This is the third of four essays summarizng my work on DOTE. Comments are open but moderated.
This third chapter of Adventures In Flatland deals with human sociality.
The most striking characteristic of Homo sapiens is our sociality. Social relationships pervade every aspect of human life and these relationships are far more extensive, complex, and diverse (within and across societies) than those of any other species. And for survival and reproduction we are far more dependent on our social relationships and our cultures than any other animal.
But what does it mean to say that we are social animals—and what is a social relationship?
Rather than examine this or that type of human group and social relationship, I am going focus on human sociality as it is expressed in sociopolitical groups (i.e., special interest, advocacy, political groups, etc.) Interactions within and among these kinds of groups will determine the human future in the 21st century. I will discuss socioeconomic groups (i.e., various elites, beneficiaries of the status quo, the hoi polloi) in Part IV (forthcoming).
But even as we skip over sociological details, we will soon discover that the scope and depth of human "groupiness" is far more encompassing than our intuition tells us. Thus what goes on in the social unconscious, an important aspect of what I call Flatland, will be seen to overwhelm and undermine stated purposes again and again.
This is best illustrated by a recent case in point, an example which could be repeated endlessly .
Human Sociality and Bullshit — How Do These Go Together?
There has been a push by climate activists to get the world's political leaders to act on the worsening climate problem. That effort included a massive "protest" march which took place in New York City on September 21, 2014. I offered a Flatland perspective on climate change risk in Part II, so I will skip those details.
Here we are interested in climate activists as a social group. Those in this group live in Flatland, and it is my purpose to examine Flatland itself. Like all sociopolitical groups, climate activists retain a core set of beliefs which "define" the group. There is much more to say about this, but, for now, let's stick to the example. Here is Bill McKibben answering a question in an interview he did with The New Yorker a few days before the march (September 20, 2014).
Question — In your article for Rolling Stone, which laid some of the groundwork for this weekend’s events, you wrote, “In a rational world, policymakers would have heeded scientists when they first sounded the alarm 25 years ago. But in this world, reason, having won the argument, has so far lost the fight.” Why has this happened?
Bill McKibben — There’s too much money on the other side. Here’s the frustrating part for me: we know that we could change. Germany proves that we could change. It’s not a lack of engineering or natural resources—we just don’t have enough political will. This march and things like it are an attempt to gin up some of that political will.
The key word here is Germany. Now let us hear from Naomi Klein. Her new book, This Changes Everything, came out shortly before the climate march. Demonstrating group solidarity the night before the march, Klein, McKibben and other climate activist leaders led a panel discussion at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Manhattan. Klein herself was interviewed by the Huffington Post on September 26, 2014. Here's a transcript of the relevant bit, starting at the 0.55 mark.
Naomi Klein — What I've been hearing again and again is "it's too late [to fix the climate problem], humanity will never come together in [a] crisis, we're too selfish, too greedy," and to me ... this really confirms the central thesis of [my] book, which is that the reason we have failed to deal with climate change is not because we're selfish and greedy, and not because it's too complicated or we don't know what to or we don't have the technology.
We know how to do it, and we have the technology, and we even have places we can point to that are doing really quickly, like Germany ... 25% of their economy is now powered by wind and solar and other renewable energy...
There it is again: Germany. We've identified a "talking point" used by climate activist leaders to advance their political position. And it is here, if I may address you the reader directly, that I need your full attention, for it only takes about 3 minutes of research on the internet to discover that Germany's energy policy does not support the activist position.
I will quote Why Germany's Nuclear Phase Out is Leading to More Coal Burning (The Energy Collective, January 20, 2014).
In September 2012 Germany's Environment Minister opened a new lignite power plant, arguing the following: “If one builds a new state-of-the-art lignite power plant to replace several older and much less efficient plants, then I feel this should also be acknowledged as a contribution to our climate protection efforts.”
Peter Altmaier is not alone, recently the climate benefits of Germany's new and apparently ultra-efficient coal power plants have been extolled not only by manufacturers such as Siemens and power companies including RWE, but even some of the German nuclear phase out's most vocal proponents.
We are also now seeing increasing numbers of people suddenly noticing an uptick in coal power, and deciding it has little to do with Germany's decision to move away from nuclear energy. These arguments however require both an alternative arithmetic, and an alternative history. Here is why.
In the aftermath of Fukushima, Germany prematurely shut 8 nuclear power plants. Respect for arithmetic and the intelligence of my readers dictates that I do not explain why this should lead to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. However, the relationship between Germany's nuclear phase out and the construction of new coal power plants deserves an explanation.
These next observations directly contradict Klein and McKibben's happy story.
Between 2011 and 2015 Germany will open 10.7 GW [gigawatts] of new coal fired power stations. This is more new coal coal capacity than was constructed in the entire two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The expected annual electricity production of these power stations will far exceed that of existing solar panels and will be approximately the same as that of Germany's existing solar panels and wind turbines combined. Solar panels and wind turbines however have expected life spans of no more than 25 years. Coal power plants typically last 50 years or longer. At best you could call the recent developments in Germany's electricity sector contradictory...
The policy to phase out nuclear power was vital to the decisions to build new coal power plants. Closing down a quarter of your electricity generation leaves a gap that must be filled by something, and Germany realised it would largely have to be filled by one thing: coal. This is more or less beyond doubt, because Germany's then Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said so. Gabriel, now Germany's Minister for Energy and Economics told climate scientist James Hansen that Germany had to build new coal power plants because of its nuclear phase out, and stated elsewhere that Germany would have to build 8 to 12 coal power plants to replace its nuclear fleet.
And this is exactly what he got. In the first half of this decade Germany will open 9 new coal power plants...
Rising CO2 emissions are the final nail in the German coffin (Bloomberg, June 20, 2014).
Germany, Europe's largest economy, boosted consumption of [mostly lignite coal] by 13 percent in the past four years, while use in Britain, No. 3 in the region economically, rose 22 percent, statistics from oil company BP Plc show. While Germany pledged to cut heat-trapping gases 55 percent by 2030 from 1990 levels, it’s managed 25 percent so far and is moving in the wrong direction, according to the European Environment Agency...
Germany’s emissions rose even as its production of intermittent wind and solar power climbed fivefold in the past decade...
German fossil-fuel emissions climbed 5.5 percent to 843 million tons in the four years through 2013, the BP data show. To meet its commitment, Germany would have to reduce its pollution by about 379 million tons, a further 45 percent. The BP statistics cover only fossil-fuel burning, which makes up about 88 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas output...
In short, the activist take on Germany's energy policy is bullshit. Like any other large nation on Earth, Germany needs energy to power its economy, as I discussed in Adventures In Flatland — Part II. When Germany started phasing out nuclear, they had to replace that missing energy with something, and solar and wind weren't going to cut the mustard in anything like the time frame required (or ever). So these Germans turned to carbon-intensive lignite coal.
But I digress; that's not the interesting thing here in Part III.
Let's start with a couple rhetorical questions. Does it trouble Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, etc. that their Germany "talking point" is basically contradicted by the facts on the ground? Why didn't Bill McKibben or Naomi Klein (and no doubt many others) do the three minutes of research required to find out that Germany's energy policy is, at best, inconsistent with their political position? After all, any one of them, independently of the others, could have checked the facts.
These activists didn't do the three minutes of research required to undermine their own talking point, or they misinterpreted what's going in Germany, because the facts do not matter to them. If some of these activists did take a close look at Germany's energy policy, it is apparent that they ignored the implications of that policy (see below).
Therefore, it does not bother them that their position is not grounded in reality. These activists filtered the information which contradicts their political views because the facts in Germany pose an existential threat to their message and movement. I discussed this phenomenon in Part I of Adventures in Flatland.
If reality doesn't matter to McKibben, Klein and others, we are entitled to ask: well, then, what does matter to them?
In the types of social groups we're interested in, groups which determine or try to influence social and economic policy, what matters most is the existence and coherence of the group itself. I will quote the first paragraph of C. Fred Alford's Group Psychology and Political Theory (Yale University Press, 1994, emphasis added).
In the beginning was the group. This is the fundamental truth about human nature and politics, and neither modern nor contemporary political theory has yet come to terms with it. It is an empirical truth. As far as we know, male and female humans have always lived together in groups. All the anthropological evidence supports this conclusion, and none refutes it, however much anthropologists differ on the details. The state of nature Hobbes and Rousseau write about, a bunch of isolated individuals running around either killing each other or ignoring each other, is pure fiction...
[My own work] is also a critique of ideology. The way in which the traditional state-of-nature theorists, as well as many contemporary political theorists, set aside the facts about man's groupishness makes their theories ideologies: systems of ideas that defend against knowledge of social reality. Not empirical reality versus fiction, but whether one uses stories to get at the truth—or escape from it—is the issue.
In the beginning was the group ... this is an empirical truth. It is not only political theorists who "set aside the facts about man's groupishness," for it is necessarily true that sociopolitical groups (like those climate activists) exemplify that very groupishness. Regardless of what sociopolitical group we are talking about, group leaders and followers are not consciously setting aside anything because their own groupishness (or groupiness) lies outside awareness.
Group belief systems—ideologies—are always secondary to groupishness itself. Experience tells us that group belief systems needn't reflect social or physical reality. In fact, group belief systems seem to be arbitrary. Sometimes, they are bat-shit crazy (e.g., the climate views of conventional economists qua social group).
That sad observation follows from the fact that ideologies are merely the scaffolding holding social groups together, an arbitrary reflection of the underlying cognitive glue which allows those groups to exist. Paraphrasing Alford, group members do not use stories "to get at the truth," as we've just seen in the climate activist example. It is far more important that those in the group all be on the same page, regardless of reality.
And if outsiders question these seemingly arbitrary belief systems, group members will defend to the death their truthfulness! As I noted, there is an existential threat in such criticisms—to the group, and thus its members, especially its leaders. In Flatland, intergroup conflict (politics) always appears to be a war of ideas, but the real underlying issue is always the legitimacy and coherence of the group itself.
And all this, ladies and gentlemen, is the source of much of the bullshit we encounter every single day in the 21st century. Those in sociopolitical (or socioeconomic) groups routinely distort or disregard reality to promote group objectives. It is normal for humans to do this; this is characteristic Flatland behavior. When such objectives are achieved, prestige and power accrue to the group. Otherwise, the group becomes marginalized and forlorn.
There is of course generalized bullshit stemming from innate human optimism and general positivity, as discussed in Part I. The climate activist bullshit just discussed clearly has roots in delusional optimism. However, I won't be dealing with that kind of nonsense today, so before I finish up this introduction, let's take a look at this particularly fine example.
We are looking at two interesting phenomena in this climate activist example: 1) the nature and unconscious origins of human bullshit, and 2) the primacy of human groupiness ("harmonizing") over rational, individual thought. The first phenomenon is the subject of the first section below, and the second is discussed after that.
A Flatland Perspective On Bullshit
The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind
— H. L. Mencken
We can think of bullshit, or, in contemporary usage, spin, as the other side of the filtering coin discussed in Part I. Filtering and bullshit are the yin and yang of the human flight from reality—humans unconsciously filter what they can't acknowledge, and then generate all sorts of bullshit to cover up, justify or rationalize what is unconsciously unacceptable to them. Human cognition is thus consistently out of kilter with reality nearly all of the time. In important matters, reality basically counts for nothing.
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt published an essay called On Bullshit in which he sought to pinpoint exactly what bullshit is. That essay is not useful because Frankfurt seems to be unaware that the unconscious exists
However, Frankfurt does raise a central question.
Why is there so much bullshit?
That is the question we are trying to answer.
Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact that it is currently so great.
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about...
In the Flatland model, bullshitting is not some random phenomenon; it is characteristic human behavior. There is more bullshit now (at least in absolute terms) than there used to be because there are so many more people than there used to be. Moreover, thanks to huge advances in communications technology, all these people have a much greater ability to express themselves in public and find an audience for their nonsense. Spin is ubiquitous in modern life because there are far more bullshitting opportunities clamoring for our attention.
We've seen (and Frankfurt agrees) that an essential property of bullshit is that the speaker or writer "simply doesn't care" if the "information" being conveyed is true or false (e.g., the activist example above). But what is bullshit? And where does it come from?
From a Flatland perspective, you already know part of the answer if you've read Parts I and II.
In individuals or social groups, bullshit, or spin, is a self-serving post-hoc rationalization of some unconscious motivation. Bullshit arises when there is an unconscious need to—
(1) maintain a positive self-image or manage positive impressions of the self by others;
(2) deflect existential threats to the self or group; or
(3) advance the agenda of the bullshitter (representing himself or the group).
This list is not meant to be exhaustive, nor are these needs mutually exclusive.
Bullshit stands opposed to a reasoned, objective search for truth. Spin often departs from reality in a serious way, or, more commonly, contains "half-truths" which advance the agenda of the bullshitter. Otherwise, if speech or writing does not depart from reality by the 1) assertion of falsehoods or 2) omission of crucial facts, even when unconscious motivations exist—unconscious motivations always exist—the discourse in question is not bullshit.
Of course, not everything humans say or write is bullshit. It is clear that humans do sometimes reason without an ax to grind or some easily identifiable agenda, although it is also clear that unfettered rationality is far rarer than commonly assumed. In short, bullshit arises when there is something important at stake, just as "bad news" filtering does (see Part I, textbox below).
|Our Two-Track Minds|
The received wisdom about human irrationality derives from the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman recently summarized their work in an oft-cited book called Thinking Fast And Slow. The excellent explanatory text below is from the The Guardian's review of that book (added emphasis).
All of the above should sound familiar. Here are some more details.
You may think that Kahneman and Tversky, many years ago now, theorized that there is a two-track mind which looks an awful lot like Flatland. You are right—up to a point.
Unfortunately, the System 1/System 2 dichotomy is a mostly trivial version of Flatland. While we can only be grateful for Kahneman and Tversky's pioneering work, only confirmation bias plays a crucial role in the aspects of Flatland discussed in this essay. As I noted in Part I, the other biases or effects listed above (the halo effect, anchoring, framing, outcome bias, etc.) are ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
Consider the role of luck (randomness) in human life (DOTE, April, 2012). This quote is from the review.
We also hugely underestimate the role of chance in life (this is System 1's work).
Analysis of the performance of fund managers over the longer term proves conclusively that you'd do just as well if you entrusted your financial decisions to a monkey throwing darts at a board. There is a tremendously powerful illusion that sustains managers in their belief their results, when good, are the result of skill; Kahneman explains how the illusion works.
The fact remains that "performance bonuses" are awarded for luck, not skill. They might as well be handed out on the roll of a die: they're completely unjustified. This may be why some banks now speak of "retention bonuses" rather than performance bonuses, but the idea that retention bonuses are needed depends on the shared myth of skill, and since the myth is known to be a myth, the system is profoundly dishonest – unless the dart-throwing monkeys are going to be cut in.
Surely it is important to investors that those managing their money have the same skill as "monkeys throwing darts at a board." Unfortunately, where human beings are concerned, there are bigger fish to fry, things which can not be discovered with contrived experiments or the observation that fund managers don't know what they are doing.
For example, bullshitting dominates sociopolitical discourse, and, along with "bad news" filtering, is a crucial part of the human flight from reality. And now, in the 21st century, with the Earth's biosphere at risk, and humans seemingly unable to stop themselves from damaging it further, perhaps it behooves us to look at the unconscious motivations and biases underlying those destructive behaviors.
More specifically, as I will describe directly below, bullshitting is motivated reasoning (an unconscious "System 1" process) which co-opts "System 2" (the conscious self) to create self-serving post-hoc rationalizations which make the spin appear "reasonable". Even worse, humans who are unconsciously predisposed to believe some brand of bullshit blindly accept it at face value, which is a consequence of Matthew Lieberman's theory of harmonizing (discussed in the next section).
System 2 is essentially a slave of System 1, except in trivial cases where one is trying to calculate the value of '13 x 27' or follow a recipe. The Flatland model attempts to capture that insight. If this hypothesis is correct, and it seems to be, then the "reasoning" governing decision-making with respect to humanity's big, self-created problems—global warming, the Sixth Extinction, destruction of marine ecosystems, etc.—is inevitably compromised by unconscious motivations and biases.
Perhaps I've been led astray by my own unconscious motivations, but it seems to "me " that looking at the relationship between System 1 and System 2, as I do in the Flatland model, is more important than pointing out amusing but trivial things like the specific fact that fund managers and monkeys have much in common
Furthermore, one does not need a Ph.D in statistics to get a handle on climate change risk. As I pointed out in Part II, humans generally can not assess risk correctly for reasons which have nothing to do with their ignorance of probability theory and statistics.
It also seems to "me" that cognitive scientists, not to mention economists, policy-makers, and climate activists, etc., are a lot like the drunk who lost his keys.
David H. Freedman, the author of Wrong — Why Experts Keep Failing Us — and How to Know When Not to Trust Them, calls this the streetlight effect. And in considering Flatland, that truly important psychological effect is one of its defining characteristics.
Social scientists have a name for bullshitting—it is called motivated reasoning (or cognition). This text is from Yale's Dan Kahan, whose insights I quoted and discussed in Part I.
Motivated cognition is best understood as a description or characterization of a process and not an explanation in and of itself. For a genuine explanation, we need to know, at a minimum, what the need or goal was that did the motivating (or directing) of the agent’s mental processing and the precise cognitive mechanism or mechanisms through which it operated to generate the goal-supporting perceptions or beliefs.
Examples of the goals or needs that can motivate cognition are diverse. They include fairly straightforward things, like a person’s financial or related interests. But they reach more intangible stakes, too, such as the need to sustain a positive self-image or protect connections to others with whom someone is intimately connected and on whom someone might well depend for support, emotional or material.
The mechanisms are also diverse. They include dynamics such as biased information search, which involves seeking out (or disproportionally attending to) evidence that is congruent rather than incongruent with the motivating goal; biased assimilation, which refers to the tendency to credit and discredit evidence selectively in patterns that promote rather than frustrate the goal; and identity-protective cognition, which reflects the tendency of people to react dismissively to information the acceptance of which would experience dissonance or anxiety.
Identifying these more concrete and empirically established mechanisms and giving a plausible and textured account of how they are at work is critical; otherwise, assertions of “motivated cognition” become circular—“x believes y because it was useful; the evidence is that it was useful for x to believe y.”
On the one hand, there are the unconscious processes which motivate the bullshit, and, on the other, there is the unconscious "mechanism" which gives form to the bullshit, and allows us to identify it as such. The most common cognitive mechanism is confirmation bias—"seeking out (or disproportionally attending to) evidence that is congruent rather than incongruent with the motivating goal," etc.
Here's another pertinent insight from Kahan.
To be sure, motivated cognition can make us stupid, but it is not a consequence of stupidity...
Precisely. Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein are intelligent people, but, as I often said on DOTE, politics makes you stupid.
We inferred the existence of unconscious motivations—deflecting existential threats to the group, advancing the group's agenda—in the climate activist example discussed above. Making such inferences requires us to look for what is missing (absent, not said) in the relevant discourse. Regarding Germany's energy policy, that's an easy one: McKibben and Klein focused on Germany's installed wind and solar, but left out the lignite coal. Such selectivity reflects confirmation bias.
Ideally, scientific inquiry is a corrective for the innate human tendency to bullshit. For example, a strictly "scientific" view of Germany's energy would take all of its current energy sources into account. Alas, even here there is some cause for despair. Here's Kahan again.
Indeed, some researchers have shown that expert scientists are at least sometimes prone to motivated reasoning—that they conform the performance of their reflective and deliberate evaluations of evidence to the desire they have to see exciting conclusions vindicated and disfavored ones rejected. Scary stuff. And humbling (unless as a result of motivated reasoning we see evidence of its operation only in those who disagree with us—in which case, motivated reasoning makes us anything but humble).
Fortunately for us, science does work, despite the fact that it is carried out by deeply flawed human beings. No one will be overturning the Laws of Thermodynamics anytime soon, nor will some new result falsify the hypothesis—basic physics again—that greenhouse gas emissions are forcing the climate into a new and dangerous state. A discussion of the scientific method and self-correction within it is beyond the scope of this essay.
Identifying specific unconscious motivations is impossible—they are invisible to us—but it is not impossible to create plausible (and testable) hypotheses regarding motivations. First and foremost, to deconstruct bullshit, one must do the research required to find out what's really going on. And then, to infer unconscious motivations, one must reason counterfactually.
Suppose those climate activists had done the three minutes of research demonstrating that Germany's energy policy does not support their political position. In that case, a glaring contradiction arises, for if one of them had done the research, the facts in Germany would undermine the group's agenda, and perhaps threaten its very raison d'être. On the other hand, telling half-truths about Germany clearly advances the activist group's agenda. Indeed, Naomi Klein is "aware" of growing coal consumption in Germany, but filters the bad news (emphasis added).
Klein does acknowledge is Germany’s ongoing reliance on coal-fired electricity and its slightly rising carbon dioxide emissions — even as wind turbines and solar panels have burgeoned. On this question she lapses into her own version of denial.
Critics blame that development on the precipitate shutdown of German nukes after the Fukushima accident, but Klein will have none of it. Instead, she blames the lingering political clout of the German coal industry. Otherwise, Berlin could just say no to coal, as one renewables advocate informed her: “‘German emissions are not up because nuclear power is down. They’re up because nobody told the German power companies not to burn coal….What we need are strict rules against the extraction and burning of coal. Period’” [quoting p. 138 of Klein's book "This Changes Everything"].
This is double-talk, and it’s astonishing that Klein swallows it whole. German emissions certainly are up because of the phaseout of nuclear; simple arithmetic proves it. If the seven reactors shuttered in 2011 were restarted, they could displace 15 percent of Germany’s coal-fired electricity and eliminate millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year. It’s true that the coal industry is one of the many constituencies that German energy policy panders to. But the new coal plants now coming on line were commissioned after the passage of the Energiewende legislation in 2000 precisely to compensate for the anticipated shutdown of nuclear plants. As Social-Democratic leader Sigmar Gabriel recently told the German press, “you can’t abandon nuclear power and coal at the same time.” He would know: he coauthored the legislation that phased out nuclear power and is now the minister in charge of the Energiewende.
Because as much as greens might wish otherwise, it’s not possible for Germany to simply tell power companies not to burn coal, period. Germany must burn coal because the country’s enormous wind and solar sectors are still too feeble and fickle to power the country...
Acknowledging the true situation in Germany, China, India and all the rest might cause Bill McKibben or Naomi Klein to "experience anxiety and cognitive dissonance" (quoting Kahan). And we wouldn't want to see that sort of thing, would we? It is so much better for one's psychological health to ignore those aspects of reality which make one feel uncomfortable
Confirmation bias in human "reasoning" is more general than most psychologists seem to understand. For example, the conscious self (Ego) focuses exclusively on the positive aspects of the personality to maintain a positive self-image. Negative aspects of the self remain buried in the unconscious. Using Carl Jung's terminology, those aspects are relegated to the shadow.
Whatever we deem evil, inferior or unacceptable and deny in ourselves becomes part of the shadow, the counterpoint to what Jung called the persona or conscious ego personality. According to Jungian analyst Aniela Jaffe, the shadow is the "sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life."
[My note: in Flatland, there is no "chosen conscious attitude."]
This kind of selectivity looks a lot like confirmation bias, though typical Flatland treatments of the subject do not include it. Generalized positivity is an innate cognitive trait, as discussed in Part I, and such positivity—everybody is above average —can only engender boatloads of bullshit. And, yes, the rich think they are "better" than everybody else, which engenders even more bullshit.
Given the universality and ubiquity of bullshitting in human sociopolitical discourse, it is unfortunate that one must rely on only a few instructive examples in a short essay or even a book-length treatment. The best one can do is to use examples which illustrate the central characteristics of bullshit, and then hope the reader will be able to see those defining properties in a wide range of everyday occurrences. Specific details will of course differ from one example to the next. What is important is to be able to see the pattern in the noise.
It is also unfortunate that deconstructing bullshit is very hard to do, although the unconscious processes underlying it are "automatic and effortless." Here is a partial description of Jonathan Haidt's social intuitionist model of moral judgments taken from his study The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail (pdf, added emphasis).
The intuitive judgment link — The model proposes that moral judgments appear in consciousness automatically and effortlessly as the result of moral intuitions. Examples of this link in non-moral cognition include Zajonc’s (1980) demonstrations that affectively valenced evaluations are made ubiquitously and rapidly, before any conscious processing has taken place. More recent examples include findings that much of social cognition operates automatically and implicitly (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995).
The post-hoc reasoning link — The model proposes that moral reasoning is an effortful process, engaged in after a moral judgment is made, in which a person searches for arguments that will support an already-made judgment. Nisbett and Wilson (1977) demonstrated such post-hoc reasoning for causal explanations. Kuhn (1991), Kunda (1990), and Perkins, Farady, and Bushey (1991) found that everyday reasoning is heavily marred by the biased search only for reasons that support one’s already-stated hypothesis.
Clearly the bullshitter must put some effort into constructing his post-hoc rationalizations, sometimes considerable effort, and there can be little doubt that the person in question believes his own bullshit after he constructs it, at least in the moment when he expresses it. We will see how that works in the Department of Justice example below.
Here is the "bullshit" link (my edit, graph above).
The reasoned persuasion link — The model proposes that moral reasoning is produced and sent forth verbally in order to justify one’s already-made moral judgment to others. Such reasoning can sometimes affect other people, although moral discussions and arguments are notorious for the rarity with which persuasion takes place. Since moral positions always have an affective component to them, it is hypothesized that reasoned persuasion works not by providing logically compelling arguments, but by triggering new affectively valenced intuitions in the listener. The importance of using affective persuasion to change affectively based attitudes has been demonstrated by Edwards and von Hippel (1995), and by Shavitt (1990).
...if both parties begin with strongly felt opposing intuitions (as in a debate over abortion), then reasoned persuasion is likely to have little effect, except that the post-hoc reasoning triggered in the other person could lead to even greater disagreement, a process labeled “attitude polarization” by Lord, Ross, and Lepper (1979)
Although we see bullshit (motivated "reasoned persuasion') everywhere in sociopolitical discourse, it is also true that humans filter information which threatens (in Dan Kahan's language) their "world view," which itself is inextricably tied to social identity.
So the dirty little secret about bullshit is "the rarity with which [such] persuasion takes place." Indeed, "post-hoc reasoning in the [listener]"—unconscious filtering—often triggers "attitude polarization" resulting in "even greater disagreement." These points were discussed at length in the first Adventures In Flatland essay.
It is instructive to deconstruct another example of "reasoned persuasion" before concluding this section, so let's deconstruct this fine bullshit from the U.S. Department of Justice (The New Yorker, September 26, 2014). In the quote below, Lanny Breuer explains why the DOJ didn't pursue criminal prosecutions of the bankers responsible for the fiscal crisis of 2007-2008. The Attorney General himself, Eric Holder, floated the same nonsense as he testified before Congress in May, 2013. The New Yorker article is by staff writer John Cassidy, who quotes them both. We will need to separate Cassidy's bullshit from the DOJ bullshit.
Clearly, Holder and his colleagues were reluctant to embark on another case they might lose. Proving intent remained a big issue. But Holder and Breuer have publicly stated that another factor also played a role: the fear that bringing criminal charges against a big financial firm might cause it to collapse. Appearing on Capitol Hill last year, Holder said, “I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult to prosecute them.” Prosecutors could feel “inhibited” by the fact that a criminal charge could damage not just the firm but the entire economy, the Attorney General acknowledged.
This argument, which came to be known as “too big to jail,” caused widespread outrage, and for good reason. If big banks operate under different legal rules than the rest of us, it makes a mockery of democracy. Holder subsequently backed away from his comments, saying that he had been misinterpreted. But Breuer didn’t. Shortly before he quit, he said:
In reaching every charging decision, we must take into account the effect of an indictment on innocent employees and shareholders, just as we must take into account the nature of the crimes committed and the pervasiveness of the misconduct. I personally feel that it’s my duty to consider whether individual employees with no responsibility for, or knowledge of, misconduct committed by others in the same company are going to lose their livelihood if we indict the corporation. In large multi-national companies, the jobs of tens of thousands of employees can be at stake. And, in some cases, the health of an industry or the markets is a real factor. Those are the kinds of considerations in white collar crime cases that literally keep me up at night, and which must play a role in responsible enforcement.
If the doctrine of too big to jail endures, it will blight Holder's legacy. Not only is it morally indefensible, but it doesn't make sense as the Attorney General and his colleagues have implicitly acknowledged. In cases involving tax evasion and the violation of economic sanctions, the Justice Department this year has brought criminal cases against two overseas banks that operate in the United States: Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas. And, no, you didn’t miss anything dramatic. The two banks didn’t collapse, and the economic recovery wasn’t aborted.
If the government can bring criminal charges against Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas for violating American laws, why can’t it mete out the same treatment to JPMorgan and Bank of America, or to some of their employees? Perhaps Holder will address that question in his memoirs.
Cassidy takes Breuer and Holder's bullshit at face value—"it will blight Holder's legacy," "it doesn't make sense," "Holder's memoirs," etc.) That's John Cassidy living in Flatland. That's Cassidy's bullshit. Let's deal with Holder first and Cassidy later.
Let's be clear about what this "too big to jail" argument says. Boiled down, Holder and Breuer's account of their failure to pursue criminal prosecutions says they acted for the benefit of the public—prosecutors were "inhibited" by the fact that criminal charges could damage not only the Wall Street banks but also the entire economy.
This is some breathtaking bullshit in so far as the DOJ argument implies that no large corporation should be criminally prosecuted for anything for fear that doing so would hurt many innocent people, the very same people, in fact, who were later crushed by the massive financial and mortgage fraud which preceded the economic meltdown in late 2008. Cassidy notes that such a policy is "morally indefensible" and "makes a mockery of democracy." One can only agree
Crucially, Holder later disavowed those remarks, and it is that very repudiation which tells us that we are looking at one of several "trial balloons" which Holder floated yo see if he could get one to fly, though, as Cassidy points out, Lanny Breuer stuck with this "too big to jail" rationalization. Holder, as Attorney General, desperately needed to explain away the DOJ's failure to even try to bring bring criminal prosecutions against American banks.
There can be no doubt that Holder must justify his personal failures. Such failures are incompatible with maintaining a positive self-image. The "too big to jail" argument is thus a post-hoc rationalization stemming from a commonplace motivation (see the definition above). And remember, the bullshitter simply doesn't care whether what he says or writes is true or false, and the bullshit he floats today need not be consistent with the bullshit he offered up on previous occasions, an observation which Harry Frankfurt also made. Other post-hoc rationalizations Holder used included the difficulty of getting convictions, the contention that bank fraud was unethical but not illegal, etc.
But there is more to the story. We must look for what is left out, what is missing, in Cassidy's recounting and Holder's argument. Quite obviously, both men are not acting entirely on their own. Happily for us, occasionally someone writes something close to the truth, i.e., something which is not bullshit. Holder himself is a prominent political appointee, so he does not act independently (The New Republic, May 16, 2013).
For those of us who have long wondered why the Justice Department never investigated Wall Street, the Associated Press subpoena scandal illustrates a key point: The Justice Department sets priorities based on what it hears from the White House. When the White House wanted to identify and prosecute leakers of classified information, Justice sprang into action and used extremely aggressive tactics. "I make no apologies" President Obama said today, for being concerned about leaks.
Here, the AP story is the mirror opposite of the Wall Street scandal. After the financial crisis, when Justice Department leaders cocked their ears toward the Obama White House and Treasury Department, they heard nothing. Consequently, Justice adopted a passive, decentralized and desultory approach to Wall Street investigations. The clear priority at the very top of our government was to restore the health of the financial industry, not to punish those who nearly wrecked it. Even as we learned about the failures of Justice Department leaders to organize any significant effort at pursuing Wall Street fraud, there was no self-correction.
This happened because President Obama has provided deceptive “cover” for the Justice Department’s failures. First, he has stated repeatedly that most Wall Street behavior was “unethical” but not illegal (then why the numerous civil fraud actions against the major banks brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission?). And, second, he created two Potemkin financial fraud task forces to give a false impression of a centralized, aggressive effort. Meanwhile, from the earliest days of his presidency, Obama has appointed officials from the finance industry or white-collar defense bar who rotate into government and back into the finance industry or the law firms that defended banks.
To make an overly long story shorter, the Obama administration is corrupt—a promoter and protector of elite financial interests—and Holder represents not only that administration, but the Democratic party as a whole. Reasoning counterfactually, the Obama administration and, by extension, the DOJ, can not acknowledge their own corruption without undermining their own legitimacy.
In Flatland, as this example and countless others show, social connections nearly always remain outside of the awareness. One can not evaluate Holder's actions in isolation. Holder must deflect existential threats to the Obama administration and the Democratic party (again, see the definition above). To make this point clear, imagine Holder making the following statement:
Asked why he did not pursue criminal fraud cases against Wall Street banks, the Attorney General said "I look to the President for guidance, and in this case I received clear signals from the White House that the Big Banks were criminally untouchable. And of course those banks are big donors to the Democratic party.
We were encouraged to pursue civil actions involving cash settlements the banks could easily afford and write off, and so we were able to create the appearance of a Justice Department which cared passionately about doing the right thing. So it boils down to this—I took my cues from the White House."
If Holder had said something akin to our imagined example, if he had effectively undermined the legitimacy of American democracy and all the social groups comprising it, all hell would have broken loose
Returning to John Cassidy, he is a staff writer at the mainstream publication The New Yorker, and is clearly a beneficiary of the status quo, the socioeconomic group I discussed in Homo Sapiens — The Rationalizing Animal. Living in Flatland, Cassidy remains baffled as to why the DOJ did not pursue criminal prosecution of Wall Street bankers. He awaits Holder's memoirs.
Cassidy must also maintain a positive self-image and deflect existential threats—can he make his living writing seriously about a hopelessly corrupt political system and still look at himself in the mirror? If Cassidy takes the high-road, it's Goodbye New Yorker, Hello Amy Goodman. Cassidy's hard-won high social status would be shot all to hell
It is now time to up the ante. The next section discusses the astonishing implications of Matthew Lieberman's work on the unconscious social mind.
C'mon, Dave, People Are NICE — What's Your Problem?
Humans generally would certainly object to the content and tone of these Adventures In Flatland essays. Aren't people much nicer than implied here?
Sure, there a few rotten apples, but you and everybody you know has innocuous, pleasant, even helpful interactions with other people every day. How do you account for that, Mr. Dave Cohen? What's your problem? There is an answer to this reasonable sounding objection, and I will get to it shortly.
I had already been thinking about "Flatland" for some time when I ran across Matthew Lieberman's book Social — Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (page 9, added emphasis).
In my research, I have found that the neural basis for our personal beliefs overlaps significantly with one of the regions of the brain responsible for allowing other people's beliefs to influence our own. The self is more a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we it to be. Our socially malleable sense of self, which often leads us to help others more than ourselves, is the third major [evolutionary] adaptation I'll be discussing.
Social Networks for Social Networks
Yet the history of human sociality can be traced back at least as far as the first mammals more than 250 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs first roamed the planet. Our sociality is woven into a series of bets that evolution has laid down again and again throughout mammalian history.
These bets come in the form of adaptations that are selected because they promote survival and reproduction. These adaptations intensify the bonds we feel with those around us and increase our capacity to predict what is going on in the minds of others so that we can better coordinate and cooperate with them. The pain of social loss and the ways that an audience's laughter can influence us are no accidents.
To the extent that we can characterize evolution as "designing" our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on Earth.
Yet these social adaptations also keep us a mystery to ourselves. We have a massive blind spot for our own social wiring. We have a theory of "who we are" and this theory is wrong. The goal of this book is to get clear about "who we are" as social creatures...
We have a theory of "who we are" and this theory is wrong —this is the fundamental assumption of the Flatland hypothesis. Here is the relevant quote from my first essay.
... we hypothesize that there is a fundamental integration problem regarding awareness and the unconscious. If this Flatland "architecture" of the mind is conceptually correct, it implies that consciousness (awareness, the Ego, the sense of self) arose as an evolutionarily useful byproduct of bigger, better connected brains.
If that reasonable conjecture is correct, we would expect to observe the basic illusion that awareness is running the show, whereas it is actually the poor dependent in a master/slave relationship. That is the fundamental human flaw.
Lieberman describes all three of the social phenomena shown in the graph above—connection, mindreading and harmonizing. Here we are interested only in harmonizing. Lieberman calls our "socially malleable" sense of Ego-awareness the "Trojan Horse Self" (Scientific American, October 22, 2013, added emphasis).
Scientific American — One of the long-standing mysteries of psychology is the question of where the “self” comes from, and what the “self” even means. Does your research shed any light on this question?
Matthew Lieberman — Social psychologists have long speculated that the self is a much more social phenomenon then it intuitively feels like from the inside. There have certainly been studies over the years that are consistent with this idea, however neuroscience is bringing new data to bear that speaks directly to this idea.
There's a region of the brain called “medial prefrontal cortex” that essentially sits between your eyes. This region has been shown again and again to be activated the more a person is reflecting on themselves. It is the region that most clearly and unambiguously is associated with “self-processing.” If you think about your favorite flavor of ice-cream, precious personal memories, or consider aspects of your personality (e.g. Are you generous? Are you messy?) you are likely to recruit this brain region.
Lieberman, pictured below, now introduces the Trojan Horse.
Given that we tend to think of the self as the thing that separates us from others — that allows us to know how we are different and how to walk our own path — it would be surprising if this same medial prefrontal region was involved in allowing the beliefs of others to influence our own. But this is exactly what we have seen in several studies.
The more active the medial prefrontal region is when someone is trying to persuade you of something (e.g., to wear sunscreen everyday) the more likely you’ll be to change your tune and start using sunscreen regularly. Rather than being a hermetically sealed vault that separates us from others, our research suggests that the self is more of a Trojan horse, letting in the beliefs of others, under the cover of darkness and without us realizing it.
This socially-influenced self helps to ensure that we’ll have the same kind of beliefs and values as those of the people around us and this is a great catalyst for social harmony.
Social "harmonizing" means exactly what the word implies—within socal groups, humans make every effort to connect with each other, get along, help out, chat each other up, and so on. Liberals harmonize with liberals, progressives with progressives, conservatives with conservatives, libertarians with libertarians, climate activists with climate activists, and so on. Mainstream journalists harmonize with other mainstream journalists, end-of-the-world doomers harmonize with other doomers. Wall Street shysters harmonize with other shysters, Hollywood actors harmonize with (and marry) other actors, Silicon Valley techies harmonize with other techies. On and on it goes.
Make no mistake about it — intra-group harmonizing is what people were "designed" by evolution to do. All this harmonizing is what makes people seem so nice.
On the other hand, if one introduces disharmony (discord, etc.) into social groups, humans aren't so nice. Within social groups, there are distinguishable (if sometimes fuzzy) boundaries as to what constitutes appropriate behavior or talk, and what does not. If you happen to be hanging out with Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, try telling them that Germany's energy mix doesn't support their views. If you're hanging out with the Princeton economist Paul Krugman, try telling him he doesn't understand physics.
Even worse, among different social groups, conflict is the norm, not the exception. If this conflict is not violent, humans call it politics. And in politics, people aren't so nice, are they?
A fish does not sense the water it swims in. We are those fish. There's lots of invisible stuff in the water—growth instincts, technological instincts, innate optimism, other unconscious motivations and biases—but for big-brained, bipedal mammals like us, social instincts are the water.
As I noted in the introduction to this essay, to understand the human animal, one must ultimately come to grips with human groupishness—in the beginning was the group. In so doing, you will better understand why I once said DOTE Has No Natural Constituency. And you will find out why life among the humans, even so-called "adults," seems a lot like high school.
A Copernican Revolution in Understanding Human Nature
When Nicolaus Copernicus overthrew Ptolemy's long-held view that the Earth was the center of the Universe, humans were thrown for a loop. There was great resistance to this finding because Copernicus' simple observation posed an existential threat to human self-centeredness. Humans have not changed since then
And now, right under our eyes, another Copernican Revolution has arrived. It was a great blow to the Human Conceit that the Earth was not the center of the universe, but that grievous injury pales in comparison to the startling result that the conscious self, the "autonomous" Ego, is largely a fiction.
Our misnamed (and self-named) species Homo sapiens ("wise man") will never accept such a shocking and traumatic revelation, but, as we have seen again and again, leading the proverbial horse to water and getting it to drink are two entirely different things. But reality doesn't care. The Earth is not the center of the Universe, and Flatland exists. Resistance is futile.
|Resistance Is Futile|
Here is John Jost, a prominent psychologist at New York University, reviewing Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind. Jost is angry (added emphasis).
Jost can not accept the straightforward observation that in important matters like politics, economics, natural resources, and the climate, System 2 is really just a bullshitter.
I don't doubt that on occasion humans do "abandon their gut-level intuitions and engage in more deliberative moral reasoning." But, really now, how frequently does that happen? Thanks to the internet, we have a very, very large sample to work with. The answer to our question seems to be once in a blue moon.
Anyone who has actually observed the political or economic worlds without bias for more than five minutes knows that bullshit is the norm, not the exception. The key phrase in that sentence is "without bias"
Where was System 2 when Eric Holder told us Wall Street bankers were too big to jail?
Where is System 2 when climate activists tell us that Germany's energy policy shows us the way out of our climate/energy dilemma?
Where is System 2 when Paul Krugman tells us Barack Obama "has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history?" And then tells us how wonderful the Dodd-Frank financial reform is, despite the fact the law gives a special council the ability to designate ''systemically important financial institutions." "Too Big To Fail" banks are now recognized and accepted! It's been codified! We can't get rid of them!
More pertinently, it has been demonstrated that there is pervasive, politically influenced confirmation bias in the research of social psychologists like John Jost. Once again, System 2 is missing in action.
Indeed, if you lined up every example of political or economic bullshit humans have ever used to advance their own agendas, deflect existential threats, justify themselves, make themselves look good, and so forth, it would take many millions (if not billions) of years to deconstruct them all.
I am joking to make a serious point: humans are so immersed in their own bullshit that they can not see it. What humans can see, what John Jost can see in criticizing Haidt's work, is that they appear to be "reasoning" about this subject or that one (here, moral judgments).
Human resistance to the existence of powerful unconscious processes (following from the illusion of free will, the bogus "blank slate", as discussed in Part I) is an important aspect of the very problem I'm trying to model. The trick is to see these rationalizations for what they are instead of being immersed in them.
As I said earlier, a fish does not sense the water it swims in. The unconscious exists. It is big and powerful, the conscious self (Ego) is small and weak.
A few simple details about the brain itself are helpful here. In a short essay, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive review of Lieberman's work, so I will quote from this excellent summary (added emphasis).
Lieberman and his team studied the involvement of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) in subjects performing direct appraisals of themselves (how they see themselves) and reflected appraisals (how they think others see them).
Our conceptual sense of self is strongly tied to the MPFC, which is found only in humans and our closest primate relatives. However, it takes up twice as much space, proportionately, in human brains as in other primates. fMRI studies show that the MPFC is central to self-knowledge and to being influenced by others. It is responsible for one’s sense of “I” but surprisingly, at least from a Western standpoint, the self is primarily a social mechanism which functions to harmonize with others and adapt our personal urges to our need for connectedness.
Now, let's go back to high school, where the socially malleable self is formed.
Lieberman’s studies included adolescents and were the first to look at adolescent’s brains as they try to make sense of themselves. The results suggest that unlike those of adults, the adolescent’s MPFC is involved in both self and reflected appraisals, and if that is so, it implies that the MPFC is involved in the construction of self. Adolescents’ self-appraisals include what they believe others think of them, and involve strong activity in their mentalizing system, implying that although they were asked their own view of themselves, they spontaneously included reflected appraisals: what others thought of them.
Further experiments demonstrated that the MPFC is involved in our being influenced to change our beliefs and behaviors. Subjects were exposed to materials designed to persuade them to alter specific behaviors (increase sunscreen use, quit smoking). Those whose MPFC was activated by the materials did change their behavior; those whose MPFC was not activated did not, in spite of their verbal affirmation that they would do so. Furthermore, materials which activated the MPFC of the largest number of people were the most successful in follow up ad campaigns.
One might object here and say that fMRI studies of the brain do not tell us how the brain actually works. We still don't know what's really going on. For example, consider this text from the quote just above.
Further experiments demonstrated that the MPFC is involved in our being influenced to change our beliefs and behaviors. Subjects were exposed to materials designed to persuade them to alter specific behaviors (increase sunscreen use, quit smoking). Those whose MPFC was activated by the materials did change their behavior; those whose MPFC was not activated did not, in spite of their verbal affirmation that they would do so...
Why was the MPFC "activated by the materials" in some people and not activated in others? Who knows? There is a deep mystery as to why one person becomes a free-market libertarian while another becomes a climate activist. In any case, the processes differentiating individual responses reside in the unconscious.
The objection stating "we don't really know how the brain works" is correct, so looking at the profound implications of this research can only be speculative. But this is not the time to be shy because of our ignorance. Sure, the human brain remains a black box, and thus we can only make inferences based on its output (observable behaviors). That doesn't matter much because it makes evolutionary sense that an unconscious process like harmonizing must exist, and unbiased (apolitical) observation of human groupiness tells us it does. So I'm going to swing away.
You will recall this quote from the introduction: "ideologies are merely the scaffolding holding social groups together, an arbitrary reflection of the underlying cognitive glue which allows these groups to exist." This quote is from Leiberman's book (pp. 191-92).
I would argue that the self exists primarily as a conduit to let the social groups we are immersed in (that is, family, our school, our country) supplement our natural impulses with socially derived impulses. The social world imparts a collection of beliefs about ourselves, our morality, and about what constitutes a worthwhile life.
Because of how the self functions, we often cling to these beliefs as they are unique ideas we came up with ourselves—the products of our private inner voice. It is not enough for us to recognize what the group believes and values. We have to adopt the beliefs and values as our own if they are to guide our behavior.
In other words, just like the Trojan Horse, much of what makes up our sense of self was snuck in from the outside, under the cover of darkness [via the unconscious]. We might believe the self exists to help strengthen our resolve in the face of outside forces but this theory of "who we are" overlooks the way our brain uses those outside forces to construct and update the self.
Leiberman avoids sociopolitical groups and associated belief systems in his book, but clearly his remarks apply to those as well. If the self is largely a Trojan Horse in the sense just described, then socially-derived beliefs and values are so tangled up with "who we are" that it is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins ("outside forces ... construct and update the self").
Once the socially malleable self comes into being, tightly-held sociopolitical beliefs and values function as scaffolding which 1) binds the self to the group, and 2) promotes group coherence. Sociopolitical belief systems are arbitrary and capricious. If authoritative political conservatives (group leaders) "decide" the Federal government's deficit is America's most serious problem—this is motivated bullshit, of course—then, suddenly, one sees all sorts of people in the appropriately aligned social groups espousing the belief that the Federal Government's deficit is America's most serious problem. That story could change next week if political conservatives assumed control of the Federal Government. This is not rocket science.
As Lieberman notes, humans cling to to the Flatland delusion that their own beliefs and values are "products of their own private inner voice." The specific ideologies people are drawn to don't matter—all ideologies depart from reality in a serious way. It is social identification and harmonizing which count.
The Social Roots of Confirmation Bias
It is not a big leap to the conclusion that, in a social context, confirmation bias usually (if not always) arises from the need to harmonize, although I am not aware of any research that might support or falsify such a hypothesis.
Information which threatens the bonding of the self to the group, or threatens the coherence of the group itself, can not be consciously acknowledged (i.e., must filtered in the sense of the original Adventures In Flatland essay).
Think about those highly selective climate activists. Harmonizing implies that people will "seek out (or disproportionally attend to) evidence which is congruent rather than incongruent with" maintaining one's social identity (quoting Dan Kahan). To do otherwise would create discord within the group, and social friction for person departing from group orthodoxy. Review the definition of bullshit laid out earlier.
Harmonizing, as expressed through confirmation bias, is therefore inconsistent with, or, at best, orthogonal to a reasoned search for "objective" truth.
In Jonathan Haidt's social intuitionist model of moral judgments, which was discussed earlier, there is link labled "harmonizing" (my edit, graph above). Here is Haidt's description of the "social persuasion" link, from his Emotional Dog and Rational Tail paper (link above, emphasis added).
The social persuasion link — Because people are highly attuned to the emergence of group norms, the model proposes that the mere fact that friends, allies, and acquaintances have made a moral judgment exerts a direct influence on others, even if no reasoned persuasion is used. Such social forces may elicit only outward conformity (Asch, 1956), but in many cases people’s privately held judgments are directly shaped by the judgments of others (Berger & Luckman, 1967; Newcomb, 1943; Sherif, 1935).
... The existence of motivations to agree with our friends and allies means that we can be directly affected by their judgments. The mere fact that your friend expresses a moral judgment against X is often sufficient to cause in you a critical attitude towards X. Such direct influence, circumventing reasoning entirely, fits with Chartrand and Bargh’s (1999) recent demonstration of the “chameleon effect,” in which people unconsciously mimic the postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of their interaction partners. Chartrand and Bargh found that such automatic mimicry is socially adaptive, for people who are “in sync” with another person are liked better by that person.
Note the existence of "direct influence" which circumvents reasoning entirely. Haidt's social persuasion is simply harmonizing in a different guise, and clearly applies within sociopolitical social groups.
Preaching To The Choir
The idiom "preaching to the choir" (or "to the converted") is social persuasion among those who need no persuading. Preaching to the converted is therefore harmonizing which functions to maintain or promote group coherence, especially in the face of existential threats to the group.
For example, when Paul Krugman recently asserted that Barack Obama "has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history," he was trying to fend off obvious existential threats to the political legitimacy of liberal democrats, whom he represents. Krugman was also preaching to the choir to bolster the liberal faithful. Not only do those in social groups under pressure require such morale building, but they also find it soothing and reassuring. There are various slang terms for this very real phenomenon: circle jerk, singing kumbaya, and so on.
For example, you could get a bunch of climate activists together in a room, hook them all up with fMRI gear, and then see if everybody's medial prefrontal cortex lights up like a Christmas tree every time somebody mentions Germany's exemplary energy policy.
The existence of instinctual harmonizing has far-reaching implications which, to my knowledge, no one has yet explored, including Matthew Lieberman. Certainly we are more interested in the ongoing human destruction of the biosphere than we are in the experimental examples Lieberman uses (increasing sunscreen use or quitting smoking).
In the original Adventures In Flatland essay, I criticized—one might say demolished —the "blank slate" view of human nature. That convenient hypothesis asserts that humans are endlessly malleable, a view which implies that social conditioning alone fully determines our behavior. It turns out that social malleability—the role of harmonizing in the "construction and updating of the self"—is indeed part of the instinctual equation. However, the existence of instinctual harmonizing contradicts the "blank slate" view in so far as:
- the existence of any instinctual behavior arising from our mammalian evolution contradicts such a view;
- our social malleability is merely one aspect of our unconscious architecture, albeit a fundamental one.
That said, malleability arising from instinctual harmonizing can easily be mistaken for endless "blank slate" malleability due to its prevalence in human sociality. Harmonizing is so fundamental to human functioning that it is impossible in a short essay to work through all of its implications. The example below suffices to make this point.
|How Harmonizing Fosters Corruption|
While I was writing this essay, I published a short post called OMG! — The Fed Is Corrupt! The story concerns Carmen Segarra, who took a job with the New York Fed to regulate Goldman Sachs. She took that job seriously, and, in so doing, was subsequently fired. Fortunately, Carmen taped her exercise in futility.
As I looked over the transcript of the National Public Radio show This American Life, based on the Segarra tapes, I yearned for "smoking gun" quotes which I knew would not be there. This is as close as we get (page 12, emphasis added).
I could not have invented a better description of how corruption works. In Flatland, humans attribute rational self-interest and conscious intention to themselves and others, which means (in this context) that corruption at the Fed must entail some sort of quid pro quo (bribery, explicit revolving door deals, etc.). In short, there must be some kind of conspiracy among equals.
But what we find in the Segarra tapes is that Fed officials did not effectively regulate bankers at Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street Banks because these hypothetically "separate" social groups were in fact one and the same—
It's not "tricky" to walk the line between being friendly and being captured because that line does not exist. In short, regulators and bankers were harmonizing in the expected way. It is indeed "just human nature [for all these people] to try to get along." For whatever reason, Carmen Segarra was able to maintain appropriate group boundaries (i.e., she is the rare exception in this case).
It is thus unsurprising that "a quick Internet search reveals at least seven former Fed bank examiners now work at Goldman" because these people are simply switching roles (jobs) within the same social group. According to Quartz.com's What we can learn from the secret recordings of Federal Reserve officials, William Dudley, president of the New York Fed then and now, worked for Goldman Sachs for two decades. Carmen Segurra herself applied to Goldman for a job on three separate occasions "while a financial sector lawyer."
Here's what I wrote in Moral Failure In Liberalized Market States (May 25, 2014), long before I saw this Fed example.
The upshot is that humans in cases like this are totally incapable of regulating their own behavior to serve the public interest because human nature (groupiness and harmonizing) precludes it. Effective regulation is possible only if regulators and the regulated belong to well-differentiated and adversarial social groups. In short, effective regulation must be political in nature, involving inter-group conflict.
In the "too big to jail" example discussed earlier, the required political separation between Wall Street on the one hand, and the Obama White House and its Justice Department appointees on the other, did not exist. There was no inter-group conflict, and therefore there was no effective prosecution of the swindlers who caused the financial meltdown in 2008.
"Realists" Is Not A Human Social Group
"Harmonizing, as expressed through confirmation bias," I wrote earlier, "is inconsistent with or, at best, orthogonal to a reasoned search for 'objective' truth." More generally, intra-group harmonizing is a pleasurable end-in-itself. Humans were "designed" by evolution to harmonize. No doubt it has always had and continues to have survival value. Harmonizing is a social instinct which binds humans into groups and helps "construct and update the self." Groupiness itself is the sine non qua of human existence. None of this is negotiable.
Thus we find that the social beliefs or values around which harmonizing is based are secondary and arbitrary. Consequently, these beliefs or values needn't be grounded in any observable 'objective' reality. Social harmony can be organized around any sort of bullshit, and that's what we find on the internet, which itself can be viewed as an enormous and unprecedented experiment "designed" to reveal social influence on the self.
The 'objective' truths we are looking for here concern how the human animal functions, with an eye toward explaining why these big-brained, bipedal hominids are so enthusiastically pursuing such a self-destructive course in the 21st century. Tragically, a deep contradiction arises in the foregoing because instinctual harmonizing itself is at best orthogonal to (or even precludes) acquiring the kind of self-knowledge humans must have to move toward less self-destructive behaviors.
To the extent to which sociopolitical choices are the result of harmonizing and not reasoning, those "choices" are motivated by unconscious social instincts. Such fundamental illusions are incompatible with meaningful self-knowledge, let alone free will.
And now I would like to make some personal remarks. What kind of person would write these Adventures In Flatland essays? To put it simply, over these last 15 years, I have grown more and more estranged from other people. I do not belong to any social groups, I am no longer political. I am not a joiner. I have no life partner. I have no children. I have social needs like everybody else—I can now consciously observe my own social instincts clamoring for my attention—but the painful futility of trying to maintain normal human social relationships exceeds of the pain of my loneliness.
Much of my isolation amounts to a form a self-protection. My general observation is that people generally don't know what they're doing. Even worse, people don't know why they're doing what they don't know they're doing, i.e., they are out of touch with unconscious motivations. You may want to read that last sentence again
The human condition is a god-awful mess. Here's the kind of humor which most reflects my experience of living on this planet.
"Use your open eye, Frank"
Pure genius! So true to life!
I don't want to sail on this ship of fools, though I can only minimize my participation in this mess. I can not avoid participating altogether. It feels safer and therefore better to keep my distance from the mess. Writing DOTE was as far as I am willing to go. And that is the sort of person who wrote these essays.
It seems to me that only a person who is to some large degree free of what we might call unconscious social "contamination" can even begin to get at the truth about how the human animal functions. We might call this the "alien anthropologist" problem. Unfortunately, that problem is unsolvable because there is a conspicuous dearth of aliens. My observations on DOTE and in these Flatland essays are made possible by my unusual but incomplete social detachment. I am not an alien.
I'm satisfied with my work, and I am happy to report that there are DOTE readers who "get" what I'm trying to do. I think of those people as realists, but, on Earth, "realists" is not a social group. Environmentalists, social psychologists, Islamic jihadists, political liberals, doomers waiting for the collapse, mainstream economists, American buddhists, free-market libertarians, etc.—these are all "natural" human social groups. Unlike these familiar social groupings, DOTE has no natural contituency.
For example, I recently ran across references to a book called Don't Even Think About It — Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change. What a promising title! I had recently written about the very same subject in Adventures In Flatland — Part II. So I looked at a review of the book, which was written by "veteran environmentalist" George Marshall.
If you don’t like the message on climate change, it seems that the answer is to shoot the messenger.
According to a new book by veteran environmentalist George Marshall, thousands of abusive emails—including demands that he commit suicide or be “shot, quartered and fed to the pigs, along with your family”—were received by climate scientist Michael Mann, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Centre, who drew and published the “hockey stick graph” that charts a steep rise in global average temperatures...
As Marshall points out in his absorbing, all-embracing, immensely readable book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, something very strange is going on.
Louis Pasteur’s revolutionary microbiology work on disease prevention never resulted in him having to think about how to use a gun. Jonas Salk never needed to fortify his house as result of working on the development of a polio vaccine.
Other scientists are trusted and respected. But the way climate scientists are now treated, Marshall argues, is without parallel in the history of science: “They have been set up to play that role in a climate storyline that, it would seem, cannot refute climate change without demonising the people who warn us about it.”
Readers of these Flatland essays will readily understand the difference between how Jonas Salk was treated and how Michael Mann is treated—Salk was the bearer of Glad Tidings, but Mann's message is full of existential threats which much be filtered. One way to do that is to attack the messenger.
Marshall interviewed Daniel Kahneman and cites the work of Dan Kahan, as I do, but of course he can not accept the implications of their results. Let's cut to the chase.
He concludes that while human brains may be hard-wired to not worry about what may or may not happen in two generations, they also have an immense capacity for pro-social, supportive and altruistic behavior.
“Climate change is entirely within our capacity for change,” he says, “It is challenging, but far from impossible.”
That is good to know. And the book ends with some serious advice about how to make the case for action—and instead of capital punishment, we get generously shouty advice in capital letters. CLIMATE CHANGE IS HAPPENING HERE AND NOW, he reminds us. And he urges campaigners to DROP THE ECO-STUFF, especially the polar bears.
More seriously, note that Marshall buys into the delusion that mitigating global warming is "entirely within our [human] capacity for change." But doesn't that beg the very question Marshall explores in his book? Do humans have the capacity to confront anthropogenic climate in a realistic way or not?
Marshall is very explicit about his rejection of the cognitive science perspective on climate change: "I strongly disagree with the cognitive psychologists [like Daniel Kahneman] who say climate change is just an impossible issue ... I will not accept that" (video, text begins at the 49:00 mark). Marshall gets it wrong in a predictable way because he is a veteran environmentalist.
Climate change communications specialist George Marshall has been grappling with that question since he co-founded the UK charity, the Climate Outreach Information Network (COIN), in 2004. Next week he will be Victoria for a free public lecture on Tuesday hosted by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS), and visiting Vancouver and Kelowna as part of a North American tour to promote his new book; Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change.
There is much praise for a man who says that mitigating climate change "is challenging, but far from impossible."
Marshall’s book has attracted praise from climate scientists including James Hansen, the former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and television’s Bill Nye (the Science Guy) as well as Canadian author Naomi Klein. The book examines the psychology of climate change denial, following discussions with Nobel Prize winning psychologists, Tea Party activists, leading climate scientists and their main critics, as well as liberal environmentalists and conservative evangelicals.
His publisher must be very pleased!
In short, Marshall is harmonizing within his own social group (environmentalists, other interested parties like Hansen or Nye). His conclusions mirror the expectations of the social world he belongs to. His own social status and self-identity are on the line. Marshall is not about to rock that boat, and does not. This is all very straightforward.
The fundamental problem is that Marshall does not have the consciousness required to rock the human boat because his thinking on the human response to climate change is inherently compromised. He lacks a sufficient degree of social detachment. His thinking is contaminated by his instinctual groupishness, his instinctual optimism, his own "bad news" filtering, and all the rest. His secure social position in the general scheme of things explains why he got a publishing deal—there is a natural constituency for his work (environmentalists).
For humans, more of the same—here, unconscious harmonizing, the usual circle jerk—offers no redemption. Another book tackling the climate change "challenge" changes nothing. Harmonizing with those attending a free public talk at the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions in Victoria affects nothing. "DROPPING THE ECO-STUFF" accomplishes nothing, even when you use capital letters. All this is just more human self-delusion, although it is very good for book sales.
Watch as George Marshall starts to "get it" in this video—each person Marshall interviews views climate change through the lens of the belief system of the social group that person is aligned with. Everybody is harmonizing! And then Marshall loses his grip altogether. After all, aren't we humans one big happy family?
This ends Part III of Adventures In Flatland