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.
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 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.
It’s difficult in these political times not to picture a White House Press Secretary when Haidt writes:
If you want to see post hoc reasoning in action, just watch the press secretary of a president or prime minister take questions from reporters. No matter how bad the policy, the secretary will find some way to praise or defend it. Reporters then challenge assertions and bring up contradictory quotes from the politician, or even quotes straight from the press secretary on previous days. Sometimes you’ll hear an awkward pause as the secretary searches for the right words, but what you’ll never hear is: “Hey, that’s a great point! Maybe we should rethink this policy.”
The role of our conscious brain is to be our personal Baghdad Bob.
Haidt contends that being naturally groupish is a big part of the acrimonious political and cultural divisions we see today. To be an “us,” there needs to be an “other.” But he also points out that the alternative to groupishness is that human culture as we know it probably would have never had the chance to evolve.
“Our tribal minds make it easy to decide, but without our long period of tribal living there’d be nothing to divide in the first place. There’d be only small families of foragers–eeking out a living and losing most of their members to starvation during every prolonged drought.” (p. 212)
Haidt, following the lead of self-consciousness researcher Mark Leary, calls the function in our brain that constantly monitors our value as a relationship partner as our “sociometer.”
“The most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure that everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.” (Haidt, p. 86)
That’s horrifying. But that alone doesn’t make it wrong. Of course, people clearly do selfless anonymous acts. Last week my wife, having found some cash on the ground, decided to pay it forward at Target and buy the cashier a gift card (which actually turned out to be harder than it should have been, as accepting gifts is against Target’s policy, for sound reasons, I’m sure, but I’m having trouble envisioning a scenario where it is materially advantageous to curry the favor of a Target cashier–but I digress). Our kids saw her do it, but I think she would have done it anyway. She did tell me, but I don’t think she would have if it hadn’t ended up being kind of a hassle that ended up involving a manager and thus made an interesting story.
Anyway, people do good things sometimes that hold no reasonable possibility of reputational reward. But that’s not Haidt’s point, I think; his question is whether a community populated with people worried about reputation would out-compete one populated with people not as worried about their reputations. Which is, of course, a fascinating question because if it would, that means evolutionary pressure would favor groups concerned with reputation.