Whenever I bring up the concept of maximizing ("never settling for less than the best"), the discussion inevitably evolves into thinking about what domains a given person maximizes in. For example, I definitely don't maximize in terms of my clothing choices, but am more of a maximizer in my career choice. Actually, even within my career choice, I maximize for some characteristics (sense of purpose, geography, autonomy) more than others (stability, income).
Still, even as this distinction has been pointed out in Barry Schwartz's original book and in subsequent papers, I am not aware of anyone who has attempted to measure maximizing in specific domains (please comment/email me if you know of such research, as I'm guessing that it's out there). Here is a quote from a recent paper:
Although content-free items have several advantages, specific examples may be needed to measure domain specific maximizing tendency, i.e., individual maximizing tendency within particular domains such as consumer purchase. Future research needs to address whether there are systematic variations between individuals’ global maximizing tendency and their propensity for maximizing within given decision making domains, based on for example the degree of involvement.
To answer this question, I modified the original maximizer-satisficer scale and gave the resulting questionnaire to both a sample at yourmorals.org and to a sample of USC students. Below are the reliability coefficients, which won't mean a lot to many people who read this, but are useful in determining if it really is possible to measure domain specific maximizing, simply by taking the original scale's questions and tweaking them to be specific to a domain (e.g. instead of "I never settle for 2nd best", change the question to "In picking a place to live, one should never settle for 2nd best"). More interesting are the domain specific correlations with the satisfaction with life scale, a measure of "happiness".
The reliabilities are fair, meaning that the domain specific scales measure the constructs decently, but not extremely well. Better measures usually have reliabilities around .8. Still, the domain specific measures are comparable to the original scale's reliabilities and the test-retest reliability (asking people the same question a month later) also is similar. I think the fair reliabilities are a result of the fact that maximizing (Nenkov et. al) has since been shown to have multiple dimensions: the search for alternatives, having high standards, and having difficulty making decisions (see this paper).
Beyond reliabilities, I think the best argument for domain specific maximizing is the pragmatic reliability, meaning whether maximizing in different domains predicts different outcomes. From the correlations above, you can see that maximizing in the material/physical domain (shopping, work, a place to live) has negative consequences for life satisfaction, while maximizing in the moral and political decision making domains does not (bold values are significant, click on the graph to zoom in). This is consistent across both samples. In addition, I asked the USC students how much they liked where they live, and the "place to live" subscale had the highest negative relationship (-.33, p<.001) to liking where they lived, followed by shopping (r=-.22) and work (r=-.22). Maximizing in relationships, political decision making and moral decision making were unrelated. At the very least, I think this is good evidence that maximizing is at least different in moral/political decision making versus in consumer decision making. Incidentally, maximizing had a long history in moral philosophy, before it became popular in psychology to think of it in terms of consumption.
One issue with my original scale construction is that I did it before Nenkov's paper that deconstructed maximizing came out, so I did not evenly pick items across subscales. To make sure that the findings above aren't just because of item selection, I ran some analyses for specific matched items that existed in all domain specific scales.
Again, bold values are significant and we see negative correlations only for alternative search questions only in the material domain. This replicates Nenkov's finding in that having high standards does not relate to lower life satisfaction, but always searching for alternatives, no matter how satisfied one is, does relate to lower life satisfaction. However, it appears that this is true only in the material domain (shopping, career, a place to live) and not in moral and political decision making.
Lastly, the case of maximizing in relationships is interesting. The above data isn't conclusive, but it converges with another pattern I've seen when comparing USC students to our YourMorals.org sample. Specifically, relationships appear to play a greater role in happiness in the general population rather than in our student samples. Perhaps loneliness is a bigger issue in the real world than it is within the college campus environment. Or perhaps paying attention to alternatives in relationships is less adaptive as you get older.
- Ravi Iyer
My last post concerned moral maximizing and I believe the issue of migrant labor is one which relates. As Stephen Colbert uses satire to relate in the below video, the pragmatic reality is that vegetables are not going to be picked by Americans in the United States through the invisible hand of the free market.
Want proof of this reality? In June, the United Farm Workers union attempted an interesting experiment whereby it offered to train American citizens to replace migrant labor. Colbert testifies that 16 people took them up on the offer (him included) and press reports indicate that only 7 people took the offer. Whichever number it is, it seems fairly low. Still, immigration reform seems unlikely to pass anytime soon as it seems to stimulate conflicting ideas of what is 'fair'. Migrant workers are virtually powerless and easily taken advantage of....but they are also breaking the law by coming to this country, and these conflicting considerations are differentially appealing to liberals and conservatives.
The below graph illustrates this differential appeal with data from yourmorals.org. I asked individuals how 'wrong' different situations felt to them. Some concerned equity ("A person who contributes more to society is not rewarded.), equality ("A bonus is given to a work team for good performance and the money is not divided equally."), need("'A free meal is given to the rich, rather than to the hungry."), retribution ("A person commits a crime and goes unpunished."), and procedures ("A negotiation occurs without everyone completely understanding the process."). These situations may all be of varying severity, so it is difficult to interpret differences between dimensions, but one can make inferences about liberals and conservatives within dimensions. Specifically, liberals (in blue below) felt that violations of equality and need (which formed one factor) were more wrong than did conservatives. Similarly, conservatives (in red below) felt that violations of retributive justice principles were more wrong than did liberals.
Fair policies toward migrant workers depend on what you want to focus on....their lack of equal status, equal opportunity and need (which liberals seem to care about more). Or their illegal entry into the United States (which conservatives care more about). Colbert says as much in a rare break of character when responding to questions during the congressional hearing.
- Ravi Iyer
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.
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
I just finished Methland, by Nick Reding, an in-depth portrait of the fall and hopeful rise of a small American town, Oelwein, Iowa, and a few individuals touched by the meth epidemic there. What makes the book most powerful are the portraits that Reding is able to draw of the town having spent 4 years getting to know both the drug dealers, drug users, enforcement officers, medical staff, and politicians. As a social psychologist, I swim in data, which has the benefit of objectivity, but which lacks a great deal of the nuance that defines the book. Hearing the stories of people who used meth to be able to work longer at jobs which paid less and less seems far more convincing than studies looking at "the role of drug expectancies as important operations involved in the development of substance use patterns."
While there are brave souls who try to save Oelwein in the book, one can't help but feel that there are larger forces that cannot be fought, that are transforming rural America. Profit motives entice both poor rural Americans and poor Mexicans to take enormous risks to produce and sell meth. Several times in the book, enforcement agents succeed at having drug laws enforced only to see drug use take a different turn to new forms of production, distribution, and use. The best that people appear to be able to do is to minimize the associated harm.
The book ties the drug trade to a similarly intractable problem, immigration. Mexican drug cartels "employ a miniscule percentage of the illegal immigrants in this country," but the integration of immigrant workers into American life makes it impossible to find that needle in the haystack (p.159). Big agriculture firms place ads for workers in Mexican border cities and lobby congress for access to this labor. Consumers demand cheap food and enforcing immigration laws would cripple the agricultural system. The city prosecutor doesn't enforce immigration laws as it seems like forcing someone "through the gate which is left perpetually and invitingly open" (p.171).
The psychological variable that this makes me want to study, but for which I cannot find much previous research, is the willingness to accept moral imperfection. Perhaps it could be termed moral maximizing? If anybody knows of previous research on this, I would love to hear about it. It seems to me that there are some cases where we are morally opposed to something, but trying to force that thing not to exist does more harm than good. I think drugs are bad, but I think the drug war causes more harm than good and there is little we can do to stop people in a free society. We just don't have that level of control. I think there is some injustice in illegal immigration towards those who wait to apply legally, and I lament the drain of workers from the countries of origin. But we just don't have that level of control over the border either. Sometimes we just have to accept moral imperfection.
There is lots of research on consequentialism vs. deontological thinking, which is often framed as the willingness to do a bad thing in order to prevent a worse thing. I think moral maximizing is different in that it is simple willingness to accept a bad thing. If you can't accept injustice, you may find yourself causing more harm than good in trying to change what cannot be changed in some cases.
What kind of people are moral maximizers? I took Barry Schwartz's maximizer-satisficer scale and changed the questions so that they referred to maximizing in the moral realm. I then gave the survey to visitors at yourmorals.org. Questions are listed at the end of this post. The differences aren't large, but it looks like both extreme liberals and extreme conservatives have this tendency. As a liberal, I might tend to think of instances where extreme conservatives make things worse by failing to accept injustice (e.g. invading Iraq to avenge 9/11)...but it would seem likely that extreme liberals are likely to do similar things in some cases. For example, communists like the Khmer Rouge killed a lot of people ostensibly in the name of social justice. Perhaps we should be wary of extremely morally motivated people (what I call hypermoralism) from both sides of the political aisle.
Moral Maximizing Questions (alpha=.752):
When deciding on an action in a moral decision, I compare my action to the best possible action.
In choosing a moral action, one should never settle for a morally imperfect action.
One should never settle on a moral outcome that is less than the best.
I often fantasize about living in a better, more just world.
I have the highest moral standards for myself in making any decision.
No matter how satisfied I am with a decision, it's only right for me to consider if it was the most moral decision.