Awareness in the Age of Electronic Communication: Are we Alone Together?

Mindfullness Revised


There is concern in the popular press and among academics about how electronic communications technologies are changing how we interact with one another.  Articles in Forbes and Time argue that these newer forms of interaction are hurting our ability to build off-line relationships critical to success in our personal and professional lives.  One wonders what the male in the picture above is feeling as he kisses his girlfriend while hearing the subtle tapping of her text message.  Does she feel anything with her eyes open and attention elsewhere?

The xkcd on-line comic “The Pace of Modern Life” posts several similar lamentations from periodicals over 100 years old.  They feared poorer quality communications and interactions from the newer technologies of that time: the telegraph, cheap and fast postal services, easily accessible reading materials, and quick locomotion.

In this blog post, I’ll analyze some approaches to the study of declining social engagement, decreased intimacy and other impacts of electronic communications on our relationships.  I’ll also discuss why empirical academic studies are unlikely to produce convincing evidence to change unhealthy communications behaviors – many that appear to be addictions.  Unfortunately, the “abstinence” approaches used to treat other addictions is probably not realistic for ubiquitous newer technologies.  While some proposed public policies might help, I argue that we should confront unhealthy electronic human interactions in the ways we choose to maintain our spiritual health.  For many that involves developing awareness and empathy through conversations.

Alone Together

This need for “necessary conversations” to re-establish meaningful face-to-face communications is echoed in the conclusion of MIT researcher Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together.   In it, she summarizes 30 years of research into the effects of technology on human interaction.  She also presented her findings in an accessible 20 minute TED talk titled “Sherry Turkle:  Connected but Alone.”  This research indicates that while we are becoming increasingly connected through technology we are creating emotional voids that leave us feeling lonely everywhere, even when physically among friends and family.  Increased connections do not imply improved communications.  Frequently they lead to just the opposite.  As we spend far less time in face-to-face interactions, our relationships become less intimate and more fragile.

Declining Social Capital in the U.S. Since 1965

Nearly two decades ago, Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor, wrote a series of articles describing the declining levels of civic and interpersonal engagement in the United States from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s.   He summarized his research and potential public policy cures in the best-selling book “Bowling Alone.”

In the book, Putnam warned that “social capital” needed for thriving communities was declining at an alarming rate and made several public policy recommendations to reverse the trend.  Social capital refers to the total value of social networks that foster cooperation, reciprocity in giving, trust and information.  When social capital is present, one has a place to “belong” and can rely on others for support and encouragement.

Ending suburban sprawl, increasing support for after-school activities, and public financing for community-based art are among the recommendations of “Better Together” a public policy report issued by the Saguaro Seminar, a Harvard-led group spawned from Putnam’s research.

In Bowling Alone, Putnam mentioned that a national crisis might galvanize re-engagement in civic activities.  Shortly after it’s publication, the U.S. suffered the 9/11 attacks and subsequent crisis.  As predicted, impressionable youth of the time became markedly more engaged and remain so today.

We’ve seen some significant renewal and revitalization of many smaller U.S. cities over the past 15 years.  Some people are now living in cities that once “rolled up the streets” at 6PM and on weekends.  Restaurants and shops are coming back to downtown areas.  At least some communities are becoming “alive” again.  Suburban sprawl seems to be slowing markedly.

However, Putnam’s other public policy recommendations have not been as successful.  U.S. church attendance and spiritual engagement have continued a long decline over the past decade.  Fortunately, spiritual discussions can occur outside organized religions and it’s my contention that we need to spark one on the topic of electronic communications.

Social Capital as the Key to Successful Communities

Even in it’s earliest days, America has been envied for having high levels of social capital.  By 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville had attributed much of the success of American democracy to the thriving social institutions and civic associations he describes in two classic volumes “Democracy in America.”  While the United States has had periods where civic and social engagement have both grown and declined, the potential threat to democracy from sharply reduced levels of social capital is of great concern to policy makers.  Several countries are now trying to measure and track social capital over time.

Difficulties Measuring and Tracking Social Capital

Many observers question whether it is possible to measure social capital as technologies change the way we communicate and associate.  Claude Fisher, a sociologist at California-Berkeley claims that Putnam discounts newer forms of organizations that support social capital.  Paul Haynes, in his Mitigating Apathy blog, summarizes much of the literature critical of the concept of social capital and associated measurement problems.  While I believe a strong case has been made for the concept of social capital, it’s not clear that we can develop measures that would inform public policy debate or resonate with the public.  Still, reports of increasing isolation and other indications of declining social capital can create a powerful emotional argument that can lead to public policies that enhance our communities and encourage face-to-face interactions.

Computers, cell phones, texting, social media, and portable electronic gadgets have taken people’s attention away from television and other forms of entertainment over the past decade.  Are they helping or hindering efforts to reconnect and regain social capital?  This is a tough question and the answer depends heavily on how you measure social capital.  How do connections made via newer technologies such as social media “friends” impact our individual social capital?  As mentioned above, there is no consensus.  These questions cannot be resolved through empirical studies – they are essentially spiritual in nature.

Technology’s Impact on Social Capital, Empathy and Trust

Over the 30 years prior to the mid-‘90s television viewing was replacing time spent interacting with others.  Relatively few used the Internet, cell phones and the array of electronic gadgets available in 2013 when Putnam was compiling his original research.  He described ways that public policy could be used to increase interpersonal engagement in the book.  However, he could not have envisioned the extent to which the newer personal electronic technologies of today could take us out of the moment while in the physical presence of others.

While cell phones appear to increase the time spent interacting with others, they also appear to be decreasing the time spent interacting face-to-face or even by voice.  Turkle’s research indicates that many youth strongly prefer texting to having a phone conversation.  She notes that they don’t want to lose control by devoting their full attention to a personal conversation, even if by telephone.   Recent experiments show the mere presence of an unused cell phone will negatively impact the quality of communication, especially more meaningful personal interactions.

Internet-connected devices can be used to stay connected and maintain social capital.  Unfortunately, as Turkle’s research suggests, these devices have decreased our ability to communicate face-to-face in a meaningful way.  Increased texting and social media use means that we spend much less time in personal, face-to-face discussions.  Without non-verbal cues and context, many electronic messages are misinterpreted.  Public use of the devices takes us out of the moment making us much less likely to interact with people in our physical presence.  Important discussions are deferred or never occur.  Relationships become frayed and social capital is lost.

Moreover, empathy among college-age students has dropped by 40% according to a University of Michigan study.  Developing empathy requires deeper more emotional conversations that Turkle says aren’t occurring today.  These kinds of conversations are simultaneously deeply desired and yet avoided at all costs.

Electronic devices can be addictive and may require interventions similar to those used for alcoholics and other addicts.  Many of the most effective approaches to addiction are essentially spiritual in nature.  Group talk therapy is common.  Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, there is no way to “quit” cold turkey as one might with drugs, alcohol or gambling.  Healthy uses of technology are often required for livelihoods.  Those who “unplug” from electronics may become even more isolated than they are with the devices.

Spiritual Approaches to Improving Personal Interactions

Strengthening our interpersonal skills requires more than the environmental changes envisioned by Putnam.  We’ll need to actively discuss the uses and abuses of technology and how we choose to interact in the physical presence of others.

Below, I present an example of an image and some context that might lead to an insightful spiritual discussion and produce desirable changes in behaviors.  As Turkle suggests, such discussions might take place in religious or secular groups dedicated to improving the lives of the participants.  I recently presented it to a Sunday School class when it was my time to lead a discussion.  While we’re all in the over-50 age group, the discussion was received favorably.

Awareness in the Age of Electronic Communications:  Context for a Spiritual Discussion

Rembrandt’s “Two Old Men Disputing” is overlaid with images of people taken out of the moment with electronic devices.  The painting is generally thought to depict the Christian Apostles Peter and Paul discussing the second-class treatment of Gentile converts at Peter’s church in Antioch.  Simon Schama describes the painting in Rembrandt’s Eyes:

The two figures are diagonally separated by one of Rembrandt’s invariably meaningful shafts of brilliant light illuminating Paul’s face, with its parted, speaking lips, and the index finger that points to the clinching passage in the Bible. Peter’s countergestures are more defensive: fingers wedged in the book, keeping his place in the chapters that might avail him a counterpoint. The sharp contrast between radiance and darkness functions…not merely as a formal but as a narrative device; the visual analogy of an argument.

The many nonverbal cues about this discussion stand in stark contrast to electronic interactions that must be interpreted without such context.  Peter and Paul eventually settle their dispute.  They agree that Gentiles should not be required to follow Mosaic law and will be treated as equals in the eyes of the church.  Had this dispute not been resolved, Christianity might never have flourished.

Subtle yet powerful nonverbal cues were undoubtedly crucial to building the trust between Peter and Paul needed to unify their visions of the Church.  Would that have been possible if they had used today’s electronic communications?

In the image next to the Rembrandt, we see a couple engaged in a public kiss while one is text messaging.  It’s an extreme example of the lack of awareness among people using electronic communications in public.  Meaningful interaction seems impossible.  It’s not hard to believe the research that shows declining levels of empathy in society.  Awareness is required to develop empathy.


Becoming aware of our surroundings will enhance the quality of our face-to-face interactions and relationships.  While electronic communications can help connect with those outside our immediate presence, they often distract us and make us unaware.  We’re much more prone to “rejecting” those in our physical presence.  While academic studies and potential public policies might provide better environments to enhance personal contacts, I agree with Turkle that “necessary conversations” are the best way to make a real impact.

I’m hopeful but not optimistic that the social capital measures being developed will lead to public policies that enhance meaningful face-to-face conversations.  Gaining the full attention of someone for a conversation is deeply satisfying.  It can’t be replaced with connections or more numerous semi-attentive interactions.  Even though spirituality appears to be in decline, I believe that we must engage those around us in spiritual discussions about how we interact.  Setting aside times and making spaces for meaningful conversations uninterrupted by multitasking is critical for our emotional health.


Photo by Jeremy Hoel.  Updated photo and text: 14 Jun 2013.  Several additional sources including Turkle’s research added 24 Jun 2013.

Sorority Girl’s Primer on the Impact of Anonymity on Socialization and Community Building Part 2

Building Community - Cheering for your Team!  Photo:  Sam Howzit

Building Community – Cheering for your Team! Photo: Sam Howzit

This is the second part of an analysis of the infamously profane sorority girl’s primer on socialization and community building.  If you haven’t read it, you’ll need to spend a couple of minutes at the link to digest it before this post will make much sense.  Here’s the first part of the analysis.  A Mathbabe post claiming that anonymity in Facebook is necessary for privacy motivated it.

Newsflash:  Anonymity has always been a delusion that is motivated by fear and insecurity.  Double Newsflash:  You are always being watched and your behavior is always being judged.

We want to believe that we can stand in the corner at the party, not interact appropriately and perhaps nobody will notice.  It’s not hard from there to convince ourselves that there’s no need to go to the party.  Enough fear and insecurity and there’s no party.

Socialization Lesson 1 (from Primer:)  Get over your delusions of anonymity and behave as if you know you are being watched.  You’ll overcome your fears, your behavior will improve, the community will be stronger for it, and you’ll enjoy life more.

If you participate in a small community there are no anonymous interactions – in the public square or anywhere else.  People are watching you, collecting information on you, and sharing it with others.  They probably won’t share this information with you.

Community Building Lesson 1 (from Primer:)  If you want to be able to socialize, keep your behavior within standards set and enforced by the communities that you are interacting with and representing.  Otherwise, expect to be “punted.”  If standards are not enforced, those communities will become dysfunctional or die.

Community Building Lesson 2 (from Primer:)  There are separate and sometimes much lower standards of behavior set and enforced within the privacy of a single, smaller community – families and small groups.  At the same time, expectations for caring and compassion can be much higher.  People get to know each other and develop trust within the community.  Actions are less likely to be misinterpreted.  With this trust, people feel more comfortable sharing their emotions, expressing their needs and building a loving, caring community.  A profane rant might be acceptable within the small group but not externally.

Socialization Lesson 2 (from Primer:)  Love trumps integrity.

When our personal integrity conflicts with community standards of behavior, the loving community generally wins.  Our behavior will depend on the situation and the audience.

Should we eat meat sacrificed to idols?  The Apostle Paul explained to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8) that he personally had no problem with the practice.  However, if community standards did not permit it, he didn’t see the issue as worthy of dividing or destroying the church.  He wouldn’t eat it.  The sorority president implores her community not to concern themselves with sportsmanship (integrity) if their team commits a foul or breaks a rule. Just keep cheering for the team.  If you don’t support it when a bit of poor sportsmanship is displayed, trust will erode and the community will become dysfunctional or die.  Many “real-life” organizations are suffering because their members just don’t get this message.  The national leaders of the Delta Gamma fraternity that decided to “punt” the sorority president are unfortunately among them.

Community Building Lesson 3 (from Primer:)  Group privacy is essential. Standards of behavior that protect it must be enforced.  Otherwise, the loving caring communities described in Lesson 2 cannot exist.  Trust and intimacy will never form.  Communities will wither and die.

Community Building Lesson 4 (from Primer:) Anonymity permits one whistleblower to destroy a community.  You cannot enforce behavior standards needed in CB Lesson 3 when people have no fear of retribution through anonymity.  The loving, caring communities described in CB Lesson 2 cannot form if members fear anonymous whistleblowers.

But, oh, no, boo hoo, I’m sad, I hear you crying into your computer screen.  Won’t the leaders of these communities become powerful and corrupt?  Then won’t they abuse us?  Yes, they ……. will. That’s why a community has to work hard to build and maintain governance structures that limit abuses while preserving community.  Relying on the fear of whistleblowers is not a substitute and will destroy or neuter the communities that most people need.

Edit:  22 May 2013 14:38 EDT:  Photo changed from Wisconsin fans to Ohio State fans.

The Sorority E-mail: A Primer on Coaching, Socialization and Community Building

Building Community - Cheering for your Team!  Photo:  Sam Howzit

Building Community – Cheering for your Team! Photo: Sam Howzit

A couple of weeks ago a now infamous profane email rant from a sorority girl to her sisters went viral on the Internet.

The e-mail is full of insights into leadership, governance, socializing, coaching, and crisis management that we’ll delve into below.  There’s a follow-up post to this describing her approach to socializing and community building and analyzing anonymity and privacy through that lens.

Where to start?  I’d suggest reading the e-mail a few times.  Try to see the world through the president’s eyes before reading my deconstruction below.

I wasn’t part of Greek life in college but I have held several leadership positions that required cajoling college students to show up at extracurricular activities.  It’s frustrating and my efforts have generally been unsuccessful.  I can feel her pain even though I’m not Greek.

I read the e-mail as a coach’s pregame rant.

She’s coaching “social skills,” her troops have a game tonight, and she doesn’t think they are quite ready to play – “so far.”  She seems to have put a lot of work into organizing and policing the week’s events and wants tonight’s “dry” mixer with the matchup fraternity to be a success.

She’s getting her players ready to perform at their best.  Love – Bobby Knight style.  No different from a music director, platoon captain or coach of a sports team.  These girls may see her as a leader because she’s helping them develop interpersonal skills that we all need.  She’s willing to call them out for bad behavior and pleads for them to:

1.  Show no disrespectful behavior to the people with whom they plan to socialize.  Don’t get caught up trying to impress someone with social plans so much that you make others feel rejected.

2.  Make sacrifices and bind together as a fun-loving group that everyone finds desirable.  Show up with the right attitude, ready to have fun.

3.  Support the team you’re on and cheer for it.  People want to be part of a cohesive group.

4.  Promote sober co-ed socializing.

5.  Act in ways that make people like you.  See 1, 2,  and 3 above.

No matter how you read it, she wants her troops to succeed and emphasizes what that means – everyone showing up at tonight’s event with their game faces on and ready to play.  She cares about them and understands that the reputation of the group depends on how they project themselves externally.

She is comfortable communicating with them in crude terms because she trusts them and feels it’s the best approach for venting her frustrations and anxieties while eliciting what she considers appropriate social behavior.  In the dark ages, my college friends and I found profane rants enjoyable.  I have no doubts that hers was well within the boundaries of acceptable behavior internal to the sorority.  She’s betting those not yet fully committed to the mixer will respond to the rant by showing up with their game faces.  She’s probably right – her troops will not disappoint.  She’ll get results that most others, including myself, cannot.

When the sorority sisters socialize successfully at the “dry” mixer, they’ll gain respect for themselves, not lose it.

She closes the e-mail by noting that some people might consider it offensive.  She clearly expects that nobody in her chapter will take it that way or identify with the “awkward” behaviors described.

She trusts them so much that she’s blind to the risks of sending the e-mail.

Then Judas tosses her under the bus, sending the e-mail to an internet site and she’s forced to resign.  It’s not clear if Judas is a sister or someone outside the sorority that a naïve sister trusted with the forwarded e-mail.

It’s also not clear whether the sister’s saw the love in the e-mail that the author may have intended.  Many outside the chapter see it as abusive.  I don’t think you can make the call unless you are in the chapter and are intimately familiar with their behavioral standards and norms.

The next time you enjoy a nice concert, watch a team-based sporting event or read about military actions realize what it takes to get people to work together for a common goal.  For many, it means having a coach in your face willing to point out mistakes, develop grueling practice routines and ask for more effort – passionately.  It’s hard to lead and motivate.  People respond in different ways.  Lots respond positively to the “tough love” shown in this e-mail.

Looking back, I needed a “social skills” coach willing to confront me every time I engaged in destructive interpersonal behaviors.  Is there any better way to learn and grow?  I stayed away from the fraternities and rarely encountered anyone who confronted me about my destructive social behaviors.

This e-mail prompted my first serious reevaluation of my decision not to participate in Greek life in over 30 years.  I never realized what the Greeks might have to offer.

I’m still puzzled about why they punted the chapter president and disavowed the e-mail in a public statement instead of providing some context and owning it.  In the statement, they contend that the “email should not be depicted in any way as standard or routine or tied to any official sorority voice.”  This just doesn’t pass the snicker test.  Seems like it will be difficult to convince potential recruits that the sorority will support them when they screw up.  Somebody at the national headquarters needs to reflect on the sister’s point about the importance of knowing what team you’re on and supporting it – even when they exhibit a bit of poor sportsmanship.

If I had written the e-mail, I hope I wouldn’t feel ashamed of it.  She doesn’t appear to call out identifiable individuals for “awkward” behavior.  Everybody knows that college kids can be profane.  By my reading, she seems to be caring rather than abusing.  I would give her the benefit of the doubt until I got the truth from the chapter sisters who should have been responsible for punting in the unlikely event that it was necessary.

In terms of crisis management and public relations, governance mechanisms failed not only this chapter but also the entire fraternity.  An opportunity to explain Greek system values to outsiders was lost and a public relations disaster for the sorority ensued.  Fear triumphed over love. I hope that the game isn’t over.  Maybe cooler heads will see reality and love will prevail in the end.

Edit 4 May 2013 10:50 EDT:  Some references to the sorority girl acting as chapter president have been removed.  It’s not clear to me what leadership roles she played within the chapter.

Edit 21 May 2013 14:35 EDT:  Picture changed from Wisconsin fans to Ohio State fans.

Review of Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and Moral Foundations Theory


I just finished reading and contemplating The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.  The front covers of the U.S. and U.K. editions are shown above. Clearly, there is no need to identify which cover is marketed in the U.S.  Interestingly, Haidt’s work can be used to analyze the potential appeal of the covers to different societies.   Based on its Amazon ratings, The Righteous Mind is currently one of the most popular books on ethics and morality.  Impressive for anything grounded in academic research.  That research has landed Haidt a plum position at New York University’s business school – unusual for someone with little formal business school training.

The book provides insights into a few moral issues that I’ve been struggling with for a while.  It is written as an appeal to civility in political and religious discourse – something few would find arguable.  He claims that empathizing with someone on their moral terms can avoid divisions that are increasingly plaguing society.  Haidt especially wants to convince those on the left of the political spectrum that many conservative positions build social capital and have moral validity while recognizing that government can and should play a role in regulating corporate behavior.

I’ll present Haidt’s interesting insights that align with my experiences and intuition first, followed by some claims that I’m agnostic about and finally some ideas that are not borne out by my experiences.  Several reviewer insights are presented including discussions of the underlying academic research.  I then discuss Haidt’s most important points, the limitations of a descriptive modular model such as Moral Foundations Theory, and some non-intuitive claims that seem to lack evidence.  I’ll explore some of my ideas on the topic in a future post.

Interesting Insights Discussed in The Righteous Mind

  • Many political messages and policies that emphasize caring, liberty and equality do not resonate with most rural and working-class citizens because they ignore the social values of authority, loyalty and sanctity – the moral capital that sustains a community.  In contrast, conservative messages appeal directly to these concerns.  “You can’t help the bee by destroying the hive.”  Political reforms emphasizing liberty and caring often inadvertently reduce moral and social capital necessary for binding relationships, groups and communities.
  • Under certain circumstances, humans can transcend self-interest and become temporarily immersed in something larger – a “hive.”  Those seeking to build successful groups should accentuate similarities rather than diversity to increase “hivish” behavior.  Synchronicity and team competition build trust and morale needed to “hive.”  Transformational leaders change group member’s perceptions – “from isolated individuals to members of a larger group.”
  • Intuitions come first; strategic reasoning justifying intuitions are second.  People won’t believe anything that violates their intuitions so you need to understand their passions to build influential messages and healthy relationships.  Haidt uses an effective intuitive approach in the book to influence me toward his views.  He appeals to moral dilemmas that many have wondered about – such as why so many liberal ideas have fallen from favor over the last generation.  He gets his reader to ask “Can this be a plausible explanation?” He does it so well that it takes quite a while to critically analyze his work.
  • In contrast to the other societies, Western, Educated, Independent, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) people perceive a world of objects rather than a world of relationships.  Their morals emphasize concerns about harm and fairness to protect individuals and their rights.  However, these concerns are not sufficient to build healthy relationships and thriving communities.  Successful groups have moral capital that enhances social order.  That capital is built on moral foundations such as authority, loyalty and sanctity in addition to caring and fairness.
  • Diversity reduces both bridging capital (between groups) and bonding capital (within groups) by creating social isolation or anomie.  While diverse perspectives should theoretically improve problem solving, building cohesive diverse groups requires extra effort to establish bonds.
  • Resistance to authority can undermine “hiving” and cohesiveness of groups.  However, unchecked power can lead to abusive within group and between group behavior.  The tribes of hunter-gathers described by Haidt demonstrates the possibility of healthy egalitarian cohesive groups.

Plausibly Useful Thoughts

  • Grounding morality on a single principle risks creating inhumane societies.
  • Conservatives and libertarians view fairness as proportionality – receiving in proportion to the value of one’s efforts.  U.S. liberals view fairness as equality.
  • Happiness comes from relationships not from within one’s self.  I think there’s more to life than happiness and more to happiness than relationships.
  • We lie, cheat, and justify so well that we honestly believe that we’re honest.  When nobody can find out and our actions have plausible deniability, most people cheat a little bit.

Unconvincing Viewpoints Worthy of Discussion in The Righteous Mind

Morals Develop from Intuitions – Reasoning Supports these Intuitions

Haidt defines moral systems as regulating self-interest and making cooperative societies possible.  They are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together.

Haidt agrees with David Hume:  morals come from intuitions; reasoning serves and supports these intuitions.  He also notes that Thomas Jefferson tended to give equal weight to passions and reason while Plato thought reason should rule the passions.    Haidt cites experimental evidence of people dumbfounded by a moral dilemma despite having a strong opinion on the matter.  He says these experiments support his position but I’m not convinced.  It probably depends to some extent on the person.  All use intuition to a certain extent, many to a large extent but some will be willing to change moral positions based on a well-reasoned argument.

Haidt makes an important point about appealing to intuitions rather than reason in order to change someone’s moral position.  While this can be an effective technique for unfreezing a person with a moral viewpoint on an issue, many will need some appeal to reasoning before changing that position.  Reasoning doesn’t work well in oral off-the-cuff arguments because people won’t believe reasoning until they’ve processed the logic.  That takes time, energy, and good reasoning skills.  Some trust these skills but many more do not.  Experimental evidence in favor of Hume and Haidt tends to have short time horizons that tend to favor intuition.  If you look at people who change positions on a moral issue, say abortion, I think that you’d find that reasoning was a factor for many people.

Good Behavior Results from Guarding our Reputations – Fear Motivates

According to Plato’s older brother Glaucon and Haidt, “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.”  Moral reasoning allows us to pursue socially strategic goals such as guarding our reputation and convincing others to support our team in disputes.

Discussion of Good Behavior Results from Guarding our Reputations

Jesus wouldn’t have bought Glaucon’s argument that fear must drive ethical behavior.  He understood the fear generated by Jewish Law in his time and the corrosive and amoral society for which it was responsible.  A large part of the New Testament is dedicated to replacing this fear in society with love and forgiveness.  Jesus didn’t approve of attaching “bad reputations” to those guilty of bad behavior and often demonstrated love to such people in his ministries.

Despite these teachings, liberal and conservative Christian churches are divided on the extent to which fear is used to motivate “good” behavior rather than relying on love and forgiveness.  Most liberal Christians take pride that their youth do not fear God or sinning while conservative Christians take just as much pride in knowing their youth do.  These two groups demonstrate love in dramatically different ways.  The love of the first group of parents fosters openness to new experiences, independence and curiosity in youth while the love of other parents tends to encourage obedience, rule following, and protection from harm.  Approaches to social justice tend to be similarly divided.

It may be that the vast majority of people tend to let their reputations drive their behaviors.  However, reputational fear is far from universal and in my view, it is a mistake for Haidt to build a theory on that basis.

Moral Foundations Theory

  • Haidt presents the Moral Foundations Theory as an empirically tested and useful way to explain how the “innate” mind is “organized in advance of experience” and revised over a lifetime to produce different moralities across cultures, religions, and politics.  These six foundations are:

○       Care / Harm

○       Fairness / Cheating

○       Liberty / Oppression

○       Loyalty / Betrayal

○       Authority / Subversion

○       Sanctity / Degradation

  • Haidt’s political insight from this theory is that while conservatives embrace all six foundations, liberals tend to emphasize Care, Fairness and Liberty and have little use for the others.   He believes that by ignoring the three foundations related to social binding, some liberal policies have inadvertently undermined the moral capital necessary for groups to thrive.

Discussion of Moral Foundations Theory

Shuler and Churchland provide an academic critique of Moral Foundations Theory research in the Journal of Neuroscience.  They question Haidt’s definition and use of “innateness” stating that “claims to the effect that a given behavior is “innate,” “prepared for,” or “organized in advance of experience” are much more difficult to substantiate” given recent neurobiology discoveries.  They suggest that strong cases for additional moral foundations of “industry” and “modesty” can be made.  In contrast, they claim that the existing loyalty and sanctity foundations might be viewed as extensions of the care/harm foundation.   Perhaps most importantly, they claim Haidt “gerrymandered” the loyalty, authority and sanctity foundations in a way that makes it appear that liberals lack moral concerns in these foundations when in fact they have concerns different in content from those of conservatives.  I have similar concerns about whether the model was tailored for the conclusions the author desire – a complaint that Haidt has of previous morality research.

Isabel Penraeth presents a somewhat religious viewpoint with several useful insights along with suggestions for repairing and using the model.  She has a nice post explaining the free rider problem with liberals in the role of bully detectors and conservatives as cheater detectors.  She sees people having similar moral foundations but different triggers evoking moral responses.  Her view is in contrast to Haidt who sees some people, especially those he describes as liberals, as unable to invoke some moral foundations that bind groups together.

Penraeth prefers Cultural Cognition Recognition models that emphasize for group influence on morality more strongly than Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory.  I’m generally in agreement with her arguments.

Chris Hedges provides a highly critical liberal review that may mischaracterize some of Haidt’s positions but provides a long form explanation of the tendency of power to corrupt the “hives” that Haidt wants fostered.  Hedges clearly values governance structures within groups that ensure members are protected from various forms of abuse from within – Penraeth’s bully-detectors.  Haidt’s seems to think that Hedges’ views will discourage group binding.  Hedges would probably argue that he’s in favor of healthy groups binding.  However, without bully-detectors the loyalty and authority foundations often enable abusive behavior both within the group and against other groups.  I agree.

Additional Thoughts

Haidt makes no claims as to the independence of these six foundations and alludes to the fact that some may be interpreted differently.  Fairness tends to be interpreted by conservatives is about proportionality – people getting what they deserve while liberals want to interpret fairness as equality.  Conflicting interpretations may indicate that there is a better way to construct the foundations.  These foundations would be more useful if he could support a claim that they were reasonably independent of one another.  An n-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system could then be used to “plot” the independent foundations.  Independence would allow each orthant to contain a consistent moral perspective.

Haidt tends to generalize about human nature in ways that probably blind him to some insights from examining the variation within and between groups.  For instance, Haidt claims that research shows that people are basically selfish but at the same time can be groupish.  Most of us know selfish people as well as others who are pleasers to a fault – rarely getting what they want out of life, or even knowing what they want.  It seems reasonably evident there are huge variations in selfish behavior between people and groups of people.  He might find explanations for these variations that could enhance his models.

Haidt would like readers to use his models and insights to be patient and tolerant with those on different elephants (passions, intuition) – understanding those elephants before appealing to their riders (reason.)  His MFT model tends to separate liberal and conservative moral foundations in ways that are unlikely to achieve these goals.  Many libertarians and liberals will have a hard time appealing to conservative morals that enhance hiveishness without compromising their essential “bully-detectors.”

Finally, Haidt’s theory is descriptive of what people actually do rather than trying to be prescriptive.  I’m not sure he can effectively use a descriptive model to make claims about how to bridge a moral divide.  However, I’ll remain optimistic on this point.  Since Haidt’s book has been reasonably well received among the highly educated, maybe we’ll see some improvement in civility as a result.  It would be a welcome change.

Updated 0:35 22 Nov 2012 – a few typos, grammar and spelling errors changed.

Voting: Stating We Care to Belong

After the elimination of the military draft in the U.S., voting is one of the few acts that binds us a community – especially at the national and state levels.

Voting is a statement that we care to belong.

Leaders elected by votes of a small minority of the group understand that they may have minimal support for their actions and govern accordingly.  Rival groups may sense that weakness and act accordingly.

John Lennon asked us to “imagine” a world without nations, religion or any reason to fight and die.  Could such a world have any groups or even families?  I suspect not.  It would quickly die out.

Establishing and maintaining a moral social order typically involves acts that puzzle rationalists – belief systems for religions, hazing/indoctrination rituals for fraternity/sororities, sports, etc.  The trick is finding healthy ways to bind groups without accepting bullying authoritarianism or demonizing other groups.  Voting is one way.


Steve Waldman at Interfluidity has a rationalist take on “Why Vote” that motivated this post.

Jon Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” makes a similar argument about group binding with Lennon’s “Imagine.”  I’m planning to review the book and Haidt’s “Moral Foundations Theory” in the near future.  His work influenced this post.