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. 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.
I was recently forwarded a question about the differences that exist between Democrats and Republicans amongst white men. The question was framed by the fact that white men appear to be leaving the Democratic party at fairly high rates and it would be useful to pinpoint the variables that lead some white men to desert the Democratic party while others remain.
Individual researchers have individual answers to this question. David Pizarro might focus on the emotion of disgust. At YourMorals, we've focused on moral opinions. Others might focus on approach-avoidance or on basic physiological differences between liberals and conservatives. Jon Jost does a wonderful job summarizing the importance of ideology in helping organize our beliefs to satisfy motivational needs, and then focuses on two organizing principles, resistance to change and acceptance of inequality. All of this research is well done and true, but I think we all suffer (my group included) from an over reliance on our particular perspective. I believe that Jost is correct in pointing out how ideology allows us to make sense of conflicting beliefs, and I would extend that more explicitly to our feelings, intuitions, and goals. Having conflicting beliefs or feelings (e.g. I believe in abortion, but it disgusts me) leads to unpleasant dissonance, and ideology represents a narrative that we can use to resolve this dissonance, as relayed by Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann.
From that perspective, there is no one answer to what causes some white men to grativate toward the Republican party and not others. Rather, it might be useful to look at the bigger picture.
To do this, I created the below table of effect sizes (the mean difference between liberals and conservatives, divided by the standard deviation), using only US white male respondents, sorted from those characteristics that are most characteristic of liberals to those that are more characteristic of conservatives. We have better data on liberal-conservative identification than party identification, so we have to use this as a proxy, but we will have analyses in the future concerning party identification specifically.
There is too much here to really address in one post. I did the same thing for women and the pattern is very similar, so it doesn't appear there are many gender interactions, though maybe someone will point something out. My main reaction is that it confirms my initial idea that all researchers are finding very real differences, but that no line of research has a monopoly on explaining differences. There is replication and support for a number of lines of research on ideological differences. Rather, ideology is a network of ideas, beliefs, and dispositions that encompasses all these findings.
Finding out what made white male liberals vote for McCain might be an even more interesting question, and perhaps I'll do that analysis next as we do have some of that data. I did this previously to examine supporters of Obama vs. Clinton within the Democratic party and feel that examining within party psychological (as opposed to demographic) differences is a vast untapped area for political psychologists. Indeed, if I had to point out one interesting thing in the above graph, it would be the relatively small effect sizes of demographics like age compared to personality variables like neuroticism. It might make just as much sense for Obama to target the "empathic" vote as it does to target the "youth" vote.
- Ravi Iyer
I have recently been following a discussion in my discipline about the peer review process, which led me to this very interesting paper about the history of and alternatives to the peer review process in psychology.
At the same time, I've been working with colleagues on a paper about experiential vs. material purchasing styles, for which we have found convergent correlations all suggesting that experiential purchasers are dispositionally motivated towards seeking new, stimulating experiences to promote positive emotion, while material purchasers often seek to avoid negative emotions. This is supported by the fact that, in the YourMorals.org dataset, experiential purchasers report higher levels of openness to experience, lower levels of neuroticism (both measured by the Big Five Personality Inventory), and lower levels of disgust (as measured by the Disgust Scale). The disgust finding does not necessarily fit with the idea that experiential purchasing is related to seeking new experiences, unless one looks at the literature on disgust. In particular, this study theorized about such a relationship and confirmed it by reporting correlations between disgust and big five personality dimensions.
It occurred to me that I could contribute to the original studies' findings, by examining the same correlations in our dataset, using a more diverse and far larger sample, and perhaps even including some internal cross-validation. The results are summarized in the table below.
The main hypothesis of the original study actually dealt with the two robust relationships found in our dataset, specifically that disgust is negatively related to openness to experience and positively related to neuroticism. In all, these two relationships stand out as robust across groups and in both studies. Interestingly, the correlation between openness to experience and disgust is weaker in the two most 'rational' groups, edge.org and libertarians, which might be worth pursuing later. Given the smaller sample size and restricted diversity of the original study, I'd be inclined to say that conscientiousness and agreeableness are not robust correlates of disgust, though this could be an effect of the fact that yourmorals.org uses a different measures of Big Five personality traits from the original study.
Can I publish this finding? It's only correlational and says nothing about causality. It really doesn't say much that is new, but rather confirms the original study, more or less. Still, the 26 papers which cited the original study would be slightly more improved if they could cite this finding as well, since it's the same basic study with a different (larger and more diverse) sample. This is where the discussion of the peer review system converges with this analysis. According to this paper, "many natural science fields operate on a norm that submissions should be accepted unless they are patently wrong." In contrast, psychology papers are often rejected, not because they are wrong, but because they are not interesting or novel enough.
The paper and the listserve discussion bring up many points related to this, but one relevant one to this finding is that it is hard to build a cumulative science when you don't reward replication, but instead reward novelty. The end result is that you end up with a series of slightly different perspectives on the same subjects, all named differently, where authors are constantly trying to come up with something new rather than building on something existing. This may help academics, but it makes it very difficult for these theories to be used in the real world. Any research on humans is likely flawed in some way. Can anybody do double-blind experiments on representative samples of people with behavioral measures? The public is wisely skeptical of any social science finding as are academics...but the solution might lie in publishing more replications rather than in restricting the publication process toward the mythical goal of the perfect, novel study. No single study proves anything when dealing with research on people. It's the convergence of lots of studies that might potentially be convincing enough to outsiders.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. if anyone wants to write this up and publish it traditionally, feel free to contact me