Systemizer Versus Empathizer

Haidt briefly discusses Simon Baron-Cohen’s two dimensions of cognitive style.


Systemizing is “the drive to analyze the values in a system, to drive to underlying rules.” (p. 136)

It’s interesting to me that it is genuinely difficult for me to place myself on this scale. I don’t know if that’s because I don’t understand the scale sufficiently or that the scale doesn’t really conform to cognitive styles or merely that objective introspection is difficult. I’m pretty sure I’d score higher on systemizing than on empathizing, and I try to capitalize on my interest in systemizing in my career choice. I believe it is useful in instructional design.

Still, is difficult to separate out what we think we are good at–our personal narrative–from how we actually compare to others (and, to Rose’s point a while back, whether such comparisons are healthy and useful).


Some People Are WEIRD

Speaking of WEIRD people, Haidt asserts that WEIRD people (white, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) are unusual in how they think individualistically. Most people, he asserts, think holistically. WEIRD people see society as a collection of individuals, and thus are more likely to adopt a morality that seeks to protect individual rights.

I’m always suspicious of characterizations of cognition that seem to suggest one group is practically a different species from another. When I was in grade school, my father told me that women think in pictures and men in words (or maybe vice versa). Even then it felt unlikely to me that brains could be wired so differently. Learning styles have always sparked the same reaction in me. In terms of cognition, we have to be more alike than different; otherwise, how would we even communicate? That said, it’s clear environmental differences clearly do affect cognition; even the languages we speak affect our performance on cognitive tests (e.g., I think it was Kahneman who pointed out that Russians are faster at identifying different shades of blue because their language has more names for shades of blue) though differences in performance on cognitive tests doesn’t necessarily translate into real world differences.

Anyway, setting all that aside, this assertion is provocative.

Education and Moral Judgment

Early in The Righteous Mind, Haidt asserted that education does not help us generate disconfirming arguments. That higher education correlates with the ability to generate confirming arguments.

Later in the book, though, he points out that the college students in his research were significantly different than non-college populations in terms of their willingness, when faced with a hypothetical situation designed to trigger our disgust reflex, to agree that if the person in the situation isn’t hurting anyone, then it is not their place to judge.

Is that contradictory? In other words, if IQ correlates with both advancement in school and with generating confirming arguments but not disconfirming arguments, then shouldn’t college students be less willing to rationalize a position in contradiction to their impulses? Shouldn’t college students be very good at generating arguments to support rather than suppress their initial disgust reflex?

Maybe this has less to do with educational level and more to do with college demographics, such as a skew toward a liberal outlook. As Haidt points out, these students are WEIRD: white, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, which makes them unrepresentative of most of humanity.

Ethics Classes

Haidt‘s model is that our conscious, rational minds exist to serve our fast subconscious reactions. He characterizes this as a rider on an elephant. The rider has very little control over the elephant.

From Haidt:

Nobody is ever going to invent an ethics class that makes people behave ethically after they step out of the classroom. Classes are for riders, and riders are just going to use their new knowledge to serve their elephants more effectively. p. 106

This is relevant to my professional world because most states require that CPAs achieve a certain number of ethics credits every year. Given Haidt’s insights, this would appear to be an empty investment.

Then again, maybe the point of ethics classes isn’t to turn unethical CPAs into ethical ones, but rather to clarify edge cases that already more or less fit with where the elephant would go anyway.

People As Neurons

Haidt contends that confirmation bias is inherent in how we reason, that efforts to overcome this limitation are doomed.

Thus, our best hope is to think of ourselves as neurons in a vast system. “We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to act civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. That’s why it is so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).” p. 105

The Impact of Education on Judgment

Even if the default mode of reasoning is that our subconscious renders judgement nearly instantaneously and our conscious mind invents a narrative to post hoc justify that judgment, the good news is that education counters this tendency by teaching up to be rational thinkers. Right?

Not so fast. Haidt points to the work of David Perkins, who gave subjects at various grade levels a social issue and asked them to write down their initial judgment. Then he asked them to write down as many arguments they could think of, on both sides of the issue. If education is successful at making us critical thinkers, then higher education should coordinate with longer lists on both sides of the issue.

What he found was that IQ correlates with the number of arguments generated in favor of your position, but education level doesn’t. Further, neither education nor IQ correlates with the number of counterarguments generated (which was always a much shorter list than than the number of arguments favoring their position). Since education advancement correlates with IQ, the system is more likely to reward and advance individuals who are good at generating confirming arguments without regard to their ability to generate disconfirming arguments.

There are possible confounds with the research, of course. Number of arguments doesn’t necessarily correlate with depth of analysis of openness to changing position. Performance on an artificial list task isn’t necessarily the same as thinking through an issue in the real world. But still, the results suggest that education doesn’t make us more critical thinkers–it doesn’t influence us to consider disconfirming evidence–it just makes us better at defending our intuitive positions.

Self-Interest and Voting

The health care debates last year were interesting in part for the number of journalists who were interested in the question of why the president’s base would support an overhaul that would hurt them disproportionately.

Haidt would say self-interest is not a big factor in politics. Rather, “our politics is groupish, not selfish.” People consider how a policy will be received by the group they identify with rather than on personal impact.