Category Archives: Psychology

Psychology

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Social Norms By Default

No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.
-Jewel

Several years ago I was given a work assignment that took me to a rural community in central California known for having more cows than people. It was a typical assignment, a two day temp job in a pharmacy. I liked registry work because it took me to new places to see new sites and meet new people. This one however had me working with a type of person I had never been knowingly exposed to.

He was a highly educated man, a pharmacist of some years, a pleasant and genial guy. Our conversation was friendly as we started the day before the patients arrived. I don’t recall how the topic came up but we somehow found ourselves discussing gay men. Actually, discussion is the wrong word because a statement he made stopped the discourse in its tracks; this intelligent, educated man stated with absolute certainty that all gay men were pedophiles. According to him it was a well known accepted fact. I was stunned, not only by his surety but the casual comfort with which he said it. He was incorrect, unknowingly offensive.

What of others hearing our conversation? Were they of similar mind? Were they as offended as I but accustomed to his beliefs, unwilling to counter him at possibly the cost of their jobs? Did they disagree but remain passive, letting his comments roll off as if harmless?

Being a hired temp help I didn’t want make a stink but just couldn’t let this opinion stand. So I challenged his statement, only to be countered with anecdotal “evidence” for his point. My job that day was to do a job and represent my company well so I didn’t debate further, but I made it clear to him and in a purposely loud enough voice for those within earshot to hear that we had a strong difference of opinion. The conversation ended and we proceeded with our work day.

The point to this story is not to advocate aggressive action to every injustice but to not let improper, untrue opinions stand unchallenged. If we don’t do so these norms will stand by default, lingering harmfully long past their day. Society evolves by what people know, what they accept and what they believe that other people find acceptable. Racist jokes, cruel statements, hyperbole spoken as factual, easy disrespect, dehumanization of opponents, labeling ignorance as stupidity, thrive in this environment. We can help norms evolve more quickly by publicly countering incorrect, outdated and undesirable behavior, reducing the harm that perpetuation otherwise causes.

At each moment in time (and with each society) there are opinions and behaviors that the majority of the population condones. Think of child spanking as an example, now considered unacceptable by most. The population holds three subsets—those who condone the practice, those who don’t and those who are undecided, by intent or disinterest. Within the disagreers and the undecided are individuals who remain silent of their opinion. This silence causes bad behavior to linger beyond its day—a social norm derived from tradition and now set at this default—a wrong tolerated by indecision and inaction.

What is in the minds of the silent dissenters? What motivation could they possibly have to tolerate offensiveness? Admittedly there are prices to be paid for speaking out—the loss of a job, shunning by family, mockery by coworkers and friends, the attention of being outside the local group’s opinion. We all know our personalities, our circumstantial strengths and limitations. The decision to counter bad ideas publically is by necessity a personal one, but it must be considered when opportunity arises. If we truly want to live in a world that is how we believe it should be, then we need to direct our lives toward a position of being able to speak up and promote what we believe. That is the least. At best we can do much more.

Wait, I can hear what you’re thinking now—promoting opinion or belief over truth? Granted this is a double-edged concept, a tool that can be put to good use or bad, imposition of majority opinion over the minority. Welcome to real life; nothing is simple. No method is always correct. Certainly there will be setbacks as many people believe incorrect things. Our country’s founders knew this when they built a system that balances majority and minority rights and opinion. In the long run, the best outcomes come from informed people having spirited public debate. This is what I am promoting. Let the opinions breathe. Help the outmoded ones fade into history. In the long run, correct information wins out over incorrect.

Despite the impression of the daily news, humanity has gotten much better over the millennia. Civilization continues to evolve. And in our daily lives we can have an impact one personal comment at a time, especially in the presence of others whose opinions we do not know. Standing up, speaking out, wearing an identifying t-shirt, displaying social media tags, will always encourage the silent agreers to join the action and make themselves known, widening the circle of acceptance.

Is it not in your nature to be outspoken, to be a leader? As this video demonstrates, that is not even necessary. Changes come not just from the ones who make the first moves but from those who follow, especially the first followers. According to your skills, be aware of opportunities for both.

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Moral Evolution

Compassion is the basis of morality.
-Arthur Schopenhauer

A common claim of the religious is that objective morality cannot exist without a deity. How can we know right from wrong without a lawgiving creator who has imprinted the laws of proper behavior upon our souls? This is an insulting assertion that, though we have complex brains capable of science, art and abstract thought we are otherwise incapable of recognizing the wrongness of homicide, theft or adultery.

By contrast in our world that appears to be functioning by natural forces alone, moral behavior yet exists. Assigning moral source to deity is a crutch for not taking responsibility for ones own actions, or less harshly, a set of morality training wheels that we are afraid to remove.

So what is morality, objective and subjective, and what is moral relativism? Morality is the principle of distinguishing between good and bad, right and wrong, in behavior.

An objectively moral action is so regardless of circumstance or justification. Genocide, for example, is objectively wrong. In practice however this is a harsh standard to reach, perhaps philosophically impossible. One can justify killing in self-defense and war, or stealing as a desperate measure to keep one’s family alive. In this way objective morality may be considered an aspiration rather than an absolute.

Subjective morality is that based on judgment and opinion, from situational decisions made by individuals to definitions codified by society. Though generalizations are easy to agree on, gray borders surround these delineations and opinions compete to identify right behavior. Consider expressions such as “one man’s rebel is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Moral relativism is comparatively defined at the societal level. A behavior may be acceptable within one society while being completely abhorrent to another. Consider female circumcision, a cultural practice performed as a method of purification. Time period is also a factor—current day vs past ages. Witch-burning anyone? Relativism is a bothersome concept to many, a source of justification for dubious behaviors.

Morality exists in nature, most visibly in higher animals. Though proof of an evolutionary theory is a work in progress there are examples of both precursors and refined behaviors. Some colony insects work solely for the benefit of others within. Grouped animals share food and warn each other of predators. Protection of the young is innate, a behavior perpetuating the gene line. Parents in most species would starve together rather than eat their young. The behavior is so strong that it can overcome other instincts, as this amazing video demonstrates.

Primate studies continue to show examples of awareness and practice of fairness.

People exhibit moral acts voluntarily using common sense. The Golden Rule is ubiquitous. As an emergent, complex behavior of an animal with a highly developed brain it is a practice of choice and instinct, with benefits. Sam Harris makes a strong argument for inherent morality in his book, “The Moral Landscape.” To distill his thesis one can imagine two similar acts, one being more moral than another, for example, killing another person to steal their meal vs buying one yourself. Consider any two similar acts situationally close or far apart. We are able to identify the better and worse choices. This is moral distinction, the awareness of a landscape of moral highs and lows.

Collectively morality develops further at a cultural level–better and more widespread moral behavior evolving as a culture matures. In fact this can be used as a metric for cultural maturity. A civil society is an evolved culture. One that contains a system of fair laws and enforcement is more evolved that one that is anarchistic or totalitarian. The stumbling block concept of moral relativism can be overcome by agreeing upon cross-cultural standards of decent behavior. Those who act below these standards, individually or societally, may be labeled morally immature, subject to international ridicule and pressures to change. We now recognize human rights globally—disgust with human trafficking, abhorrence of chemical weapons, revulsion toward tortuous imprisonment, etc. More issues will are added to this list as international consensus builds—expanded women’s rights, LGBT acceptance, perhaps even rights to food, energy and healthcare. This is cultural evolution, not biological.

While there will always be usurpers of these standards–dictators and such–the standards remain defined through these setbacks. Politics and nationalism also intervene but eventually the moral arc leans forward.

Religious doctrines are problematic when they advocate practices below the current standards. Two examples are the suppressed role of women in many societies and inhumane forms of criminal punishment. Sacred scriptures are highly resistant to modification. Conservative clergy and apologists apply rationalizations and interpretations to justify old practices, or worse, scale up enforcement. Meanwhile followers remain stuck below global standards, their opinions suppressed.

We all know what moral behavior is with the tiniest effort of thought. It’s one of those ‘know it when you see it’ things. For guidance in a questionable situation, reference the Golden Rule—do to others as you would have done to yourself. For those who worry that we would behave horribly without a supernatural driver, relax; this is just not true. Morality is evolutionarily inherent. We all love our families, respect our friends and neighbors, and have concern for the welfare of others, near and far. It is common sense neither practical nor desirable to do otherwise, at least not for long. Those whose actions cross the lines of acceptable behavior are being sociopathic by definition; those who worse lack an ability to empathize are psychologically pathological, biologically disordered.

So be the good person you are without the baggage of instruction, guilt or coercion. Demonstrate your concern for others. Promote the expansion of moral human rights. Help raise inter-cultural standards and support the spread those standards to all corners of the globe. It’s the right thing to do.

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Believence and Belief Factors

“Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As my research into belief progressed it became apparent that a piece of the explanation was missing—the inherent tendency to believe. Since no term currently exists I’m coining two here—believence and believent.

Believence 
(noun) An inherent propensity to believe, independent of evidence and knowledge.
“Having a high believence makes it easier for her to dismiss evidence.”

Believent 
(adjective) Endowed with an inherent propensity to believe.
“He is a believent person.”

How we come to believe derives from several factors. Picture them as overlapping layers of influence, the merger being a person’s conclusion or belief in a concept.

Factor One: Childhood education

Knowledge gained in childhood is strong, obtained from trusted sources in familiar surroundings. Our familial and cultural environment is an intellectual womb, a place held with affection and security. We instinctively trust our parents and authority figures doubtless that what they teach us is well intentioned, protective and correct. This makes it more difficult to overcome these teachings, should they one day be intimated as incorrect.

Early knowledge is the foundation for further learning. When correct it is appropriately rock solid. When incorrect that bedrock attracts further falsehood as we tend to build confirming data on top, shielding the base from challenge and revisal.

Factor Two: Knowledge gained beyond childhood

Intellectual onset is when we begin to question what we are being taught or even what we know. As our ego forms we develop the ability to evaluate information, allowing us to correct or even dismiss it. We do however more easily accept data that reinforces what we already know, an evolutionary shortcut by which we absorb voluminous or complex information in an abbreviated form. We learn quicker this way, leaving reconsideration for a more convenient future time.

We also now become aware of a modifier to each piece of information—a degree of certainty. Imagine this as a scale of 0 to 100, with zero being absolute disbelief and 100 being absolute belief or certainty.*

Factor Three: Cultural reinforcement

Culture influences how we accept information. The most open-minded person in a pluralistic society still holds sentimental attachment to the familiar. The opinion of those around us influences our opinion of the same. Belief bubbles—isolation into one-sided data and opinion sources—are an exaggeration of this, fed by topic-specific and ideology-specific media. The internet makes information accessible to justify any position. As these idea groups take hold, social competition leads to increasingly aggressive tactics of offense and defense. Falsity and hypothesis may be presented as truth, though not typically by deception. Evidence may be misapplied, discredited or improperly interpreted.

Religious writings offer rewards and punishments such as eternities in heaven or hell. These are especially effective with the believent since they are more accepting of concepts without evidence. Social feedback provides less dramatic but effective influences—shaming, shunning within families, in-group special treatment or conversely, restriction from group benefits.

Factor Four: Intellect

This factor includes intelligence (the ability to acquire knowledge), memory strength (both to obtain and retain) and reasoning complexity. For reasoning, logic is the tool. Abilities vary from person to person, talent and skill considered. Talent is the inherent ability while skill is that which can be learned and improved upon with technique and practice.

Factor Five: Believence

Satisfaction, preference, enjoyment, tolerance to cognitive dissonance (the ability to hold conflicting ideas), and stubbornness (intolerance to being wrong or corrected) live here. A high believence person is more susceptible to belief. These people see meaning and purpose excessively, patterns more easily. We have all met such people—those who interpret the flow of a river as spiritual, find significance in chance events, accept karma as a balancing force, site deity as a default explanation for events or the unknown.

While ignorance of real explanations can be a factor believent people are no less intellectually capable than others. A combination of high intellect and high believence yields a person who can craft honest strong arguments against contrary evidence, creating (at least the appearance of) firm support for incorrect positions.

I suspect we will eventually find a neurochemical basis for this, just as we now believe that a balance in brain neurotransmitters to be largely responsible for personality characteristics. Believence is an involuntary feature, presumably hereditary. This contrasts with bias which can be made conscious if pointed out.

Factor Six: Bias

If you look at the number of cognitive biases we have it is easy to doubt your ability to ever make an uninfluenced decision again. Cognitive bias is the tendency to draw unjustified conclusions, to sway evaluation to a preference or preliminary condition. A good reference can be found at http://www.cs.unm.edu/~jmk/cognitive_bias.pdf. The most common type is confirmation bias, the penchant to notice and overvalue data that confirms a preference. If you want to believe something (such as life after death) you are prone to finding supporting evidence and arguments, discounting those in opposition.

Factor Seven: Personality type

Various models continue to come out of more recent research. My current preference is Jonathan Haidt’s theory of moral psychology.** He identifies five components of personality—harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The combined settings (low to high) of each of these makes up our personality tendency, yielding results like resistance to change, tolerance for crudeness, deference to authority, etc. He also takes a stance on intuition vs reasoning, intuition being a quick pre-thought reaction to new information or a situation. Considered judgement follows but is biased by the intuition already in effect. See http://www.believeinreality.com/the-righteous-mind-a-book-review/.

 

There are soft edges to the factors above, at least concerning our current ability to ascertain where one ends and another begins. If one holds a belief in spite of contrary or nonexistent evidence—for example a belief that the Earth is 6000 years old—what factors are in play? All of them. The better question is what factors dominate; a balance determines our willingness and ability to correct errors. We do not have good ways to quantify these factors, nor perhaps will we ever. IQ tests for example are notoriously controversial. What should be noted however is that any factor may be overcome by the influence of the others. Keep this in mind the next time you are tempted to dismiss another’s opinion as unfounded. Being incorrect does not mean one is being irrational.

 

*In fact 0 and 100 is unreachable unless one is able to suppress the capacity to reason. In practice everything we know ranges from 1 to 99; there is always an element of doubt. Though some will argue otherwise, claiming purchase on the extremes is an act of rationalization, denial or delusion.

**Watch Haidt’s TED presentation at http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind?language=en. I also highly recommend his book, “The Righteous Mind,” at http://righteousmind.com.

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Coexistence of Right and Left: The View So Far

To prejudge other men’s notions before we have looked into them is not to show their darkness but to put out our own eye.
-John Locke

Though there is more to be learned on the personality differences between liberals and conservatives, I have reached a point where behavior patterns are recognizable. A good deal of this comes from completing Thomas Sowell’s book, “A Conflict of Visions.” His insight will not be the whole story but he has gotten the closest of any author so far to understanding our differences.*

Combine that knowledge with what is coalescing in social psychology—that our opinions are first intuitive then supported by self-directed reasoning—and we have the basis for a paradigm shift in how to view the opinions of ourselves and others. In particular we are finding that our evaluations typically stop at a point of conclusion that matches our initial intuition, a snap judgment reinforced by rationalization and bias, yielding an endpoint that is often factually incorrect. Our considerations stop when we are able to justify a conclusion (to ourselves and others) rather than a point where we are likely to have reached the truth. We do this unconsciously.

A third variable, yet undetermined in my mind, is whether directed reasoning is something we all do dominantly, or if it varies in degree according to our personality type. Based on voting registration in the United States roughly 30% are democrat (presumably liberal), 30% republican (presumably conservative, and 40% independent (presumably mixed opinion). Without getting deep into these numbers this shows that we are a mixed society. We know too that progressives and conservatives exist in every society in every country though because of the challenge of doing inter-cultural polls, it is almost impossible to know the actual numbers. These personalities exist everywhere—indeed coexist—and history tells us they have existed for as long as man has recorded his thoughts. In the United States the difference is demonstrated by The Federalist Papers and The Antifederalist Papers (1787), arguing contrary positions on accepting the proposed US constitution; in ancient Greece, philosophers similarly debated what form of life and government would be best for all.

For the purpose of this article, it does not matter where these personality differences come from. If you are religious, you believe that we are made as God intended, going through life according to His plan, unknown and unknowable to us. If you are scientific, the source is an end-product of evolution to date. Either way we can assume that collectively we are at a steady state mixture of progressives, conservatives, and otherwise. Like it or not, this is the way we are. You may believe that your position is correct, the one to be promoted and evangelized with the intention of converting everyone to your side, but in fact we are exactly at the mixture we should be.

Does this strike you as purposeless? Why bother try to change minds when we are predestined by God or biology to exist in this balance? No, because we don’t know is how this balance has been achieved. Is it from a steady stream of compromise or wide pendulum swings of contrasting styles of governance? Are we doomed to eternally struggle between worldviews by alternating rounds of competitive genocide? I wish I knew. Perhaps someone out there has knowledge of study in this arena; please share!

Historically we know that human culture has evolved to become less violent in total. Despite the daily horrors we hear about, overall conflict worldwide has been decreasing over the past centuries. Appearance to the contrary is largely the result of us being exposed to pervasive news of the bad stuff, something we are predisposed to notice more than the good—an evolutionary survival trait.

What worries me now is that we have moved into an arena that is historically unprecedented—the era of widespread, worldwide access to information. It will be interesting to look back after two hundred years but right now we don’t know how this will affect our steady-state balance. Will this availability of information expose and degrade misinformation? Will the existence of supporting information for any position cause people to isolate themselves into belief-bubble groups that compete for existence by ever-aggressive means? We see examples of both of these measures punctuated by extremist individuals, authoritarian governments and religious (especially cultish) groups who try to restrict their populations from access to outside information, whether by direct physical means (country-specific internets), by pressured misinformation and by punishment.

Since this availability of worldwide information, it has never been such a large factor in affecting our balance of opinions, our decisions of what is right and wrong. Certainly some data exist from the origin days of language, writing, the printing press, radio and television, but none of those ever were on the scale we see today. Of particular concern is the vehemency of the camps—the demonizing of each other, the vitriol that pervades online comments, the dismissiveness of other’s intentions, the reinforcing of one’s opinion whether true or not. What is to come next—word fights turning into fist fights, a slow and steady acclimation to increasingly violent methods of expression and imposed compliance with one’s opinion?

People in left-wing and right-wing media frequently refer to each other as idiots, unintelligent buffoons and zealots. People unfriend each other on Facebook and move into like-minded communities to “get away from those nuts.” Leaders in some countries implement policies that limit speech, restrict media, jail opponents and influence elections. Extremists in some societies practice genocide as an acceptable method of cultural or power-based purification.

What can we do as individuals? First of all, realize that no ideology is right for all. Every attempt to impose a single method has failed at one time or another—feudalism, communism, capitalism, rationalism, socialism, totalitarianism, anarchism, etc. Ayn Rand, in her novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” presents a subculture where all people of a certain type—those inherently selfish—choose to live together, believing that the competiveness among them will yield a balanced society of happy, successful people. Even if one accepts such a final resolution, it is a complete fantasy simply because no such homogeneous mixture of people will ever exist. God or evolution sees to that.

Accepting that heterogeneity is our way of being, two options lie ahead. One, the path we appear to be on now, we gather into ever-extreme positions and watch the casualties rise as we fight a succession of winner-take-all battles. Two, we acknowledge our differences and our right to coexist, continue to advocate for our positions, and develop cultural boundaries for what is acceptable in obtaining our goals. Either way, we will ultimately achieve the next steady-state balance in our personality mix, assuming we don’t kill ourselves on the road.

I encourage you to strive to understand the other side. Also become aware of your own biases. We are all guilty of hypocrisy to some degree. I am not asking any side to give up their principles or routinely compromise positions. In truth there will be times when we must compromise and times when a best resolution rests near one extreme. What is absolutely clear however, is that we need all sides to participate in the process. We need to allow each other to express freely and safely. We need to condemn imposition by non-representation or forced-persuasion, whether it occurs on a government scale, a corporate scale, a tribal scale, or a religious scale. We need elected representatives to converse and debate vigorously, and remove the incentives (wealth and special interest power) that make reelection more important than governance. We need to develop ways to encourage, perhaps even mandate (realistically) the responsibility of every adult to vote—this paired with mixed-partisan education of all citizens on social basics (history, economics, etc) and election specifics. Finally, we need to encourage moral and ethical codes that remove mankind’s ability to impose ultimate punishments on the basis of opinion. This we need to do worldwide, as a shared responsibility, with an updated definition of civilized behavior.

*I will write a review of Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions” at some point but first want to reread it. I bookmark important passages when reading, even in audio version, and this book ended up with so many marks it deserves a more comprehensive look.

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The Righteous Mind: A Book Review

The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind:

Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Book by Jonathan Haidt

There has been significant activity on psychological and sociological fronts over the past twenty years trying to find explanations for the differences between liberals and conservatives. Many studies have indeed indicated distinctions, perhaps innate.

Haidt’s thesis is a moral foundations theory that defines morality as having six core elements—harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and purity. Through clever and original experiments done in several cultures Haidt concludes that the morality of liberals derives dominantly from the harm and fairness elements, of libertarians from harm, fairness and liberty, and of conservatives from a balance of all five.

On the face these conclusions match neatly with the stereotypes. Focus on harm and fairness yields a bleeding heart liberal, willing to make some sacrifices to protect the vulnerable. Making liberty the primary sacred value (with harm and fairness next) defines a libertarian with the desire to act without intrusion. Differing from both, conservatives are said to have the best mix by balancing all five virtues.

His second premise is that intuition precedes and largely overrides intellect, something that author Michael Shermer similarly concludes in his excellent book, “The Believing Brain.” Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant, the elephant representing the more influential intuition. Our first reaction to a circumstance or choice is via intuition, leaning in a particular direction. The rider is a secondary reactor; he must think things through before deciding which way to go but by then is trying to steer a larger beast already in motion. The rider may decide to lead the elephant in the leaned direction or against it but is already at a disadvantage, perhaps too large to overcome.

The metaphor implies that the elephant and rider are independent thinkers, a notion still in question. Other writers indicate more of a service role for this rider, the intellect serving to rationalize intuition’s direction rather than trying to overcome it.

Haidt also focuses on theories of natural selection—individual, kin, and group. Each defines the unit which better survives in its environment. Kin (siblings, and to a lesser degree, near relatives) and group are more complex forms where the individual may be sacrificed in service to the higher forms. Overall he proposes that natural selection functions as a mixture, particularly of individual and group.

To demonstrate this progression he starts with the theory of two single-celled organisms having joined into the complex cell we know today—mitochondria and nuclei having once been free-floating organisms that merged within a larger cell wall, a symbiosis that improved survival. The mitochondria are power-generating organelles and nuclei the holders of the replication mechanism.

Progressive gathering is seen in animal groups—cooperative hunting, sharing resources, etc. Haidt states there is little evidence that any animal except man works in a group for unselfish goals, however this opinion is in contention with others (see Frans de Waal, on Moral Behavior in Animals http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_Lm49XVkGQ). Nevertheless grouping is important in man especially as the seed of language then culture, with aggregates such as religion and government being end products that yield group cohesion and improved survival.

Also down the road in the animal kingdom comes the formation of colonies, particularly bees, ants, and termites. These cooperative units have been so successful that they now comprise ninety percent of the world’s insect population by mass. Within these groups workers not only carry out suicide missions but are biologically unable to reproduce, all in the service of survival of the colony and its genetic pool. This serves as an analogy for religious behavior in humans, not as a demonstration of right vs wrong but of survival benefit.

Interestingly, the group selection model was largely discarded by biologists in the late 1960’s. Haidt’s argument is quite convincing however and may indeed revive the group survival model.

Despite the strong presentation—the book is easy to read, the content reinforced by strong metaphors and interim summaries—some problems are evident in his analysis.

First is the idea that morality is the defining personality feature. There is almost no word on other factors such as intelligence, innateness and genetics. With Haidt being a moral psychologist one wonders if his explanations are biased into too narrow a field. It may be that morality does end up being the defining factor, perhaps with these other factors being prerequisites, but that discussion is not in these pages.

Another problem is his simplistic acceptance that a balance of five moral factors is better than two. There is no exploration that perhaps fewer is better or that certain factors may be more important than others. He does mention that more factors may need to be added to the stew, but this assumptive best balance is questionable. It’s hard to tell if this a shortcoming of his research or his presentation.

Perhaps the most incongruous topic is his criticism of the New Atheists. He demeans the New Atheist claim that religion is an extrapolation of false-positive agenticity as an overly complex rational explanation, rather than the intuitive argument he would prefer. It’s hard to see how this matters since they look like two roads to the same destination—the natural development of religion. His preference is a liberal-vs-conservative example itself, Haidt preferring to discount individual rational decision making in favor of emergent decisions made by groups.

Despite these criticisms, Haidt makes a strong argument and his premises match up well to observed behavior. One hopes he will deal with the shortcomings in future work but meanwhile “The Righteous Mind” is an important stop on the journey to ideological understanding.

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Chapter Next

My life seems to work itself into chapters with one interest dominating for a time, running its course, then being replaced by another. I used to view this as a weakness of follow-through—and there is some truth to that—but have learned to accept it as somewhat of a blessing. There is not enough time in life to experience everything so one way of coping is to move from one interest to another. While the price is lack of mastery it does yield a broad range of experiences. Today it is time to turn the page from managing a movie theatre to Chapter Next.

A parallel interest has been brewing for several years. In the midst of work stress an unrelenting irritation was moving to the forefront—not understanding the contrary opinions of others, lingering post-911 shock (how could people do such a thing?), the public’s slipping trust in science, false statements of “fact,” and the political flare preceding the 2008 presidential election.

In 2007 I wrote this statement, planning a blog based on my limited knowledge:

I May Be Wrong But…
(Surviving in a Complex World)
2/26/07

Ruminations on all the controversial subjects. Essentially a “this I believe” piece written with the disclaimer that I don’t know enough about anything but this is my take on things, trying to get through life with the limited understanding of subjects. Generally it is a lament of not understanding why some things are the way they are, why some people (governments, etc) act the way they do.

My base belief is that people want to do the right thing and yet there is much evidence to the contrary, at least among those in the minority who have an effect beyond the average person.

Final essay is that we can only do what we can do, trying to get by in this complex world. We don’t understand enough about probably anything to call ourselves competent or expert and we certainly can’t make that claim about multiple subjects. The best we can do is to strive to do the right thing, keeping in mind that others must be allowed to do the same.

Mistakes are allowed, though lessons should be learned and corrections made. Ego is, to a large extent, bad.

Why different opinions?
• Our crutches—indulgences, divine belief, laziness.
• Our strengths—right intent, perseverance, knowledge.
• Our weaknesses—greed, ignorance, fear, arrogance.
• Tools to be better—open mind, tolerance, middle ground, compromise.

The essays never happened but by 2009 (the summer of the harsh healthcare town hall “debates”) I had decided that the above was not an acceptable course—developing coping mechanisms to ignorance. Ready to finally pay attention to this confusion, I aimed to try to understand it all. A better answer was to learn. I wanted to understand what yielded logical but opposite opinions, separate belief from truth, explore contradictions and hypocrisy, research the history and context of issues—in short, to learn about people, society and the forces that drove them. There had to be sense in this mess.

As do many people I had been living day to day, not paying deep attention to such things, triggering a broader question—how much does an average citizen need to know to intelligently (read knowledge, not intellect) make good election decisions?

So I began reading and reading. Soon though each book lead to more questions and a growing list of must-study topics. This expanded the broader question too—does an average citizen really need to go into this much depth? Was that even possible given the daily demands of life? Special interests were lobbying Washington in historic volume while affecting public opinion significantly, yielding “opinions” that looked implanted and reinforced. Were we really that gullible?

As flashes of answers began to appear, an interest also grew in sharing this information. Life kept me busy, in learning mode for several years but that turned out to be a good thing. Now, with the theatre gone there is finally time to begin interacting on these topics. My knowledge base remains modest but many books later, the tapestry is starting to come together.

I invite you to join me on this knowledge quest. Let’s share what we know, fill in each other’s blanks and correct each other when wrong. Let’s learn to interact in a less contentious manner than the growing political divide is pushing us toward.

History is full of conflicts based on quick judgments, emotional reactions, public manipulation, and the protection of power. Granted, none of this will magically go away but societies now have the benefit of much hindsight and fast, widespread dissemination of information. Let’s do some good here.