Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Righteous Mind

In a fascinating and highly recommended book, The Righteous Mind, author Jonathan Haidt argues for a very unusual idea that is very compatible with my own viewpoint about human psychological functioning.  He provides strong evidence for the proposition that human reasoning did not evolve so we could understand the truth about the universe, but for a variety of other purposes.

One of these other reasons is that humans are both selfish and groupish. In evolutionary theory, we often think that each individual organism strives to maximize the chances of passing down its own genes to its offspring, and to a certain extent that is true. But as I have argued frequently on this blog and in my books, we are also willing under certain circumstances to sacrifice our own needs for the sake of our own group. 

We may compete with one another inside our own social groups, but we also experience joy by being a member of something much larger than our individual selves.  The military has been aware of this forever. Do you really think all that marching and drilling is done for the sake of getting into physical shape?  

No! It’s done because synchronizing ourselves with other people is a joyful experience, and leads to an amazing sense of group cohesiveness.  Soldiers don't fight so much for a cause, as much as they fight for one another. (I wonder if the joy of being synchronized with others may be the reason we seemed to have evolved a particular liking for music, which otherwise seems to have no particular evolutionary or survival advantage). 

We are team players. Even if we live in a very heterogenous society as we do in the United States, we form our own teams.  How else to explain the passionate, live-with-or-die-with-the-team loyalty to our favorite football franchise?

In my post of 1/21/11, Of Hormones and Ethnic Conflict, I pointed out how the hormone oxytocin, which helps mothers bind with their offspring, promotes love and trust “… not toward the world in general, just toward a person’s in-group. Oxytocin turns out to be the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood.”  Haidt mentions this as well.

Haidt argues that political and religious opinions function as badges of social membership, and are made sacred by groups.  As such, When a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it." This explains why these kinds of opinions seem to be immune to all facts and reason.

Self interest is a actually a weak predictor of policy preferences. We do not so much ask,  “What’s in it for me?” but “What’s in it for my group?”

As it turns out, many of our beliefs are based not on facts or reason but upon either our groupishness or on our need to have a good reputation within the group.  For almost all of us, it is generally more important for us to look right than be right. We are like politicians looking for votes, not scientists looking for truth.

In fact, a lot of the arguments we use to defend our opinions are thought up after we have formed the opinion!  "Logic” is used in the service of justifying the opinion, as my colleague Gregg Henriques would say, rather than forming it. Haidt says our intuition and our position in society are like an elephant, while logic and reasoning are like the rider of an elephant.  The rider evolved to serve the elephant, not the other way around.  

It’s not that we cannot ever be swayed by logic, facts, and reasons – we certainly can.  But for the most part this will happen only if our groupishness is still being served.

We are of course both selfish and groupish, so our personal self-interest is hardly irrelevant.  But most of us are far more likely to cheat on our taxes if we don’t think anyone else will find out.  As Haidt points out, we are like both chimps and like “hivish” bees.

In evolutionary theory, group selection is the term that refers to environmental forces that tend to select for hivish behavior, while individual natural selection is the more traditional view that environments tend to favor those who are the most fit and adaptive from an individual perspective.  This is not a question of which type of selection is more important.  They both are. Haidt refers to this as multi-level selection.

It is usually the more individualistic and politically liberal members of our society (the WEIRD people: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic folks that comprise the vast majority of people who become subjects in psychology experiments) that complain that it is the conservatives who refuse to recognize established science (man-made climate change and evolution, for example), but liberals can be every bit as bad.

For quite some time, as Haidt points out, "[Many] Scientists have urged their students to evaluate ideas not for their truth but for their consistency with progressive ideals such as racial and gender equality. Nowhere was this betrayal of science more evident than in the attacks on [sociobiologist] Edward O. Wilson, who had the audacity to suggest that natural selection also influenced human behavior." 

In other words, the very concept of group selection was rejected by prominent scientists, including the otherwise reasonable Stephen J. Gould, for political reasons rather than scientific ones!  It was literally banished as heresy in the seventies. These scientists were afraid that the concept of group selection would be used for nefarious purposes by racists and ethnocentrists to justify attacks on those who don’t fit their own description as being desirables – much like the concept of eugenics was used by the Nazis.

As I mentioned earlier, once someone has established an opinion, he or she can always come up with a very coherent and logical argument for its validity.  But you can do the exact same thing to come up with logical and factual arguments to justify an opinion that is a polar opposite from the first one.

So what about finding scientific studies to justify your position?  Haidt points out: “There is no such thing as a study you must believe; it’s always possible to question the methods, find an alternative interpretation of the data, or if all else fails, question the honesty or ideology of the researchers... AND Google can always guide you to a study that’s right for you."

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