative of the kind of person who searches the internet for voter information.
Who is this person? The average age was 30.3 years old (SD = 11.1), with people as young as 12 and as old as 87 taking the survey. 56% of quiz takers were male. Judging by the below charts, the average person who asks Google who they should vote for really is likely to be undecided and moderate.
What do these voters care about? In order to eliminate the effects of the liberals and conservatives, I looked just at the 201 people who said they were moderate or apolitical. Here is the list of issues they care about in descending order of importance.
And here are their stances on these issues, with questions they agreed to listed first, and questions they disagreed with listed last. Note that these questions were asked on a 7 point scale with 1 = strongly disagree, 4 = in the middle, and 7 = strongly agree.
What can we conclude from these analyses? It seems like the kinds of people who are asking for help on the internet are people who might be classified as populists. They appear to be mainly younger men, who want compromise in government, favor liberal policies like higher taxes on the wealthy, higher spending on education, and more corporate regulation, but also favor conservative policies like stricter immigration enforcement and stricter controls on government spending. Of course, perhaps taking the average of these undecided voters obscures differences among these voters. Also, these results are likely to generalize best to the types of individuals who are actively using the internet to figure out who to vote for, since our sample all typed in "Who should I vote for?" into Google and then took the VoteHelp quiz. On one promising note for these analyses, these results do seem to converge with the media's depiction of the voters who both campaigns appear to be trying to woo right now.
- Ravi Iyer