Recently, some of my collaborators (Brittany Liu and Pete Ditto) published a paper on moral coherence, which is when people fit their factual beliefs to their moral beliefs. It is a phenomenon very similar to what I’ve called moral confabulation (I like their term better, so have adopted it). It is a specific example of every person’s general desire for coherence and avoidance of cognitive dissonance.
I don’t know when I learned that everyone has false beliefs. But I see it all the time, both in myself and in others. I’d hate to have my fate decided by some fact I got wrong. Wouldn’t you?
For instance, I never questioned a belief I had held for years: that the hijackers that flew planes into the World Trade Center on 9/11 came through Canada. On twitter I said that to do anything about 9/11, President Bush would have had to fix security in Canada.
It was then that I learned the hijackers all came through from US airports.
I had no reason, up to that embarrassing moment, to challenge my belief. It’s not that I had a particular bond to my false recollection, it’s that it just never occurred to me that there was anything to challenge. Afterward I realized that the hijackers would have complicated their mission greatly by choosing a foreign country as their takeoff point.
It’s difficult to challenge our own beliefs. That’s why we believe them.
Want more examples of moral coherence? Like our moral coherence facebook fan page where we post occasional examples of moral coherence that pop up in the news, where both liberals and conservatives make such errors.
In an attempt to popularize psychological theories such as idealistic evil and the dark side of moral conviction, I sometimes use the term hypermoral to describe why ostensibly good people (e.g. non-psychopaths), can be led to do terrible things for ostensibly moral reasons. Research suggests that much of the violence that exists in the world can be attributed to an excess of morality, not to a deficit.
Violence can occur in many forms. War and terrorism may be more obvious forms of violence that are readily characterized as idealistic, but the current willingness by many to risk the fate of the world’s economy in order to achieve some moral end could be thought of as a form of hypermoralism as well. Since such an event has never happened before, it may be uncertain what would happen if the US debt ceiling negotiations do not produce a result, but anybody who has convinced themselves that they knowthat that raising the debt ceiling will not create a catastrophe is clearly engaging in speculation (and likely moral confabulation) beyond their experience (since no such actual knowledge of this hypothetical event exists) and contrary to the vast majority of experts/economists of all political persuasions. Psychology studies, especially experiments, often show what can happen, in some controlled setting where variables are more easily isolated. But sometimes it’s useful to look to evidence from the real world to see what does happen. I would argue that the below quotes show hypermoralism in action, in that individuals are willing to cause damage to innocent others (via the American economy) in order to achieve some moral end.
Some view the risk to the economy as a means toward promoting the protestant work ethic and self-reliance:
“It is not a bad thing for a society to have a cultural and moral bias in favor of productive work and to sanction the easy acceptance of charity and welfare payment when these are not necessary and when one can provide for oneself.” – Robert Sirico in the National Review
“The welfare state seems to be corrupting some of our core moral principles….This moral corruption is eminently on display in the increasingly common, and increasingly loud, protests over cuts in state budgets, and we will soon see it in the looming fight over whether to raise the federal debt ceiling…To be specific: The welfare state encourages people to ignore, to violate–even to pretend does not exist–the moral principle that it is wrong to live at other people’s expense.” – James Otteson of Forbes.com
Some view the risk to the economy as a lesser evil, compared to the risk of leaving debt to our children:
“It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt. It is immoral to rob our children’s future and make them beholden to China. No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily.” – John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the House
On the left, some would risk the economy because they feel that it is morally unfair that the rich are not asked to pay more:
“The Republicans have been absolutely determined to make certain that the rich and large corporations not contribute one penny for deficit reduction, and that all of the sacrifice comes from the middle class and working families ….I cannot support legislation like the Reid proposal which balances the budget on the backs of struggling Americans while not requiring one penny of sacrifice from the wealthiest people in our country. That is not only grotesquely immoral, it is bad economic policy.” – Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders
Some view any talk of compromise as disloyalty to one’s partisan team:
Mitch McConnell is right now talking about making a historic capitulation…Consider sending McConnell a weasel as testament to his treachery. – Erick Erickson of RedState.com
Budgets are moral documents, and so it is unsurprising that politicians have strong moral feelings about them. Reasonable people will disagree about what is or is not a moral way to run society, and that is exactly why we shouldn’t give politicians the ability to do immoral things, like holding the economy hostage, to get their way. Reasonable people may do unreasonable things, when confronted with a strong moral issue, and politicians are inherently moralistic individuals who constantly deal with moral questions. We shouldn’t give them tools like the debt ceiling, that allow them to threaten to hurt others in service of some ostensibly larger moral end.
Recently, an unprecedented study was done in Oregon where (due to budgetary, not research reasons) a lottery was held to randomly decide which applicants for Medicaid would actually receive the opportunity to receive Medicaid. There has never been an opportunity to randomly assign people to have access to a program like Medicaid, and so this represents a unique opportunity to learn something about the effects of Medicaid, especially considering the large sample size. The results were recently published and while there are multiple news reportsabout the article, none had the depth (or graphs) to satisfy me, hence this post as an excuse to dig deeper.
People who received medicaid (in red) felt happier (“very happy” or “pretty happy” as opposed to “not too happy”), healthier, and less depressed (using this measure) than the control group (in blue).
People who received medicaid (in red) used more preventative services than control group (in blue) (yearly results for just women).
People who received medicaid (in red) used more medical services overall than control group (in blue), costing taxpayers more money, without any decrease in ER visits (yearly numbers, extrapolated from 6 month numbers in article – costs used per event in article, based on previous studies, are in parentheses).
Partisans will surely see it through partisan eyes, as one man’s enormous gain in outcomes is another man’s modest increase. The National Review had a fairly detailed critique, but I can’t help but feel that statements like “supporters must show not only that expanding coverage improves health but also that it does so at a lower cost to taxpayers than alternative policies” ring hollow unless advocates are forcefully pushing for those policies on the grounds of improving the health of the poor. It has the same feel as liberal arguments that taxing the wealthy will actually stimulate the economy. Both groups don’t like to make tradeoffs, even obvious ones, but the reality is that expanding health coverage will both cost money and improve health.
Is it an unaffordable amount of money or a trivial amount? The other neat thing about the study is that it actually translated health usage into actual dollars spent per year. The control group still spent money on health care, which was presumably taken care of through existing services, charities, or emergency rooms. The marginal cost of insuring the poor could be seen to be the difference between the experimental and control groups or the total cost of the experimental group. Under medicaid, the government would pay all those costs, but there may be savings on what government is already spending on emergency room visits to public hospitals and other like societal costs. In comparison, I found these links for the yearly cost of educating a child or incarcerating a prisoner in Oregon.
Of course, the above graph is perhaps misleading as there are far more school children than prisoners, so perhaps multiplying the total cost of care by the 213,000 medicaid eligible uninsured individuals or by the almost 650,000 total uninsured (numbers from statehealthfacts.org), and comparing it to the overall Oregon budget might put the cost of expanding coverage dramatically in context. Below are yearly Oregon state budget items compared to extrapolated medicaid costs. Note that the cost of insuring all uninsured is likely lower due to many uninsured being young working adults. However, there is likely overhead and administrative costs to the program that are not taken into account as well, so perhaps this balances out.
Oregon Yearly Budget Items in Comparison to Potential Expanded Health Care Cost
I learned something from this exercise. My liberal intuition was that expanding coverage to all the uninsured would not be that large a cost for a state. In reality, it looks like expanding Medicaid in Oregon would be roughly equivalent to the entire budget of the Oregon University system or at least the community college system, depending on whether you count the entire cost of medicaid health care or just the marginal cost of increased usage. Either way, it is a significant cost. At the same time, providing health coverage to all the uninsured is not fiscally impossible. It costs a fraction of the overall state budget and would cost a fraction of the Oregon health and human services budget. Behind all the reactions to such studies is the attempt by both liberals and conservatives use motivated reasoning to avoid a hard choice between a costly government program and failing to provide health care for our nation’s poor. There is a cost, in terms of money or well-being, to either position.
Lately, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have been having fun with Jon Kyl’s bizarre response to an error he made on the senate floor in saying that 90% of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion. The real figure is 3% and his bizarre response was that his use of the 90% figure was “not intended to be a factual statement”, which has become a new twitter meme.
The interesting thing to me of this story was a bit on the Daily Show where Wyatt Cenac points out that “in his defense, he’s only lying about something that he believes in. It’s in service of a strongly held moral principle. He’s not lying to get out of jury duty or be boastful.” (at about 1:10 in the below clip)
While the defense was intended to be comical, many might see Cenac’s explanation as a truly mitigating circumstance. Kyl likely believed what he was saying, given that an intentional lie would undoubtedly be revealed. At some point in our lives, many of us also believe in something so much that our perceptions of reality are altered. Many people do indeed believe that sometimes the ends justifies the means, and from our data, those people are actually more likely to be liberals (or libertarians). One might argue that our incursion into Libya, for many, is a case where the ends (saving civilian lives, increasing freedom) justifies the means (violence). In other examples, Democrats believe that the health care reform bill will improve access to health care, and also reduce the deficit. Republicans believe that reducing taxes on the wealthy will actually increase revenue. There are arguments to be made for either position, but an objective observer would probably believe neither of these claims and it seems likely that moral principles (Democrats believe in a social safety net & Republicans believe taxes on the wealthy are immoral) are shaping perceptions of reality, which is the definition of moral confabulation, when you believe in something so strongly, that you don’t let objectivity get in your way.
Sarah Palin, in contrast to the Obama administration, believes that Jewish settlements in disputed territory should be allowed to expand. She is very clear about this belief in her recent interview with Barbara Walters. But does she understand the reason for these beliefs? Consider the below statement…
“I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead.”
In contrast, here is the view of the Prime Minister of Israel from this article:
“We do not intend to build any new settlements, but it wouldn’t be fair to ban construction to meet the needs of natural growth or for there to be an outright construction ban,” Netanyahu said.
“Natural growth” is the term Israel uses for expansion to accommodate population growth inside the boundaries of existing settlements.
Perhaps a minor point, as Palin has part of the story about population growth right, but her opinion about a mass immigration into Israel causing a need for settlement is at odds with the official government position, which stresses that the population which needs to be accommodated is growth from within. It’s possible that there is some immigration pressure, but it isn’t an opinion that is generally put forth by supporters of settlers and if population growth were the real “because” in her stated opinion, then one might think she would be equally concerned about the population growth of the Arab population, which is growing at a far faster rate, and where those people will live.
The moral intuitionist perspective would hypothesize that she has a really strong intuitive support for Israeli settlers and that when pressed, she may have to confabulate logical reasons for this support. If you want to see moral confabulation in action, fast forward to 4:20 in the below video.
For the sake of balance, Palin’s detractors are certainly capable of motivated reasoning (see this article by Andrew Sullivan) and moral judgment and I have to admit that I doubt my own immunity to such processes. So maybe there really is lots of flocking going on and I’m just unaware of the validity of that argument. Or maybe not…;)
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.
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.
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.
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.
I would argue that moral confabulation is the common thread between these two videos. Is Obama, who is half white and surrounded by white people, really a racist?
I don’t think everything that liberals are saying about Bush is wrong, but disliking someone so much that you compare them to Hitler is a stretch, unless the person you are comparing them to is systematically setting up camps to kill millions of people. What part of what liberals say about conservatives is confabulated as well? Could denial of global warming be a type of moral confabulation?
I would like to coin the term moral confabulation (ok, I didn’t coin it first…there are 23 google results for it…but I’d like to popularize it) and I’ve now added it as a category on this site. Confabulation is the formation of false beliefs or memories. In the moral realm, one confabulates when ones emotional gut reaction to some event is so strong that it causes one to posit new beliefs that may be at strong odds with reality.
I do not believe that this is just a conservative phenomenon and I hope to illustrate this phenomenon in liberals (eg. social justice may be a confabulation of empathy for the poor). However, I couldn’t let this video pass without sharing it.
Sometimes you dislike a group (homosexuals) or a thing (pornography) so much, that reasons why they are bad just keep coming to mind. It’s very related to this scenario which affects both liberals and conservatives. Without making any claims about the rightness or wrongness of these objects, I feel that moral confabulation is a phenomenon worth studying. And sometimes giving something a name makes it more study-able. If you know of more examples of moral confabulation, please share.