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
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:
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.
Almost all social psychologists are smart, but few are wise. I would argue that you can't advance our collective understanding of the human condition by being smart, without also adding some wisdom to give context to what you study.
For example, the most essential paradigm in social psychology is the experiment and the more controlled the experiment is, with fewer extraneous variables, generally the more prestigious the article. However, as these experiments become more and more specific, isolating psychological mechanisms and ruling out alternative hypotheses, they also largely become more divorced from reality. After all, reality is usually uncontrolled and contains more, not fewer variables. Further, most experimenters have an initial hypothesis and will keep working to create the conditions that show their hypothesis to be true. As such, if I show that X causes Y in a lab, it doesn't necessarily follow that X causes Y in society. Often, another researcher will confirm that X does not cause Y using a different paradigm. Since you get to construct the paradigm to show what you want to show in an experiment on humans, what does such a study actually prove? Perhaps a better characterization of the findings of such research is that X can cause Y, rather than the more simplistic X causes Y.
There is something very valuable in showing that X can cause Y. Good social science research performs the same function as a good parable or a good memoir, often illustrating a truth that we know deep down, but often forget. Thinking fast can make you take unwise risks. Being grateful can make you happier. Crying wolf can make people ignore real requests for help. Whether through story or statistics, these examples examples of what can happen are often helpful in considering our daily life.
However, the average person often knows many of these truths already and it takes wisdom to move these examples beyond the realm of the self-evident and into the realm of useful knowledge. This recent New York Times op-ed, by Barry Schwartz, illustrates how one can take parables generated by research (e.g. on how too much of something can be bad) and create something wise. In it he argues that efficiency can make us better off, yet can cause hardship too. I excerpt a bit of it below, but it doesn't do the original article justice, so I hope you read it.
So whereas some efficiency is good, more efficiency may not be better. The psychologist Adam Grant and I published an article last year suggesting that the “too much of a good thing” phenomenon may be more general than commonly thought. Some choice is liberating; too much choice is paralyzing. Some motivation produces excellent performance; too much motivation leads to folding under pressure.
Perhaps we can use the criticism of Bain Capital as an opportunity to bring a little friction [the opposite of efficiency] back into our lives. One way to do this is to use regulation to rekindle certain social norms that serve to slow us down. For example, if people thought about their homes less as investments and more as places to live, full of the friction of kids, dogs, friends, neighbors and community organizations attached, there might be less speculation with an eye toward house-flipping. And if companies thought of themselves, at least partly, as caretakers of their communities, they might look differently at streamlining their operations.
We’d all like a car that gets 100 miles to the gallon. The forces of friction that slow us down are an expensive annoyance. But when we’re driving a car, we know where we’re going and we’re in control. Fast is good, though even here, a little bit of friction can forestall disaster when you encounter an icy road.
Some social scientists think studying human behavior and thought is like physics. If intelligent people spend enough time on it and collect enough data, we experts can figure out all the rules. But research on human beings is inherently messy, especially for those of us who believe in free will. Just imagine how much trouble physicists would have if atoms could decide whether or not to split.
Another view of social science is that it is but one form of evidence, in a conversation about the human condition that has gone on for millions of years and a marketplace of ideas that is far broader than our parochial disciplines and methods. Social scientists provide a unique and important way of thinking about the world, and I'm hopeful the gap between data and knowledge will decrease as data on human behavior is increasingly collected and shared by all sorts of organizations and the wisdom of crowds replaces the intelligence of a very smart few.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. This is part of a series of posts I'm writing to help crystallize my thoughts for a presentation I'm doing at South by Southwest on how moral psychology and big data are converging. Comments that help sharpen my thinking are welcome and please attend my presentation if you will be at SXSW. I'll certainly upload slides/video afterwards.
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.
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