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Moral Foundations of Windows vs. Mac Users

Recently, the topic came up of whether values profiles (and Moral Foundation Scores more specifically) predict behavior.  On the one hand, social and contextual factors often loom larger than individual factors in determining moral behavior.  On the other hand, it seemed rather unlikely that something as central as a persons values would not predict their behavior.  While the effects may be small and indirect in many cases, I would expect a person’s value profile to predict almost everything they do in life.  As a test case, I decided to examine whether moral foundation scores, which measure how much a person cares about harming others, fairness, obeying authority, being loyal, and being pure, in the context of moral judgments, predict whether a visitor to YourMorals.org visited using a Mac vs. a PC.  Below is the graph.

The Values Profile of Mac vs. PC Users

The Values Profile of Mac vs. PC Users

While all visitors to YourMorals.org are generally liberal, it looks as if Windows users are more conservative than Mac users, within this group.  Note that while this isn’t a representative sample, in some ways it is better for answering this question as the users in this sample have such similar characteristics that many variables are naturally controlled for.  Windows users appear to value harm less and purity more.

The take home message for me is that while context certainly matters, so to does a person’s values, even for relatively unrelated decisions, such as which computer to use in daily life.

- Ravi Iyer

Your Values Predict the Stories You Choose

Human beings are storytelling animals. There is no other species that spends large amounts of time watching the lives of others – fictitious or real – through the stories we read or watch. Stories do not just relate to the entertainment we consume, but are also central to the news we read or the companies that we resonate with. One of my favorite personality psychology theories concerns how our entire lives can be thought of as a set of narratives that bring coherence to our goals, desires, values, dispositions, and experiences.

I’ve recently been working with Zenzi, a communications company based in San Diego, that is attempting to leverage research on values to, among other things, better inform how companies can better engage with consumers. A good marketing campaign is one which doesn’t feel like someone is trying to sell something to you, but rather where there are shared goals between the company and consumer that are highlighted. Whereas these goals can be mundane (e.g. trading money for food), they are increasingly becoming more value driven. As such, kamagra oral jelly ajanta pharma, a key communications strategy for the post-modern world is learning to tell a company story that resonates with one’s clients deeper motivations. How can research on values help you do that?

One of the central tenets of the research we do is that values are not monolithic. Different people value different things and these values predict the kinds of stories that one enjoys. I recently conducted some research on yourmorals.org, where I examined the kinds of stories that different value types prefer. The below graph shows the correlations between dimensions of the Schwartz Values scale and questions concerning story type preferences, specifically relating to whether a person likes stories that provide an escape (e.g. I like stories that provide an escape from my real life) or stories that people can identify with (e.g. I like stories about situations that I can relate to). Note that it is entirely possible to enjoy both kinds of stories and most people do. Still, there is an inherent tension between giving people an escape and giving people stories they can relate to, and the below graph suggests how one might resolve that tension differently, depending on the values of one’s target audience.

Correlations between Schwartz Values and Story Preferences

People who value Power, Achievement, Spirituality, Tradition, Conformity, and Security seem to prefer stories that are closer to them, which they can relate to. In contrast, individuals who value Universalism, Self-Direction, Stiumulation, and Hedonism report a greater preference for stories that provide more of an escape from their everyday existence.

Whether you are a journalist considering how to frame a story, a screenwriter considering a plot twist, a marketer considering how to position a brand, or a novelist considering one’s next book, it helps to know your target audience‘s values when considering the kind of story you want to tell.

- Ravi Iyer

New Research on the Moral Psychology of Libertarians

While some followers of this blog may be familiar with some of the ideas in this paper, the final version of our publication about libertarian morality has just been published in PLOS One.  You can read the full paper here.  In addition, in the spirit of the Khan Academy, I created the below video summary for more casual consumption.

Finally, here is the press release that is accompanying the paper, which is also a reasonable summary for those who do not wish to read the full version.

Press Release for Immediate Release: August 23, 2012

Newly Published Research Illuminates Libertarian Morality

A new set of studies published in PLOS One takes advantage of a unique sample of 11,994 libertarians to explore the psychological dispositions of self-described libertarians.  Compared to self-identified liberals and conservatives, libertarians showed 1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle, and weaker endorsement of all other moral principles; 2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style; and 3) lower interdependence and social relatedness.

“Data can tell you what is, but not what ought to be,” explained Ravi Iyer, the lead author of the paper.  “This is commonly known as the ‘is-ought’ problem, most clearly defined by Philosopher David Hume.  With data, we can objectively answer what the values that exist in the world are, and what personality traits often accompany those values.  We hope to help people understand why some people are libertarian, while others are liberal or conservative, by showing you what ‘is’ with respect to libertarians.”

Using the writings of libertarian thought leaders such as Ayn Rand and Ron Paul to generate hypotheses, the authors – which included Ravi Iyer, a research scientist at the University of Southern California and data scientist at Ranker.com, Spassena Koleva and Jesse Graham, who are respectively are a post-doctoral researcher and assistant professor in the Values, Ideology, and Morality Lab at USC, Peter Ditto, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, and Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University – found that libertarians were less concerned with being altruistic or loyal, and more concerned with being independent and self-directed.

Convergent with previous research showing the ties between emotion and moral judgment, libertarians displayed a more rational cognitive style, according to a variety of measures.  Asked directly, using a series of standard psychological measures available at YourMorals.org, they reported being less neurotic, less disgusted, and less empathic, compared to liberals and conservatives, while also reporting a greater need for cognition and systematic understanding of the world.  When given moral dilemmas – e.g. being asked whether it is ok to sacrifice five people to save one – they reported fewer qualms than other groups, a pattern of responding that is consistent with a rational/utilitarian style.  Libertarians tended to do better on logic problems that included answers designed to fool more intuitive thinkers.

“Ideologies can be thought of as narratives that allow us to make sense of our beliefs, feelings and preferences,” said Iyer. “Naturally, we gravitate towards ideologies that are consistent with these dispositions.  This has been found consistently with liberals and conservatives across many research groups using many different methodologies.  The current research extends these findings to libertarians, which are an increasingly influential group in the US national discourse.”

Previous research has connected moral judgment to social functioning, theorizing that moral judgment arose in order to enable the current ultra-social modern society.  Libertarians, who generally were less morally judgmental, reported a corresponding desire for greater individualism and less attachment to their friends, family, community, and nation.

“This research is strongest when you consider it in context with other research on ideology and the origins or morality, which has found similar ties between emotion, social functioning, and moral judgment,” explained Iyer.  “All social science research methodologies have limitations, but the findings of the current research converge well with research using other methodologies, and the complete picture painted by recent moral psychological research hopefully gives people a greater understanding of the social and emotional origins of their own value systems.”

The paper can be read in its entirety at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0042366.  More information about the findings, including a video explanation that can be embedded in online media can be found at www.polipsych.com/libertarians.  For press inquiries, please contact Ravi Iyer, raviiyer@usc.edu.

Big Data Should Measure Value Fit

I gave a presentation at South by Southwest earlier this month.  I appreciate the many people who voted for my idea, who attended my talk, and who gave me feedback via twitter or face to face afterwards. It was a great experience.

It was a great experience, not for the people I met or for the thrill of speaking , both of which were nice, but more so because it forced me to think deeply about what I wanted to say.  A famous writer once said that “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”.  My thoughts are still evolving (one person, who was positive about the talk, commented to me after that she could see my thoughts evolve on stage), and if I did the presentation over, I would frame it differently, but what I believe I arrived at, is this: Big data should measure value fit.  Or perhaps more generally, the proliferation of data should be used to measure the intangible things that we say are important to us.

Here is more or less what I ended up saying in narrated powerpoint:

The Moral Psychology and Big Data Singularity – Ravi Iyer SXSWi

I was happy with my talk, but I will try to simplify things a bit the next time I do it.  Rather than present more cool findings from psychology, which are endless but ultimately forgotten, I would have focused more clearly on the point I started with: that we need to bridge the gap between the things we say we care about and the things that we measure.

Just as countries are starting to question whether measuring gross domestic product is a good measurement of that which is worthwhile, companies should start to question whether measuring profits/monthly unique visitors/return on investment/facebook likes/valuation, is measuring that which is worthwhile.  A recurring theme at South by Southwest was a focus on the importance of values and happiness as evidenced by talks with names like “Go Forth and make Awesomeness:  Core Values & Action” or “Why Happiness is the new Currency?”.  But while companies talk about values and happiness as outcomes, they don’t measure them, perhaps because they feel like they can’t measure the intangible.  Moral psychology and positive psychology, which deal with the quantification of values and happiness related constructs, can provide this methodology so that big data can eventually be used to measure the right things.

Once you start to think in this way, you can see this need everywhere. On cue, a friend recently sent me this article from the New York Times, that illustrates the points I make.  It’s by a courageous Goldman Sachs employee who quit because of he felt, in the terms of this post, that Goldman was measuring success the wrong way.

How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.

Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.

I am sure that Goldman Sachs has sophisticated algorithms to use their giant data sets to predict financial markets and make as much money as possible.  I doubt they’ve ever considered measuring the values of their employees. Sometimes what you measure is a reflection of your values.

- Ravi Iyer

ps. I am not short on projects, but if you would like help taking the data you have and using it to measure intangible/psychological things, feel free to email me.

Liberals vs. Conservatives:innocent until proven guilty?

If you are uncertain if a criminal is innocent or guilty, is it better to err on the side of innocence or guilt?  Given that proof is continuous, not categorical, how much bias toward innocent until proven guilty should one have?  A friend of a friend recently asked is this question to a group of psychologists:

do you know if there is any evidence that conservatives would be more upset (defined loosely) by a guilty person getting away with a crime than by an innocent person being convicted of a crime? and would it be the opposite for liberals?

None of us could come up with a ready answer of a published study to this effect (feel free to let me know of one and I’ll add it here), so I thought it would be useful to share a quick analysis of a few YourMorals.org questions that help answer this question.

The below question was asked on a 7 point scale, meaning that liberals (and libertarians) generally agree that it is better to let 10 people go free than to convict one innocent person, while conservatives are somewhat torn given a 10-1 scenario.

Liberal vs Conservative "wrongness" of letting a criminal go free

Another way to ask this question is to ask how wrong it would feel for a criminal to go unpunished.  Again, we see a similar result where liberals and libertarians are less punishment oriented, while conservatives feel it would be more wrong.  This is perhaps a gut-level intuitive rationale for the above graph.

Everyone agrees that we should punish the guilty (indeed, everyone is above the midpoint on the above scale) and free the innocent.  The issue is that we operate in an uncertain world and some kinds of errors bother some people more than other errors.

I believe a similar asymmetry drives the differences between Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.  Most people will admit that there are lazy people who take advantage of government generosity (e.g. the prototypical welfare queen) and that there are poor people who work hard and encounter a disaster that is out of their control and deserve help (e.g. the guy who works 2 jobs that don’t provide health care, and gets a chronic disease).  The question is which case bothers you most.

Similarly, there are cases of wealthy people who clearly deserve their wealth and who create wealth for others (e.g. Steve Jobs) and there are cases of wealthy people who game the system and create negative wealth for others (e.g. the aggressive mortgage bankers of the sub-prime crisis).  Is it worse to unfairly tax Steve Jobs or unfairly let the bankers keep their windfall of ill-gotten rewards?  There is no right answer to this.  I would submit that in such uncertain circumstances, we all let our intuitions lead our moral thinking, and hence we see the strong divisions we see in society.  Personally, I think it’s a good thing (that the conversation is had, though not that it gets so personal and uncivil), as society needs a healthy balance between punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent.

- Ravi Iyer

Tony Washington’s NFL Story: How wrong is brother-sister incest?

Moral psychology has no answer as to whether brother-sister incest is wrong, but I have given the below dilemma, made famous by Jonathan Haidt, many times in classes to undergraduates. It is particularly useful in that it allows people to experience, rather than just learning about, the social intuitionist approach to moral reasoning.

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them levitra over the counter. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other.

Is what Julie and Mark did wrong? Many people feel that moral reasoning is (or should be) rational and that introducing emotion into the process leads to error or irrationality. Recently, in my writing about libertarians, I have had people argue that I am a closet libertarian because I ascribe the “compliment” of rationality to their moral reasoning. The social intuitionist hypothesis is really a restatement of what many (e.g. Hume) have said for years, that the true origin of most moral reasoning is intuition or emotion, and that we rationalize these intuitions later. The above scenario is useful because people experience, rather than being told about, moral intuitions. It is powerful because people know the actions in the story are wrong, but they often don’t know why, if standard arguments about offspring and emotional damage are pre-empted.

Personally, I’ve come to appreciate my emotionality, that gives me a rich moral compass. It limits me (I get embarrassed or react defensively at times.), but it also brings me closer to others. I recognize when others are hurt, as I’ve been hurt similarly. I can understand fear, as I am sometimes afraid myself. At the same time, sometimes others have emotional reactions that I don’t share. Conservatives are likely to be more disgusted by sexual deviance than I, and are more likely to moralize that disgust. The point is not to scientifically figure out issues of right and wrong. Rather, the point is to understand why I think some things are wrong, while others disagree…and vice versa. Even in the most liberal of classrooms, some people are disgusted enough by the idea of incest (especially if they have a sibling) that they intuitively feel that the above scenario is wrong, no matter how rational they believe moral judgments should be. I encourage you to try it with your liberal friends.

I have always thought (perhaps naively) of the brother-sister incest story as a hypothetical, fabricated story, and so I was fascinated to be forwarded this story of true life brother-sister incest where nobody appears to have been hurt, except through the efforts of those who wanted to punish such deviance.

Tony Wells Washington was a joyful kid, the sort of boy other parents wanted to have over for barbecues and board games….He was 9 years old. Too young, he says, to see what he saw. Too small to endure what he endured. Exposure to pornography. Unbidden touching. Sexual misconduct that he stops short of calling abuse.

His family moved to a rougher neighborhood, then moved again. “We couldn’t make rent,” Washington says. Four more times they moved, putting him in three different schools. His only constant was Caylen, younger by a year. He looked after her, helped her with homework, made sure she ate dinner. She gave him purpose, reminded him of the person he used to be, before.

On May 9, 2003, Washington pleaded guilty to having consensual sex with his biological sister, Caylen. He was 16, she was 15.

“Incest,” he says, looking straight ahead.

He says he didn’t plan to do it. He was a teenager. Unstrung. Unsupervised. His world was at war. He was scared. Isolated. Except she was there, the two of them best friends, close as book pages. They loved each other, trusted each other. And one day that tipped into something more. Something neither one felt was wrong in the moment. “We were just sitting there, and it was like, ‘Do you want to?’” he says. There was no discussion. “We did it. And it was like, ‘OK, what’s next?’ We never talked about it after that.”

“I feel for my brother,” Caylen says calmly. “I was so happy when he got out of jail. He had no reason to be in there.”

She wants this to be known, to be clear: “My brother never, ever raped me. He never tried to hold me down. Or threaten me. Or abuse me. Or frighten me. Or anything like that. What some of these people are speculating, none of that ever happened.”

The above excerpt is part of a much longer, very moving story that likely touches many emotions. Tony Washington is now trying to make it in the NFL, or otherwise, we might never have known his story. Without the meager minor league football salary he earns, who knows where he might have ended up. I don’t have any particular insight to share as your reaction is likely to be too nuanced to be summarized in a bar graph. But as you read the story, if you are interested in moral psychology, I might try watching your own emotions and considering how those emotions are affecting your own moral judgments. And then perhaps consider whether you really would like your moral judgments to be completely rational.

- Ravi Iyer

ps. Tony, if you ever read this, I’m rooting for you.

Why do we study the psychology of libertarians?

We recently submitted a paper for publication about libertarian morality, along with co-authors Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, Pete Ditto, and Jonathan Haidt. The paper leverages our broad set of measures to tell a story about libertarians, which converges with previously reported findings about liberals and conservatives. Specifically, all ideological groups demonstrate the same patterns whereby preferences, emotions and dispositions lead to an attraction to corresponding values and ideological narratives. For example, liberals have greater feelings of empathy and are therefore more likely to moralize harm and be attracted to an ideology which prioritizes this moralization. Libertarians moralize liberty, both economic liberty, similar to conservatives, and lifestyle liberty, similar to liberals.

Libertarians believe in the importance of individual liberty, a belief that may be related to lower levels of agreeableness and higher scores on a measure of psychological reactance (e.g. “regulations trigger a sense of resistance in me”). They moralize concerns about harm less than liberals, in part because they have lower levels of empathy . They moralize principles concerning being a group member (obeying authority and being loyal) less than conservatives in part because they have less attachment to the groups around them.

If you want to read more about what the paper, says, you can click here or download the paper here, but right now, I’d like to focus on why we wrote the paper, as I have previously written about how people are attracted to why you write things as much as what you write.

Of course, some part of paper writing is driven by curiosity and the practical desire to publish. But in writing this paper, I have undergone my own personal intellectual journey, and I’m hopeful that others may have a similar experience. A lot of my impression of libertarianism was previously shaped by images of the Tea Party (who aren’t necessarily libertarians after all) and I thought of libertarians as uncaring, from my liberal perspective, in that they typically don’t support progressive taxes and social programs. The original title of the paper was “the Search for Libertarian Morality”, implying that libertarians are potentially amoral, and in retrospect showing my own ideological bias.

But as I read more about libertarian philosophy and looked more carefully at the data, I found that libertarians do indeed have a coherent moral code, that simply differs from my own. Like my liberal leanings, which have some relation to my dispositions and preferences, libertarians also moralize their preferences and dispositions, in ways that mirror my own processes. For example, liberals and libertarians both score high on desire for new experiences and stimulation, which may be a common reason why both groups tend to emphasize individual choice over group solidarity, compared to conservatives, as cohesive groups can limit choice. Libertarians may be less moved by emotions such as disgust and empathy, which may lead them to moralize certain situations less than others. But who am I to say that my moral compass is any better or worse than theirs, given my view that at some level, the basis for my liberal moral compass is driven by subjective sentiment. I previously wrote about the dangers of liberal moral absolutism, and villainizing libertarians for not sharing my particular vision of morality would be a step down that road www.sildenafilfromindia.net.

Why do we seek to publicize this paper? In a time when partisanship dominates, policy suffers, and people on both sides of the aisle villainize the other side, it is our hope that with greater understanding comes greater acceptance. We may not all agree about the relative merits of empathy, disgust, or reactance as moral emotions…but we all have some level of all of these emotions and can respect principles born out of these. Even liberals can find things so disgusting that they are seen as wrong, and conservatives actually give a lot of money to the poor. In attributing moral disagreements to dispositions, largely out of our control, perhaps we can learn to see others as different and attracted to other positive moral principles, rather than amoral and oblivious to the moral principles that are important to us.

- Ravi Iyer

Intrinsic, not Extrinsic Motivation Leads to Greater Reward – 2 Theories

Presented in the context of bringing together consilience from outside of psychology, a friend of mine sent me the below TED video, by Simon Sinek, which I believe has a lot in common with what much of psychology is discovering, specifically that intrinsic gut-level motivations are much more powerful than extrinsic rational motivations.  In some ways, much of moral psychology is just using the scientific method to argue what Hume knew all along, that “reason is a slave of the passions”….and passion results from intrinsic, not extrinsic motivation.

Besides dovetailing with my research, I think there is a practical value to be taken from this video. I often find myself concentrating on what I am doing, sometimes forgetting why I do things. In a world where we all have too many paths to choose from, we sometimes choose the path that has the most urgency (extrinsic motivation) rather than the path that is the most meaningful (intrinsic motivation). In business, that might mean doing whatever generates a profit now, rather than what satisfies the business’ core mission. In academia, that may mean writing a paper for publication sake (extrinsic reasons) rather than exploring ideas that may not just get published, but also may serve some larger purpose. If you are inclined to explore these theories/ideas further, I might read more about self-determination theory, which talks about how intrinsic, rather than extrinsic motivation, leads to better human functioning, in addition to the benefits described in the above talk.

- Ravi Iyer

On the Morality of Torture & Utilitarianism

I personally do not believe in torture, but I have to admit that when I think of it, my mind prototypically thinks of the potential harm that might befall an innocent person caught by an unscrupulous policeman who is all too sure of his moral superiority. What would I do if I knew with 100% certainty that torture of a known murderer/rapist would save countless lives, including the lives of many people I knew and loved?

Is support for torture restricted to the evil among us (e.g. liberals who think that Dick Cheney = Darth Vader)? When individuals say that they are torturing an evil few in order to save many innocents (an argument based in Utilitarianism), are they lying about their noble goals? A recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that individuals may not be honest about their utilitarian motives. From the abstract:

The use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects is typically justified on utilitarian grounds. The present research suggests, however, that those who support such techniques are fuelled by retributive motives.

This is a very well done experimental study, which illustrates an important point about other potential motives for torture, specifically a desire for retribution or vengeance. However, it may be nitpicking or splitting hairs, but I might instead have written “those who support such techniques may also be fuelled by retributive motives.” Indeed, in the study itself, there is an increase in support for severe interrogation techniques when there is a greater likelihood that the suspect is withholding information that may save lives, especially among Republicans, the group most likely to be “those who support such techniques.” The fact that retributive motives exist, does not necessarily mean that utilitarian motives do not. One could probably design a study that shows the opposite, where utilitarian motives dominate, given the total control one has in a lab environment.

Our yourmorals.org data suggests that utilitarian motives are indeed important in predicting attitudes toward torture. There are a number of measures that tap utilitarian thinking, but the most convincing to me are the classic moral dilemmas that ask people if they are willing to take some action (e.g. flipping a switch) to save 5 innocent people at the cost of 1 innocent life. They are convincing because they are generally free of any political content or judgment about the worth or guilt of individuals.  Below is a graph relating responses to these dilemmas to attitudes toward torture.  Higher scores on the Y axis indicate more willingness to sacrifice 1 life for 5.  Higher scores on the X axis indicate willingness to support torture in more situations.

Torture and Utilitarian Moral Judgments are positively correlated

There is a fairly robust positive correlation between utilitarian judgments on these dilemmas and support for torture (the dip on the far right for liberals is likely due to there being such a small number of liberals who think torture is often justified).

If I look at other utilitarian measures such as moral idealism (using the Ethics Position Questionnaire – e.g. “The existence of potential harm to others is always wrong, irrespective of the benefits to be gained.”, r=-.35) or moral maximizing (using an adapted version of Schwartz’s maximizing-satisficing scale – e.g. “In choosing a moral action, one should never settle for a morallyimperfect action.”, r=-.15), you find the same relationship. Controlling for political affiliation and beliefs about punishment and disposition toward vengeance, one still finds significant relationships between utilitarianism and support for torture.

My take home. Part of promoting civil politics is to take people at their word for their motives, rather than questioning them. There may indeed be some vengeful motive behind torture…but there are utilitarian motives as well and those of us who dislike torture might actually get further confronting torture on utilitarian grounds rather than attempting to question the motives of those who believe in torture.

- Ravi Iyer

What can psychology tell us about moral reasoning that literature and the humanities cannot?

Some colleagues of mine were fortunate enough to gather in Herzilaya, Israel for a conference on morality, the product of which is publicly available online. As I reach the end of my graduate school career, I find myself wondering about the greater purpose of some of the research psychologists do and I found particular resonance in this chapter from the conference, Paradigm Assumptions About Moral Behavior: An Empirical Battle Royal by Lawrence J. Walker, Jeremy A. Frimer, & William L. Dunlop of the University of British Columbia.

What interested me was not the data, but the critique of how psychologists attempt to illuminate the human condition.  A few quotes from the chapter summarize the points I’d like to emphasize.

Psychologists often study phenomena in isolated, artificial environments, which allows researchers to necessarily isolate variables of interest, but….

Aiming to isolate phenomena, scholars in this research enterprise are prone to devise somewhat peculiar and overly constrained assessments of moral functioning that are remote from everyday moral experience.
Psychologists then generalize these findings to natural settings that are ‘messy’ with extraneous factors.
A gold nugget in Gilligan’s (1982) critique of moral psychology was her skepticism concerning such constrained dilemmas and her advocacy for assessing moral judgment more naturalistically, tapping moral problems from individuals’ own experience.
If 60% of participants in a study do X in situation Y, psychologists are prone to saying that “people” tend to do X in situation Y, not addressing the 40% who did not do that.  Or in experiments, it may be said that Y causes X, rather than saying that Y can sometimes cause X.
Another paradigmatic assumption to which we draw attention asserts that people are psychologically “cut from the same cloth,” uniformly operating by the same moral psychological
processes. This assumption is manifest in the frequent reliance on a single type of research participant (e.g., undergraduate students garnering course credit), a lack of consideration for
individual differences, and a homogenizing “people” label.
Sometimes psychologists point out such methodological flaws with the conclusion that psychologists need to do more rigorous research. I would say that instead, perhaps there are inherent limits on how convincing any single piece of research can be. Published research can be seen as evidence to be shared, rather than conclusive final words on a subject, which they rarely are when dealing with something as complex as human behavior. Similarly, the author’s conclusion is not to throw out psychological research, but rather to use “multiple lenses” on the same phenomena before concluding anything.
Our proposal contends that lab experimentation should be balanced with real-world observation of socially significant affairs and that morally relevant aspects of personality should
be tapped across all levels of personality description. Different methodologies should be mutually informative. Multiple lenses on the same phenomena contribute to a more comprehensive understanding, whereas divergent findings across methodologies hearken our attention.

So what can psychology tell us about moral reasoning that literature and the humanities, or simply reading the newspaper thoughtfully, cannot?  I would say not much, but rather that psychology can help buttress what can be learned by other methods and vice versa. They both get at the same questions. A colleague of mine once shared that he thinks of psychology studies as statistical parables, in the same way that stories of the real or fictional world provide us with different kinds of parables. Anyone who has read a really good novel might believe Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote that “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

The authors I quote above want us to use multiple lenses to understand the human condition, referring to the lenses that psychologists might use (different samples, different methods). I would further extend that analogy to all fields that attempt to understand the human condition, such as literature and the humanities, but also just reading the news. This is not to say that there is not something powerful about quantitative analysis and methodologically rigorous psychological research. But as I step back from the research, I find that I’m only convinced by findings where there is a web of evidence, of the type that one researcher, paper, study, method, or discipline, could never produce…where the statistical parable has been replicated in other ways by other people and is echoed in situations I’ve faced and news stories I’ve read about. Fortunately, the internet and semantic web technologies promise to make it easier to discover such webs of evidence…but that’s a subject for another post.

If you have the patience, it’s worth reading the results of the conference in Herzilaya, but if not, perhaps I’ll make a practice of summarizing some of the other chapters as I read them. Social psychology can be unfortunately unintelligible, in ways that literature is not.

- Ravi Iyer