Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

Posts Tagged hypermoralism

Stewart/Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and the Psychology of Moderates

As someone who is interested in promoting civility and reason in politics, I have been really excited over the past few days by Jon Stewart’s announcement of a Rally to Restore Sanity (“Million Moderate March”), coupled with Stephen Colbert’s satirical “March to Keep Fear Alive”.  The below video, where the announcement is made, is well worth watching, if only for it’s entertainment value.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
www.thedailyshow.com
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Normally, we look at our yourmorals.org data in terms of liberals and conservatives, but what can we say about moderates.  In many instances (e.g. Measures of general moral or political positions using Moral Foundations or Schwartz Values), moderates score between liberals and conservatives.  However, there are a couple interesting findings about moderates in our data that might be of interest.

First, moderates are less engaged in politics.  This isn’t a particularly controversial finding as research in social psychology shows that extreme attitudes are more resistant to change and more likely to predict behavior.  Moderates are defined by their lack of extremity and this lack of extremity predicts a disinterest in politics and lack of desire to engage in political action.

As such, it is not surprising that, as Stewart notes, the only voices which often get heard are the loudest voices.  Shouting hurts your throat and moderates are unwilling to pay that price.  But couched in terms of entertainment and comedy?  Maybe that will spur moderates to attend in a way that an overtly political/partisan event could never do.

Going a bit deeper, the other area where moderates score differently than liberals and conservatives is in terms of their willingness to moralize issues.  Moderates are less likely to frame issues as moral and less likely to be moral maximizers. Morality can be a great force for good, but there is also research on idealistic evil and the dark side of moral conviction.  You’ll notice that while liberals and conservatives moralize individual issues in the below graph at different levels, the extremes generally moralize issues more than moderates or less extreme partisans.  It’s worth noting I recently attended a talk by Linda Skitka where her team found (in China) that high moralization scores predict willingness to spy on and censor people with opposing viewpoints.

Moderates also score lower on a general (not issue specific) measure of moral maximizing.  Below is a graph of scores on individual moral maximizing questions.  Again, a lot of good may be done in the name of morality and moral maximizers may be less willing to let people starve or let injustice stand.  However, a lot of bad may be done in the name of morality as well and “never settling” for imperfect moral outcomes seems like a recipe for the kind of political ugliness that we see these days.  Moderates appear willing to accept imperfection in the moral realm.

Maximizing is a concept made popular by Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore in his book, the Paradox of Choice and his TED talk.  The argument isn’t that high standards are a bad thing…but that at some point, there is a level where overly high standards have negative consequences.  The point that Stewart and Colbert are making is that perhaps partisans have reached that point in our political dialogue, to the detriment of policy.

I probably won’t make it to DC, but I do plan on celebrating the Rally to Restore Sanity in some way, perhaps at a satellite event.  I am generally liberal and will be surrounded mainly (though not exclusively) by liberal friends.  It would be really easy to use the event as a time to mock and denigrate the extremity of the other side.  However, liberal moral absolutism has it’s dangers too.  For those of us who really want to restore sanity to political debate, it is an opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world and take a moment to reflect on how our political side can ‘take it down a notch for America’, rather than assuming that Stewart is talking to ‘them’.  And perhaps that begins with accepting some amount of moral imperfection.

- Ravi Iyer

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On Hyperpartisanship, Hypermoralism, and the Supernormal Stimuli of Modern Politics

Today’s lead story from Politico, The Age of Rage, probably summarizes a lot of what people think is wrong with politics. Rather than make good policy, politicians and media are more concerned with scoring points for their political ideology (hyperpartisanship). However, as the Politico article points out, their actions are largely driven by the general populace. Politicians and media reflect what people respond to, which happens to be hyperpartisanship, rather than causing the incivility we see.

…there are two big incentives that drive behavior at the intersection where politics meets media. One is public attention. The other is money. Experience shows there’s lots more of both to be had by engaging in extreme partisan behavior.

Fox News has soared on the strength of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, both of whom fanned the Sherrod story on the strength of the misleading Breitbart video. (A Fox senior executive, by contrast, urged the news side of the operation to get Sherrod’s response before going with the story, The Washington Post reported.) On the left, MSNBC is trying to emulate the success of primetime partisanship. Meanwhile, CNN, which has largely strived toward a neutral ideological posture, is battling steady relative declines in its audience.

If media executives hunger for ratings, politicians hunger for campaign cash and fame.

Obama put it best earlier this year, after Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “you lie” during the president’s State of the Union speech. “The easiest way to get on television right now is to be really rude,” the president told ABC News.

Indeed, at first Wilson seemed embarrassed and apologized for his outburst. But within days, Wilson and his opponent were both flooded with campaign contributions; Wilson took in more than $700,000 in the immediate aftermath of his outburst and was a guest of honor on Hannity’s show and Fox News Sunday.

We reward politicians and news organizations, with our attention and our money, that engage in the very incivility that makes politics so ugly. This is true on both sides of the aisle.

At the recent meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Linda Skitka gave a talk which puts a lot of this in perspective for me. Her lab studies the dark side of moral conviction, which I call hypermoralism in the hope that the term catches on. Roy Baumeister studies a similar concept, idealistic evil. In Skitka’s talk, she demonstrates in a Chinese sample that political intolerance (e.g. “people with different positions than your own about this issue should be allowed to have their phones tapped by the Chinese government”) and social intolerance (e.g. “How willing would you be to have someone who did not share your views on this issue as a close personal friend?”) were best predicted by moral conviction (e.g. “To what extent are your feelings about this issue or policy based on your fundamental beliefs about right and wrong?”).  When controlling for moral conviction, all other variables (e.g. demographics, political position, attitude importance, and attitude strength) were all insignificant predictors of social and political intolerance. I look forward to seeing how this replicates on a US sample and how political intolerance is operationalized. Perhaps something along the lines of liberal consideration of censoring Fox news or conservative publication of what many would consider private discussion would make good operationalizations of political intolerance as they mirror what we see in reality, where considerations of privacy, context, and free speech are considered secondary to partisanship. Moral conviction may underlie the hyperpartisanship that Politico talks about.

Hyperpartisanship and hypermoralism may be another instance of the effects of what evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett calls “Supernormal Stimuli”. As the Wall Street Journal writes about her book:

As Ms. Barrett notes, modern life surrounds us with supernormal stimuli. An example: Humans evolved strong tastes for fats and sweets, tastes that conferred a reproductive advantage in the days when starvation was common. But these tastes can be a burden when we’re confronted with such supernormal stimuli as the 400-calorie Frappuccino at Starbucks. An evolutionary adaptation that once promised survival is more likely nowadays to produce Type 2 diabetes.

Ms. Barrett pushes her thesis too far at times, but her plain-spoken disquisition makes a strong case that supernormal stimuli “can help us understand the problems of modern civilization.”

One might even argue that supernormal stimuli—or perhaps our reactions to them—are the biggest problems faced by affluent societies.

In the case of hyperpartisanship and hypermoralism, our evolved moral senses, which allow human beings to cooperate, are now subject to the stimulus which is the 24 hour news cycle and the non-stop political campaign. Moral emotions are powerful forces, which are now activated routinely, rather than rarely.

If anybody has ideas on how to escape this cycle, I would love to hear them. Humanizing and getting to know the opposition, along the lines of intergroup contact theory, is an idea. Perhaps moral emotions can be activated against hyperpartisanship itself, rather than against individual ideologies. Or maybe with greater understanding, we can all learn to recognize supernormal moral stimuli and give them less power in our lives. Ideas welcome and I’m open to operationalizing particularly promising ideas as studies to be run on yourmorals.org.

- Ravi Iyer

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Sam Harris’ TED video and the danger of liberal atheist moral absolutism

A fellow graduate student recently shared the below Sam Harris TED video with me and I was quite surprised at the premise of the talk. In it, Sam Harris gives a spirited defense of moral absolutism, the idea that there are objective truths about what we should and should not value. Below is the video.

Harris correctly observes that “the only people who seem to generally agree with me (Harris) and who think that there are right or wrong answers to moral questions are religious demagogues, of one form or another, and of course they think there are right and wrong answers to moral questions because they got these answers from a voice in a whirlwind, not because they made an intelligent analysis of the conditions of human and animal well-being…the demagogues are right about one thing, we need a universal conception of moral values.”

His conception of morality is remarkably close to the construct of moral absolutism vs. moral relativism, measured on the YourMorals.org site using agreement to statements like “Different types of moralities cannot be compared as to ‘rightness’” with agreement indicating more absolutism and disagreement indicating relativism. Harris also states that “It is possible for whole cultures to care about the wrong things….that reliably lead to human suffering.” The graphs I show below show that he is correct that moral absolutism among these groups does lead to human suffering…but it also leads to suffering when moral absolutism is supported by liberals and atheists.

Harris then spends much of the rest of the talk detailing how terrible things occur as a result of cultures that do not share his values. I am generally liberal and likely agree with Harris’ values, specifically the idea that morality is mostly about promoting the well-being of people. However, I do not believe that my values should be the values of other people as well. I have two main counters to this idea:

- Even the most liberal person can be made to consider ideas of morality outside of the idea of the greatest well-being possible.  For example, liberals believe in equity too, such that some people deserve more well-being than others. Jon Haidt’s brother-sister incest dilemma confounds both liberals and conservatives meaning that there is a universal ability to moralize disgust, even if it is less developed in some than others. Harm and well-being are not the only considerations.

- Moral absolutism generally leads to more human suffering, not less, as people fight great wars to enforce their vision of morality on others.  Consider the below 2 graphs of yourmorals data relating moral relativism, the opposite of absolutism, and attitudes toward war.

Moral Absolutism relates to Support for War across Religions

Moral Absolutism is related to Support for War – Across Political Groups

Moral absolutism is not just dangerous for the groups that Harris dislikes, but also for the liberal and atheist groups that he likely subscribes to as the slope of the regression line is negative in all cases, indicating that moral absolutism is positively related to support for war for liberals and conservatives, atheists and christians.

It may be easier to think of groups that cause wars out of excessive group orientation (e.g. Hutus vs. Tutsis) or excessive authoritarianism (e.g. Nazis)…but there are also groups that caused harm out of excessive concern for others’ well-being (e.g. The Weather Underground) or out of an excessive desire for social equality (e.g. the communist Khmer Rouge). Moral absolutism, believing that you are more right about morality than others, can be thought of as the first step toward hypermoralism, harming others in support of your moral principles. Human beings are already good at believing that our moral system is superior, with war sometimes as the consequence….instead or narrowing our conceptions of morality, we should be working to expand our moral imaginations.

- Ravi Iyer

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The Psychology of Aggression and the Ugliness of the Health Care Reform Debate

Most people are not violent people. From an evolutionary perspective, there are high costs involved for a member of a species to kill other members of it’s own species. Soldiers in war have to be trained out of their natural impulse not to fire weapons. For the vast majority of people, aggression is a last resort and I’m guessing that most readers have anecdotal evidence of this as rarely do everyday disagreements escalate into physical or even direct verbal attacks. It’s usually not worth the risk and stress to our systems.

There is lots of psychological research on how to reduce these inhibitions (e.g. dehumanization, Milgram’s obedience studies), but there is little research (feel free to let me know if I’m wrong about this and I’ll edit this) on the positive pressures towards aggression. Among the ideas I am familiar with are Sherif’s classic studies on competition for limited resources, which are echoed in Robert Wrights’s ideas about zero-sum competitions leading to conflict. However, competition itself is just a circumstance and it doesn’t necessarily get at the psychological mechanism for group level aggression. For example, people may compete because they covet a particular resource or they may compete because they need that resource to survive.

A couple years ago, I hypothesized that individuals are moved to aggression because of an excess of moral principle, rather than the absence of moral principle. In the context of the health care reform debate, this may mean harming others “for the greater good”, which could be defined as saving unborn fetuses, providing health care to the sick, defending the constitution, fighting for liberty, or an assortment of other moral principles which have been asserted by both sides as justifying actions that might normally be considered out of bounds. In the past few days, we have seen gun threats, windows broken, the elderly disrespected, and slurs and spit hurled at politicians. These incidences of crossing boundaries in the name of a cause are not limited to one party as those in favor of health care have harassed Bart Stupak and tried to have Joe Lieberman’s wife fired. No side has a monopoly on the ugliness.

I don’t have data that speaks directly to this question, but I do have this graph to consider. At the time that I started thinking about what I call ‘hypermoralism’, I created a small educational website that I thought I’d use to gather some exploratory data as I thought about these issues. The website is still in beta but the results of the initial survey are interesting. I asked people to think of a group that committed violence against civilians (e.g. 30% picked the Nazis) and think of the motivations behind that violence. I then asked people to think of reasons why, in an extreme case, they themselves might endorse violence against civilians.

Reasons to support violence against civilians

As you can see in the above graph, people believe that notorious groups that kill civilians are amoral (“They were amoral, having no moral standards.” or “They were seeking personal gain at the expense of others.”) most of all and were willing to entertain the idea that they were hypermoral (“They were killing people who belong to a specific group to avenge a past injustice committed by other members of that group.”) as that value was still close to the midpoint of the scale. Survival (“They were killing people because they themselves would be killed if they did not.”) was a distant third motivation.

In contrast, when people considered when they would potentially resort to violence against civilians, survival (of both the individual and the family, which loaded on the same factor in a factor analysis) was the prime potential motivator. Unfortunately, for my hypothesis, moral reasons were deemed no more likely than non-moral reasons for individuals, but I still think there is something to be learned.

Clearly, these scenarios are not directly comparable as the average respondent is likely actually different than the average Nazi or member of the Khmer Rouge. It’s not just a matter of perception. But if we believe in the vast amount of research on the fundamental attribution error, which shows that we underestimate situational pressure when others do bad things, there likely is some amount of attribution error occurring in this instance. It seems likely that many individuals within these notorious groups actually did feel some survival motivation that spurred their actions. For example, Hitler was quite poor, though clearly his actions went way beyond mere survival.

In the health care reform debate, it seems that a precursor to the ugliness is indeed couching the debate in terms of a life or death struggle for survival, justifying questionable behavior.  Is America hanging by a thread? Then I suppose it’s worth taking extreme measures to save it. Are people dying every day that reform isn’t enacted? Then I suppose a few harassing calls to a congressman’s home are a small price to pay.

Politics in America can often be a zero-sum game and it is inevitable that passions will be inflamed on both sides. Liberals may have ‘won’ this vote, but we all lose when the debate gets too ugly and liberals are just as guilty of exaggeration when things don’t go their way. Indeed, I just received an email asking for help to “stop big corporations from taking over our democracy”, a reference to a recent Supreme Court decision which conservatives “won”. Such rhetorical devices may be useful, but we should all guard against where such exaggeration inevitably leads….ugliness.

- Ravi Iyer

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.