Psychology of Morality

There is a brilliant talk by Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, introducing an EDGE website conference on the neuroscience of Moral Psychology. It is worth listening to the whole talk by scrolling to the video link, but there is also the full text of his remarks.

His most interesting remarks concern just how focused most psychology is what he calls the WEIRD population using the approach from: ‘The Weirdest People in the World’ by Joe Henrich, Steve Heine and Ara Norenzayan article in the Bulletin of Behavioral Science. Most psychology experiments focus on Western Educated Rational Industrial Rich Democratic population and therefore are a very limited guide to the psychology of humanity as a whole. And this is particularly important for moral psychology.

I have referred previously to his work as part of the Moral Values Foundation at link, but I think that in this talk he extends his view to encompass everything from the philosopher David Hume, the links to autism and Aspserger’s syndrome of Simon Baron Cohen that particularly interest me, our tendencies to seek confirmation of our beliefs rather than contrary data, as well as to his own work on happiness.

I will post other talks from this interesting conference as they become available.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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10 Responses to Psychology of Morality

  1. Victor says:

    Maybe there is a pharmaceutical solution–oxytocin – which increases bonding and empathy, I am sure the military has researched it as a solution to hostile crowds– it can be effectively dosed via fine spray– and it has probably been tried on captured terrorists in Saudi Arabia as part of their rehabilitation clinics for AQ supporters.

    There were some interesting reports of how the Palestinians deprogrammed their most violent Black September troops– they searched Lebanon for the most attractive women and put them together for marriage.— it was very effective
    Women civilize men in the main and children seem to increase that tendency — in large part through oxytocin .

    The vast majority of terrorist violence is perpetrated by unattached males— the leaders are a different matter—Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Bin Laden had or have wives—Hitler was the outlier– but maybe those sorts of thugs have a genetic tendency to autism and resistance to oxytocin — the two syndromes are linked apparently

    The oxytocin receptor in humans has several alleles, which differ in their effectiveness. Individuals homozygous for the “G” allele, when compared to carriers of the “A” allele, show higher empathy, lower stress response, as well as lower prevalence of autism and of poor parenting skills.

  2. Very interesting, especially the idea of how women civilize men, which is why the sexual imbalance in India and China due to differential abortion and infanticide of females is so disturbing

    Also interesting is something also on the impact of neurotransmitters that I found and communicated to Richard Nisbett a friend who wrote the very interesting ‘The Geography of Thought’ on measured cultural differences in perception. This is what I said:

    ‘Further to our previous discussions, I found a rather interesting breakthrough perspective on the East-West cognitive difference issue. It relates to differences at the genetic level.

    The perspective is found in the collection of essays ‘What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science’ Edited by Max Brockman. Specifically the essay by Matthew Lieberman of UCLA suggests on pages 98-103 that (in line with Terence Deacon’s work in ‘The Symbolic Species’) the West/East independent and interdependent cognitive styles did not drive changes in brain structure, but pre-existing differences in brain structure drives changes in language and cognitive style to adapt to it. Language and culture adapt fast, brain structure much more slowly, so this seems prima facie more likely.

    Specifically, Lieberman suggests that the cognitive differences developed and spread differentially to areas where there already were major population differences in distribution of the Serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR). Baldwin Way at UCLA has researched this and found reliable and enormous differences between East and West in alleles of this gene. Serotonin is strongly related to socioemotional sensitivity and people with the short-short allele found much more commonly in East Asia are very prone to depression if they lack social support. So the genetics of people in the East predispose them to be more dependent on the social environment to avoid depression.

    To quote: ‘In the light of the Deacon doctrine the prevalence of short 5-HTTLPR polymorphism in individuals of East Asian descent suggests that they may possess the kind of neurochemistry that would predispose them toward interdependence, establishing this as a cultural value or enduring Big Idea, in this region of the world. If your well being tends to be dependent on how you are treated by others, then you would certainly prefer a culture that encourages others to make your well being a priority. In contrast, the relative absence of this gene type in the West would lead to a neurochemistry predisposing people to create a culture that values independence and individual achievement.’ (Page 100-101)

    I don’t know how this fits with your latest research, or with the idea that priming can make a difference, but I thought you would find this interesting. If you have any conversations with Matthew Lieberman or Baldwin Way on this, I would love to hear the outcome. It is another twist to the idea of emergence!

    As E M Foster says: ‘Only Connect’

    Like Jonathan Haidt in the video, and as I discussed with Richard Nisbett, I believe in emergence not reductionism. The laws of physics, biology whatever constrain what is possible, and are therefore very important; but much of what occurs represents something not deducible or predictable from the basic laws. The above is another instance of this.

  3. Victor says:

    Genetic research on racial differences has been a taboo subject since the 60s– the new era of personalized medicine has brought it back without the old baggage– hopefully.

    You might find this article by a Psychiatrist from Sanford’s Hoover Institute interesting for another view—- by Ronald W. Dworkin, M.D., Ph.D., is the author of Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class (Basic Books, 2006).

    The Rise of the Caring Industry

    • I think the really important difference would be if we took the hierarchical spin out of difference and looked at difference as a source of cognitive diversity. It would like saying extroverts and introverts are different, not better or worse in toto. Scott Page’s work here suggests that for complex (not just difficult) problems like hunger, environment, the middle east etc we need cognitive diversity: different skills, mindsets, etc working together collaboratively. The centers of creativity in the USA tend to be pretty diverse: Silicon Valley for example as Richard Florida has mapped in his work on the geography of creativity.

      This is not to say there are no differences between individuals or groups with a slope; simply that the brain is more plastic than we think in childhood and adulthood, and that social psychology is pretty powerful in supporting a positive creative culture or an oppressive authoritarian one. That’s why the free market at its best works pretty well, though with lots of need to structure it to avoid irrational exuberance, political corruption, and deal with externalities such as downstream pollution from productive processes etc.

      And re the happiness industry, I don’t find Jonathan Haidt handles happiness in a ‘have a nice day’ way. His book The Happiness Hypothesis uses 3000 years of philosophers and recent neuroscience to try to get what I found a pretty useful and balanced picture. And the original intent of Martin Seligman was to balance the obsessive focus of psychology on
      the pathological. In some cases, they may of course over done the positive. I will take a look at Dworkin: thanks for the reference.

  4. Victor says:

    Martin Seligman designed and implemented the resilience program that all US troops will go through– as know it is cognitive reframing approach

    re east and west– one of the big differences is between shame and guilt— they lead to the same neurochemical state but different behaviors and outcomes. Often suicide in cultures like Japan.

    In tribal cultures– like the mid east– the dominant emotions are honor, humiliation and the outcome is revenge– in itself an attempt to reestablish honor

  5. Thanks.

    I really found the Dworkin article interesting, especially the contrast between caring and love. I guess caring is better than not caring, but it does seem to be a big band aid on the basic societal sickness: extreme individualism, unmediated by high quality human connections be they institutional, family, church or friendship. Despite the apparent chasm, both liberals and conservatives rightly agree on this as a problem, but seem unable to find a bi-partisan approach to actually do something about it. It doesn’t have to be the state that responds, though education is part of the process, but something is needed. Something that returns us to caring for our friends and family, not just being paid to care, which is really not very convincing to anyone with fragile self esteem. Geographical mobility does not help as well as the fact that for example the military in the US is not territorially based as other militaries typically are, so veteran support is generic rather than unit based.

    Incidentally, Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman’s work ‘On Killing’ suggests that PTSD is at least partly about having killed others not just the stress of almost having been killed themselves. In most war pre-1950s, most soldiers deliberately did not kill. In the 1950s military training became based on behaviorism and the raise target fire reflex was wired in so soldiers who in part wars would have aimed off didn’t do so. See his website:

    I was also thinking, that while Dworkin’s stats on the number of carers are daunting, it still gets beaten by number of lawyers. 🙂

  6. Victor says:

    Thanks— not to appear cynical — but the bought friendship of the caring psychotherapist and the hired gun of the attorney are two sides of the same coin.
    I support what I believe you are about— reintroducing humane responses based upon something other than personal profit or revenge — in my experience that is not a secular but a religious quest, or rather a trascendant quest–people do not want to talk about these matters in the age of rationality— for good reason perhaps— but cults proliferate — like NLP– EST– etc
    The fact is that people are not rational– they rationalize– earlier I gave you a link to Stanford professor Rene Girards view on conflict and scapegoats and the evolution of faith and society– while he does have a French intellectuals perspective I think he is on to something important.

    I like his comment— western civilization did not stop burning whitches because it invented science–it invented science because it stopped burning whiches— a very French way of thinking– valid though– I was studied in the tradition of A J Ayers, a very diffent tradition.
    At the end of his life Bateson rejected the whole psychadelic philosophy that had engaged a generation— he said to me when I was a very young man– “yes , you can experience heaven and and hell through drugs, then you can buy it again for a dollar– it is storming an empty castle”– I did not understand what he was talking about at that time and still do not– but I have seen many of his followers storming empty castles to this day.

    • I think there are some good attorneys and some good psychotherapists, its just the landscape in which they operate is not really very human.

      I agree the quest for better conflict handling is at least partly religious or spiritual. It actually asks: what are we here for? And that question is hard to answer: we are here for profit or revenge. As you drill down from positional thinking to interest based, I guess you eventually hit bed rock on what is of value to you. And that interests me very much. I suspect there is more common bedrock in humanity than we think. I am just watching a film about the relationship that sprang up between Nelson Mandela and his jailer. All the really breakthrough conflict solutions came when the two sides in South Africa, Northern Ireland, wherever, actually interacted as humans and found their common humanity. (I have negotiated with some nasty people in my time, some would say some of them were Neo-Nazis, but when I got two sides together in a room, they seemed like human beings to me. They ‘bled’ like anyone else.) The hard thing is then to transfer that breakthrough back to their constituencies who don’t go through the process. I have seen that so often: ‘sell out’ rather than ‘good solution.’

      And I share your view that the great killers of the 20th century: Mao, Stalin, Hitler in order of scale, lacked some essential humanity and spiritual element. They were also murderous idealists, and Roy Baumeister’s work on Evil suggests that, as in Graham Green’s The Quiet American, we should be very suspicious of idealists who are not also realists with some basic humanity.

      I watched a fellow student plunge down a stairwell to his death on LSD in 1969, storming an empty castle indeed. The important insights are indeed not bought for a dollar as Bateson told you. But with some effort we can make some progress.

      It is not helped by the infotainment, low attention spans, twittering, dumbed down education system, and the media. My problem with Rupert Murdoch is not simply his political policy; I think he is one driving force that is destroying the civilization he makes his money on. He certainly corrupted values in Britain, which I think he hates. I am not sure he doesn’t hate America too. Fox News stops independent thought, not just purveys views I disagree with. ‘Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad’ (or perhaps today it should read ‘they first dumb down’) wrongly attributed to Euripides apparently.

  7. Victor says:

    Good points– we as a family have spend the last year not watching any TV, of course we still had a digital box and rabbit ears in case of earthquakes etc it is great experience -there are so many more interesting ways to spend ones life.

    In my experience in resolving conflict there are 3 key questions
    What do you want, why do you want it
    What do you know
    what can you do

    But what do you want and why are the key questions

    Going back to Bateson one last time, his ideas were a boxed canyon, a dead end, he was eloquent as was Christopher Hitchens but they represent the same boxed canyon, end of an empires decadence and futility and collapse.

    With the current ratio of debt to revenue America is headed in the same direction as the past empires of Spain, France and England
    According to the Congressional Budget Office’s latest projections, the US debt could rise above 90 per cent of GDP by 2020 and reach 146 per cent by 2030 and 344 per cent by 2050

    That is a recipe for disaster– especially if China, Europe and the Oil states cash in their chips on the US debt they own–then things will go south very, very fast for America.

    The next empire, China or Muslim will be much less bothered by human rights and fair conflict resolution

    Harvard professor Niall Ferguso is touring Australia warning that the end of American dominance may imminent and sudden.

    “it is quite likely that the US could be spending more on interest payments than on defense within the next decade.”

    If the love of money is the root of all evil, the lack of it is the cause of the fall of empires.

    Ferguson gave some examples, France, Spain and England in the past eras.

    “What are the implications for the US today? The most obvious point is that imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises: sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, and the mounting cost of servicing a mountain of public debt”.

    “Alarm bells should therefore be ringing very loudly indeed in Washington, as the US contemplates a deficit for 2010 of more than $US1.47 trillion ($1.64 trillion), about 10 per cent of GDP, for the second year running.

    Since 2001, in the space of just 10 years, the federal debt in public hands has doubled as a share of GDP from 32 per cent to a projected 66 per cent next year.

    According to the Congressional Budget Office’s latest projections, the debt could rise above 90 per cent of GDP by 2020 and reach 146 per cent by 2030 and 344 per cent by 2050”

    The world may change very fast– demographics and economics are destiny— we need to wake up and sober up

  8. I quite agree about the medium term necessity for deficit reduction. You will have seen my earlier posts on the deficit by US President. The problem is that the attempts to build balanced budget provisions were overridden. Clinton, whatever his other sins, did a good job in running surpluses in good times with some help from a Republican Congress. And Lesser Bush was right to run a deficit right after 9/11 to keep things stable, but he should then have run surpluses like Clinton from 2003- so that his stimulus in late 2008 was affordable. Moreover, Greenspan should have curbed the irrational exuberance. But as the Marines say: ‘it is what it is’.

    My worry is that on the one hand we have no control over spending, waste, including defense; while there is a huge movement against taxation. This is the real problem. It would not be hard to restore fiscal discipline; but it likely won’t happen soon enough until there are consequences. It comes back to my abyss management concept. We in the US should have the collective imagination to see what happens on our current course and create some bi-partisan consensus to fix it. We should not need to experience the pain of collapse to head it off. But Fox will tell us we can have all our core programs, like Social Security, Defense and Medicare, and lower taxes: the ludicrously disproved Laffer curve….Deficits do matter and Dick Cheney, Reagan etc were stupid to think otherwise.

    If you want to decline of course Britain is a better role model than Spain. 🙂 Best to avoid another Civil War. But it is a bit like currency speculation: I would not like to have money in any currency. I am not sure the Chinese onward march will be without trouble. It is very corrupt and doesn’t listen to its people, yet is not Mao type terror either. Japan was going to be the next big power 20 years ago. I think China will become the other pole of a bi-polar world. But I certainly don’t write America off. What annoys me is how relatively affordable the path to recovery would be; but everyone wants the other to sacrifice.

    I haven’t watched TV myself regularly since about 1990 and don’t have a broadcast TV. The fall of the Berlin Wall, and of Margaret Thatcher (whatever her virtues and she did have some, I loathed her for what she did to my South Wales mines), and the release of Nelson Mandela seemed to me the peak of what I would ever see on TV, and I decided there were better uses for my time. 🙂

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