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.

Would New Financing Models Produce Useful Higher Education Reforms?

Problems with rapidly increasing student loans, a poor job market for recent graduates and new for-profit competition for the education dollar are generating interesting ideas for educational reform.  Is coming of age through a higher educational experience worth a huge debt burden that will stay with you even after bankruptcy?  Recent news reports of those with unpayable student debts will be giving some second thoughts about maxing out their student loans and living it up on the leftover “refund” checks after they pay their university bills.   Like home ownership, for some, college education may not even be necessary to achieve the American Dream.  From a financial standpoint, a university diploma will be well worth the cost for many students.  Others with college degrees will work lifetimes in dead-end jobs and have little to show for the time and money invested in education.  Results will depend on the effort put forth, the quality of the institution, and the demand for the skills obtained.  Default rates are much higher at for-profit institutions than others.  Those who default damage their credit and lose many potential job opportunities.  For the 20% who eventually default on student loans, the price of a college education may well be too high.

Unfortunately, at 17, many are not in a position to assess the costs and opaque benefits of higher education.  They depend on institutional representatives for help.  In many cases, especially at the for-profits, there are substantial government-backed incentives for selling services that might not be in the best interests of the student.  Could financing education with claims on future earnings instead of debt help align the college’s incentives with the student’s best interests?  Adam Levitin and Yves Smith have recently suggested such an approach.  With an equity stake, colleges would accept a percentage of enhanced future earnings for a set number of years rather than proceeds from student loans as payments.  This could reduce the institutional incentive to enroll students unlikely to benefit financially from education and reduce the number now saddled with difficult to repay student loans.

Over 50 million U.S. student loan balances averaging $17,000 total roughly one trillion dollars.   This student loan debt now exceeds the total credit card debt of the nation.  The distribution of loan amounts is highly skewed with a median amount of just $12,000.   These are current balances on the debts and many have paid the balances down over several years.  Over 25% of the 1.6 million Bachelor’s degree recipients from 2008 borrowed over $30,000 and 15% (240,000) borrowed over $40,000.   Payments are roughly 1% of the original loan balance each month for 10 years.   Therefore, each year, 400,000 graduates will owe over $300 on student loans each month for 10 years.  That’s more than a car payment, but without the car.   If the rates double in 2013 from 3.4% to 6.8% as suggested in the President’s proposed budget, the payments would increase by 17%.

Presumably, the problem loans have the highest values.  While it’s hard to get good student loan statistics, a large chunk of the 22-35 year olds in the US must be struggling with this debt because 9% of U.S. student loans are currently in default, 20% eventually default and 63% will get behind on payments at some point.  Default rates vary widely by schools with by far the worst rates coming from the for-profit sector.

Equity Financing

While equity financing seems like a reasonable way to align institutional incentives and to reduce the debt burden, it would drive massive changes in education with consequences that might not be in the best interest of society.  With equity financing, we would expect the greatest educational benefits to flow to students most likely to succeed financially rather than to those who succeed academically.  Institutions would push vulnerable students into programs where they would produce the highest income.  Programs that couldn’t attract or produce high earners would be defunded and eventually die.  Directly rewarding universities based on their ability to attract high earners would radically redistribute funding toward top-tier schools.  Those catering to the low-earners wouldn’t get resources and would eventually “reform” by changing their target audience or die as well.

What’s wrong with that?  A lot.  Many youth already define their worth by the size of their paychecks.  We don’t need additional institutional pressure in this direction.  They get enough from their peers.  Doling out education to those most likely to be able to generate high paychecks will increase the already too wide income and wealth gaps.  Most of the programs that generate high-income graduates benefit from government-enforced licensure and other market distorting influences.  Equity financing would provide one more distortion benefiting those permitted to run such programs.  It seems unlikely that equity-financed students would be able to choose a field independent of their ability to repay the costs.  There would be too many incentives for institutions to move easily influenced students toward more profitable programs and restrict or eliminate others.

Still, fraud and other problems associated with government-backed student debt are very similar to those associated with government-supported housing loans several years ago.  We’re in the middle of an “education debt bubble.” If it continues to grow the inevitable crash will affect society and the education sector in much the same way the 2007 bursting of the housing bubble devastated the housing sector and created economic difficulties for much of society.  Continuing to finance higher education with almost unlimited government-supported student debt is not an option.

Short-term Approaches to Student Debt

In the short-term, we should consider measures to share the risks of loan default between lenders, students, and educational institutions.  Everyone needs to have “skin” in the game; otherwise, the incentives for predatory lending, “deadbeat” students, and sham educational institutions will erode trust in the entire system.  This will reduce total educational funding substantially.  There seem to be few realistic alternatives at this point.

Schools with the highest student loan default rates should absorb the bulk of the funding reductions.  Much of the for-profit education sector would disappear if government-supported student loans carried reasonable restrictions and shared penalties for default.  Others with high default rates would feel the pain as well.  To the extent that it affects institutions providing legitimate services to those who might otherwise create a burden on society, states might replace some lost funding with tax revenues.

Despite my concerns about an all-encompassing equity-funding model, we might experiment with it in specialized licensure programs with rigorous admission standards that produce high earners.  This wouldn’t have much impact beyond the students in such programs.  Limiting equity financing to specialized fields seems unlikely to redistribute money to programs and schools that attract high earners.  It seems fair to trade a piece of a medical other licensed professional income stream for state-enforced laws prohibiting competitors without licenses.  This is especially true when the supply of licensed professionals is restricted so much that salaries become grossly inflated.  Health care is a good example.  The American Medical Association and accreditation councils strictly control the supply of physicians and other health care professionals.  The lack of competition allows physicians and medical specialists to charge higher prices.  Since medical education is very expensive, equity financing would eliminate some of the largest and potentially problematic student loan balances in the system.

Long-term Educational Reforms

In the longer-term, we need to undertake root and branch educational reform at all levels.  To some extent, reform being forced upon us with alternative educational delivery and certification models.  For those of us mired in the past, we’re still designing educational programs that we hope will meet societal needs then recruit students into these programs.  Too often, these students are unprepared for the programs, the institutions don’t remediate, and students either fail or lack basic skills that their credential suggests that they have.

Potential students need good honest advice about how they can help society with the skill sets they possess and can develop.    High school guidance counselors, parents and teachers are relatively independent but generally don’t know enough to give useful career advice.  University counselors, professors and administrators are more knowledgeable but have incentives that often conflict with the interests of the student.  Most students end up driven into mass-produced education and careers by their fears.

Mass Customization of Education

If we moved from a mass production model of education to a mass customization model, then we would focus on the needs of each student and not institutional programs, credentials and ratings.    I’d like to flesh out such a model in a future post.

For now, I think one key to mass customization in education and career planning is advising.  Starting in adolescence, we need to give people frequent, meaningful individualized feedback on skillsets they have, how these skills relate to potential career choices and interests, and how to develop the knowledge and abilities needed to pursue those interests.  Accessible educational options are also needed for mass customization success.  A large chunk of the population would have to provide these options.  I’m thinking broadly of apprenticeships, mentoring, writing seminars, and other skill-building activities available to relatively few students today.  Most communities don’t facilitate this type of interaction.  Christopher Alexander’s thoughts on community building would be a step in the right direction.

I would appreciate any ideas or useful references related to mass customization in education.  My thoughts are sketchy but I’d like to try to post on the topic.

Update 1:  May 18, 2012.  Provided more definitive student loan statistics from the Progressive Policy Institute and

The Value of Math Teams and Competitions

After reading a blog post by mathbabe from last summer on the horrors of math contests, I felt it deserved a belated response.  I’ve coached secondary school math teams for several years so I have a strong bias that the merits of building competitive math teams outweigh their potential destructiveness. Her post and the many excellent comments address important issues that can mar the experience.  However, they missed much of what I believe are essential values built through participation on math teams and competitions:

  1. building resilience to failure,
  2. developing expertise through preparation and effort,
  3. identifying with and relating to teammates and coaches, and
  4. leadership.

Math teams share many of these benefits with sports teams and artistic performers.

Math contests challenge bright kids to deal with academic failure – often for the first times in their lives.  Those whose self-image is strongly tied to being the “best” in some academic sense will feel bad when they lose.  And that’s good.  Really good.  You’ll rarely find a more teachable moment than working with a bright kid who is devastated because she didn’t make the math team or because she performed poorly on a contest.  She’ll never be more ready to discuss what she should really be getting out of the contests and the community (clubs, circles, teams….) that provides enrichment and support for the contests.  The resilience developed from these experiences on math teams will help foster healthy attitudes when confronted with challenges and failures as an adult.

Several years ago I heard Bill Russell speak to a group of middle school kids about making sure you don’t define yourself with your career or accomplishments.  He never wanted to be known as Bill Russell, basketball player.  He spent many hours practicing, playing and earning a living – but it wasn’t who he was.  It was one of the most insightful talks about competing and living that I’ve ever heard.  He gave the talk at the 2005 National MATHCOUNTS competition in Detroit.

Many fall into the trap of becoming what they do and not developing an identity that transcends their careers or perceived skillsets. Life’s transitions, hardships, and failures can become very difficult to overcome without a healthy sense of who you are.  It’s better to learn these lessons by experiencing failures early in life rather than being unprepared for your inevitable academic/professional failures as an adult.

As in sports, there will be some with more “natural” ability than others, but it quickly becomes clear that the best contest performers spend a good deal of time practicing and preparing.    Team members often develop expertise in different areas of math and take advantage of this at competitions.  The time spent building a strong math foundation will be rewarded when later math-intensive academic studies require far less time to master than for those with weaker math skills.

For those interested and able, there are leadership opportunities on math teams.  Participation in contests is often determined by the interests shown by the members.  Leaders can play a large role in recruiting new talent, making practices and trips to contests fun, mentoring less experienced teammates and captaining team activities during competitions.

Kids are drawn towards enrichment activities with a competitive element much more than they are to others.  Many math circles and camps exist that are not geared toward competition.  However, they don’t seem to attract as nearly as much interest as those that build competitive skills.  Kids want to know what activities they are good at and how they might fit into a competitive world.  By the time they leave elementary school, lots of kids already know that they suck at arithmetic and other academic subjects. Some will respond positively to that knowledge and others will not.  Parents, teachers and peers can influence this response.    Most have a pretty good idea where some of their skills stand relative to their classmates and they don’t need to attend a math contest to know.  It may seem harsh, but for most kids, that’s an important part of finding one’s way on life’s journey.

Just as with sports, math teams and competitions are destructive when kids develop unhealthy attitudes about practice, can’t identify with the competitors and coaches, become arrogant, or develop poor attitudes about winning and losing.  Getting women and non-Asians involved is difficult at some schools.  I’m gathering my thoughts on attracting females to math teams and may post on this topic in the future.  As with sports and arts, there are many challenges in building healthy math teams.  Good coaching and support structures can limit the potential damage and maximize the benefits of competitions.

Most American kids with high math ability and interest tend to have minimal enrichment opportunities available within the school. If they aren’t into sports or the arts they’ll find it difficult to place much value on practice and building expertise.  Some will breeze through school without significant challenge or any experience with academic failure.  The risks for these kids are far greater than risks of developing destructive attitudes about competing.

Useful links:

The Art of Problem Solving

Pros and Cons of Math Competitions  Richard Rusczyk

The Benefits of Youth Sports Jordan Metzyl and Carol Shookhoff

7 Acts of Courage and Other Inspirations for Spirited Dreams

One of the primary inspirations for Spirited Dreams came from a three-day leadership development seminar with Staub Leadership International in Greensboro, NC.  Rusty Staub’s short books The Seven Acts of Courage and The Heart of Leadership express the philosophies of his organization.  His group’s sessions effectively integrated a spiritual dimension into leadership development.  It wasn’t religious but their goal was for participants to live and lead with integrity, purpose, passion and power.  Despite many years as a business school professor and Sunday School teacher, I’d never seen such an approach until I attended the seminar a few years ago.

The seven Acts of Courage:

  • To Dream and Put Forth That Dream
  • To See Current Reality
  • To Confront
  • To be Confronted
  • To Learn and Grow
  • To be Vulnerable and to Love
  • To Act

At various times in my life I’ve let important opportunities pass, let conflicts spoil relationships and not found the courage to act in a heartfelt way.  Since taking the Staub Leadership seminar, I’m more aware of when to apply specific acts of courage and use them appropriately.

Experiences as an academic administrator in a business school setting as well as leading a couple of non-profit boards have also shaped my understanding of governance and leadership.  There have been times when these boards collectively refused to see reality and were unwilling confront organizational leaders.  Looking back on those times, I’ve wondered why we let problems fester and lacked courage to act.  I’ll share in future posts what I’ve learned through this process.  Hopefully, you’ll find these reflections insightful and helpful in your professional and personal endeavors.