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.
Conservatives are often skeptical of social science (which incidentally, I think is healthy for improving social science), so I was intrigued that a blogger at the prominent conservative blog, Red State, echoed the point that Liu & Ditto make: moral coherence is relatively common. In the blog post titled Everyone Knows Something that Isn't True, the blogger defends Todd Aikin's infamous comments about pregnancy and rape.
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.
While I don't share the politics of this blogger, the social scientist in me has to admit that the blogger is right. Most of us have factual beliefs that are wrong, often because they conform to/cohere with what we want to believe. Consider how factual beliefs about whether the Packers or Seahawks should have won their latest football game conform to fan sympathies. I won't and can't defend the contents of Akin's comments. But most of us are capable of making comments as ignorant as Akin's. We just usually make them about subjects that are less controversial and in ways that are less public.
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.
- Ravi Iyer
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
The Republican National Convention is going to take place this week and one of the stated goals of many republicans is to "humanize" Mitt Romney. It reminded me of this graph that I pulled from our yourmorals.org database which looks at systemizing vs. empathizing scores. Based on work by Simon Baron-Cohen, the measure concerns how much one likes to analyze and construct systems as a way of understanding the world (e.g. being fascinated by how machines work) versus trying to understand social situations and empathize with others (e.g. I am quick to spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward and uncomfortable.). Men (in general) tend to systemize, while women tend to empathize and this difference tracks rates of autism (Baron-Cohen's main line of research), which strikes 4 males for every 1 female. Men also tend to support Romney vs. Obama.
This graph shows the correlation between favorability ratings of potential 2008 presidential candidates and the difference between systemizing and empathizing scores for those candidates' supporters.
Based on our libertarians research, we would have expected Ron Paul supporters to have the highest systemizing vs. empathizing scores and certainly his supporters do have a positive, and relatively high correlation. It is similarly unsurprising that Hillary Clinton's supporters in 2008 tended to be empathizers, or that Democrats generally tend to attract empathizers, rather than systemizers. What surprised me, however, was that Mitt Romney's supporters appear to have the highest systemizing vs. empathizing difference. Does this reflect something intrinsic about Mitt Romney, or at least his image? After watching some of the Sunday shows today, I think so.
Consider this quote from ABC's This Week, by George Will, a conservative who observed that "with most politicians, the problem is their inauthenticity. His (Romney's) problem is that he is authentically what he is...he has a low emotional metabolism. That's who he is. He can't turn to the country and say I feel your pain because the pain isn't his. It's other people's. What he can say is that I can fix your pain and that should be good enough for most people, unless we are electing a talk show host".
Mike Huckabee said something similar on Fox News Sunday about likability being less important than technical skill. These are perhaps inherent admissions by some of Mitt Romney's supporters that his strength is in appealing to systemizers, and therefore, they would like frame the debate in those terms. It will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney aims his Republican National Convention nomination acceptance speech at empathizers or at systemizers.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This weekend, I submitted a talk which considers how semantic technology will help us answer future questions for consideration at SXSW as well as helped edit a chapter on Moral Foundations Theory that contains a section on the future of moral psychology. I have a lot of thoughts on the future of moral psychology, many of which relate to future semantic technology, that probably aren't quite right for the academic audience of that chapter, so I thought I would list them here while I was thinking of them.
What will the future of moral psychology look like? Here are a few trends I see defining the next 10 years.
- Thinking outside academics: I hope that moral psychology, as studied by social psychologists, will start to think of itself as a part of the world rather than as a largely academic exercise. There is a kind of epistemological arrogance/insecurity that exists in any academic discipline (this paper by Paul Rozin points it out in psychology best), which leads one to believe that your methods will point out the truth while others' won't. Philosophers, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and sociologists all study issues of values. Facebook, Google, novelists, and human resources departments all collect data of relevance to moral psychologists and answer questions about the relationship between values and various dependent variables every day. My hope is that these methods will become more compatible, which leads me to my next point.
- Leveraging semantic technology to crowdsource findings: Right now, most findings in psychology exist as text that is impenetrable to machines. The model is one where a small minority from a single institution (academic psychology) are supposed to do all the work, in the form of these papers that are supposed to be definitive, as opposed to more modern models of collaboration made possible with technology. This TED talk by Clay Shirky illustrates it best, where he shows how questions can be answered by the "long tail" of contributors. Rather than a single researcher figuring something out, we need to figure out a way for any individual to be able to contribute data toward an answer and then to be able to aggregate/coordinate that data towards a more robust answer. That is the promise of semantic technologies, which allow study results and data to be combined, in the same way that meta-analyses (the current labor intensive gold standard in psychology) do now, but in a way that anyone can contribute data to an answer and the meta-answer is updated in real-time.
- Open access results: Of course, semantic standards will make little difference as long as results are accessible only to those with expensive institutional access to research. Leveraging the power of collaboration that Shirky talks about requires a level of openness that academics are moving towards, though slowly. Brian Nosek and Yoav Bar-Anan have a great paper on openness that will likely convince many people (also see our forthcoming commentary on that paper). We are publishing our libertarians paper in PLOS One, an open access journal, in part because, all things being equal, we'd rather not lose the copyright to our work and would like others to be able to read it freely. One of my hopes is that it starts a trend where, all things being equal, people choose open access journals.
- Answering real world questions: Openness allows non-academics the chance to contribute and merge their data into datasets that combine variables from moral psychology, business, web analytics, economists, politicians, etc. With this data, we can answer questions that seem to interest me, but are deemed too "applied" for pure academic study such as psychological differences between owners and renters, cell-phone users and landline users, or people who like or dislike public transportation. These are the kinds of real-world variables that (in my opinion) real people care about and where we can make a real contribution to society.
- Creating real-world value: How do we know that physics creates value? Everytime we turn on a light or start our car engine, we prove principles of physics. People use physics. If we want people to really believe in the power of moral psychology, we need to get people to use moral psychology. There is no shortage of organizations out there that want to impact variables of interest to moral psychologists and fail or succeed, we'll learn something. People will really believe in the power of psychology when they see that people are using it to achieve real world outcomes, such as getting people to vote via descriptive, rather than injunctive norms on Facebook. Some of that exists already, but the opening of psychology to non-academics who can contribute their own data and their own variables will vastly speed up this process. Imagine a world where Facebook shows that it's "I Voted" avatar accounted for 3% of the variance in turnout in the Ohio election, tipping the presidential election, and updating the data commons on social influence effect sizes as they pertain to voting, as opposed to other domains. That future isn't that far off.
- Ravi Iyer
In a line of research led by Matt Motyl, at the University of Virginia, we've been exploring ideological differences in preferences for where one lives. This project is informed by a few ideas already out there.
- The observation that cities are getting more and more partisan, as depicted in the Big Sort.
- Richard Florida's ideas about creating people-city matches.
- The observation that satisfying values, rather than material needs, is increasingly what society cares about (also see my SXSW presentation on this).
- Lots of psychological work conceptualizing ideology as a difference that reflects more than just political ideas.
Given these trends, we would expect liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to differ on what traits are most important in choosing a city to live in. To test this, we asked participants to allocate 100 importance points to the 10 (out of 46) most important traits that they would use to judge a city. The idea was to force people to make choices about what is and what is not important as most all of these traits are desirable. The results, based on over 2000 youmorals.org visitors, largely follow common sense and are shown below with the traits preferred by liberals at the top and by conservatives at the bottom. For the statistically minded among you, all correlations of .05 or higher are statistically significant.
Perhaps more interesting are the average number of points allocated by liberals, conservatives, moderates, and libertarians to each of these traits. There is actually a great deal of consensus as to what is important (clean air/water, safety, job opportunities, medical care) even as there are differences (public transportation, family friendly, religiosity). Also interesting is to note aspects of cities for which libertarians score highest (not too noisy, scientific community, many atheists), which dovetails well with our other research on libertarians.
Average points allocated by ideological group:
There are important plusses and minuses of using non-representative samples. However, these results generally conform to popular wisdom about these groups, so while the means may differ in the general population, the overall patterns seem likely to generalize. As with much of our research, the goal isn't to determine which way of being or which city type is best, but rather to help people more explicitly make choices that may align with their value orientation. I'm hopeful that the above lists will prove generative when people search the internet for ideas about where to live, a search which apparently is getting more and more common, according to Google Trends.
- Ravi Iyer