A straw man can never beat a shapeshifter: Response to Schein and Gray (2015)

October 27th, 2015 by Jonathan Haidt

This post was written by Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Graham, and Pete Ditto. It is the first in a new series of essays by researchers working with Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), in response to recent critiques. These responses are intended to further conversations and debates in moral psychology, and ultimately to improve MFT.

A) The Critiquing Article: Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2015). The Unifying Moral Dyad: Liberals and Conservatives Share the Same Harm-Based Moral Template. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(8), 1147-1163. doi: 10.1177/0146167215591501

B) Links: To article at journal site, including abstract. To ungated version

C) Crux of the critique: Liberals and conservatives don’t actually differ as MFT says; they all have a purely harm-based morality, and make all moral judgments through the same template-matching process. “Inside the moral minds of both liberals and conservatives beats the heart of harm” (p. 15).

D) Crux of our response: Schein and Gray (from here on referred to as S&G) present a version of MFT as a theory about five distinct processing modules, which it is not. They contrast this straw-man theory with a strong and substantive version of Dyadic Morality, which says that all moral cognition is about agents causing suffering to patients. But Dyadic Morality shape-shifts into a weaker form in the 7 studies. It becomes no more than the claim that harm is “central,” operationalized as merely being the most important of various moral concerns, or the one most associated with immorality (a noncontroversial claim we agree with). So the studies said to pit MFT against Dyadic Morality fail to test the claims actually made by these theories. Further, S&G claim that liberals and conservatives do not differ in their moral cognition; they predict (and find) few effects of political ideology on moral judgments. But rather than reporting correlations between their continuous measure of ideology and moral judgments, they create an unjustifiable dichotomous split, lumping all non-liberals together (including moderates) and calling them conservatives. Their failure to find differences between the two groups is not informative.

E) What we think they got right: 

1) We agree with S&G’s main argument that “Harm is central in moral cognition in both liberals and conservatives (p.1).” We agree with them that most of moral cognition involves thinking about people doing things to other people, so we find value in the idea of a dyadic template–the idea that people can easily and automatically think in terms of an “agent” who does something to a “patient.” We find much merit in Gray’s work on “dyadic completion” (Gray, Schein, & Ward, 2014); sometimes people seem to want to find a victim and they seem to seek closure by fabricating victims post-hoc. But does the existence of a harm-based template mean that there are no other templates (or cognitive foundations, or intuitions) that might add additional content to moral judgments, such as considerations of fairness, loyalty, authority, or sanctity? Does this template always and only involve harm? Or are there other kinds of social relationships — other ways that people might be thought to be interacting, or other moral goods (and evils) that are contributing to moral judgment? That is the big question.

If by “central” S&G mean that harm is the most important, the strongest, the factor or issue that will be most powerful in predicting judgments (as in the 7 studies reported here), then we agree; we expect harmfulness to be the best single predictor of moral judgments. This might be true everywhere, but we are confident that it will at least be true in WEIRD cultures. Haidt, Koller, & Dias (1993) opened their report with this question:

Harm, broadly construed to include psychological harm, injustice, and violations of rights, may be important in the morality of all cultures. But is a harm-based morality sufficient to describe the moral domain for all cultures, or do some cultures have a nonharm-based morality, in which actions with no harmful consequences may be moral violations?

They found that college educated populations in the USA and Brazil had a morality that was indeed “harm-based.” These participants rarely said an action was wrong unless they could point to a victim. Low SES groups, particularly in Brazil, also cared a great deal about harm, but they were more likely (than college educated participants) to condemn actions that they themselves said were harmless. So for any study using educated American participants, such as the seven reported by S&G, we would expect appraisals of harm vs. harmlessness to be the most powerful single factor in moral judgments.

More broadly, if any moral foundation or moral issue is “central” or most common in WEIRD cultures, it is the Care/harm foundation, as was found in a large experience sampling study (Hoffmann et al., 2014). This weak version of the harm hypothesis — that harm is “central,” is fully compatible with MFT, particularly if the definition of harm is expanded to encompass all the various ways that one person can do something bad to another person.

2) S&G are correct to criticize our claim that “conservatives endorse all five foundations more or less equally.” Our claim is based on our findings using the MFQ, and to be precise, it is only true for those who self-describe as “very conservative.” Those who self-describe as more moderate conservatives endorse Care and Fairness more than Loyalty, Authority, and Purity.

Their larger point is also correct: our statements about MFQ scores have sometimes given the impression that in the daily lives of conservatives, issues of loyalty, authority, and sanctity should be just as common, or just as “central,” as issues of harm. This is clearly not true. Daily life for everyone in WEIRD societies (and perhaps in non-WEIRD societies) involve many judgments about people who have harmed others; issues of loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity arise much less frequently. S&G’s data in study 1 confirm the finding of Hoffmann et al. (2014) that moral judgments involving harm are most common. Harm is “central,” followed by fairness, for conservatives as well as for liberals. We thank S&G for this critique, and we will make it clear in future writings that we don’t believe that all foundations are equally important or common or central, for any group within WEIRD societies. We will also refrain from talking about a “two-foundation vs. five-foundation morality.” Such ways of speaking suggest a categorical distinction between liberals and conservatives that is not there — the differences in all of our reports have been relative differences. We agree with S&G that liberals and conservatives are not categorically different in their moral cognition, a point made in previous MFT papers (e.g., “Importantly, the differences between liberals and conservatives were neither binary nor absolute,” Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009, p. 1033). Conservatives construct their moral matrices with more reliance on the loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations than do liberals, but that does not mean that liberals never make use of these foundations.

F) What we think they got wrong:


        The biggest problem with S&G’s article is that they present a straw-man version of MFT based on strong modularity (in which there are 5 innate and distinct Fodorean modules doing the processing), and then pit the “strong” version of MFT they inaccurately impute to us against a shape-shifting version of Dyadic Morality. It’s a strong and interesting theory in the introduction, but Dyadic Morality morphs into a “weak” version in the experiments — a version in which harm is defined very broadly and is just “central” to moral judgment rather than its very “essence” (Gray, Young, & Waytz, 2012). We agree with them that strong modularity is wrong and weak harm-centrality is right (at least in WEIRD cultures). But then S&G draw the unjustifiable and never-tested conclusion that a strong version of Dyadic Morality (saying that moral cognition is ALL harm, so there is no need for other foundations) has defeated or disproven MFT in its actual form. This simply does not follow, as we show below.

1) Straw man description of MFT modularity.

S&G try to present MFT as a theory about Fodorian modules: there are five distinct, domain specific, fully encapsulated processing systems. (“Fodorean” refers to the strict criteria for modularity laid out in Fodor, 1983). S&G write:

“MFT suggests that harm, fairness, in-group, authority, and purity each represent a distinct functional moral mechanism or cognitive module  (Haidt, 2012). MFT defines cognitive modules as “little switches in the brains of all animals” that are “triggered” by specific moral “inputs” (Haidt, 2012, p. 123). These modules are suggested to be ultimately distinct from each other, involving fundamentally “distinct cognitive computations” (Young & Saxe, 2011, p. 203), such that violations of one content area (e.g., harm) are processed differently from those of another (e.g., purity)” (p. 2, emphases added).

Yet this portrait of hard and discrete Fodorean modules bears little resemblance to MFT. From the beginning, our commitment was to nativism (innate moral knowledge), not to modularity. MFT grew out of the observation that morality has some uncanny similarities across cultures, such as the nature of reciprocity, which fits closely with Trivers’ (1971) description of the evolution of reciprocal altruism, or purity and pollution practices, which bear an obvious relationship to the psychology of disgust and contagion. We were attracted to versions of modularity developed by cognitive anthropologists Dan Sperber and Larry Hershfeld, which offered ways to integrate nativism with the obvious facts of cultural diversity. In our major statement on modularity (Haidt & Joseph, 2007) we described “Sperberian modules” like this:

Most of Sperber’s modules are not innate; they are generated during development by a smaller set of “learning modules” which are innate templates or “learning instincts” (Sperber, 2005, p.57, citing Marler, 1991). Some of these innate modules have specific perceptual content built in; for example, a fruit-learning module will “know” that fruit is sweet, and will only generate subsequent fruit-recognition sub-modules (e.g., one for apples, one for bananas) for objects in the environment that meet those pre-specified criteria. Other learning modules may be more purely conceptual; for example, if there is an innate learning module for fairness, it generates a host of culture-specific unfairness-detection modules, such as a “cutting-in-line detector” in cultures where people queue up, but not in cultures where they don’t; an “unequal division of food” detector in cultures where children expect to get exactly equal portions as their siblings, but not in cultures where portions are given out by age. Because Sperber envisions a core set of innate modules generating a great diversity of other modules, he uses the evocative term “teeming modularity.” (p. 397)

In other words, we have never said that moral judgment was carried out by five distinct modules. We said that moral development begins from some innate knowledge (about care, fairness, etc), which makes it easy to learn some things and hard to learn others. This cultural learning can be described as the generation of many new modules, influenced by one’s culture. The moral foundations are the foundations of development; they are not five spots in the brain, nor are they five Fodorean modules, nor is there any requirement that the adult mind contain 5 “distinct” or “discrete” modules (or even sets of modules) with no overlap. All cultures develop local moral concepts that draw on (the innate knowledge represented by) multiple foundations, for example honor, diversity, and human rights. Real-time moral cognition is complex and culturally contingent; it can’t be explained by five modules, let alone by a single (harm-based) one.

We have always made it clear that modularity itself is not essential to MFT. Here is an early statement of this point:

We have long been searching for the foundations of intuitive ethics—the psychological primitives that are the building blocks from which cultures create moralities that are unique yet constrained in their variations.  … Each of these five is a good candidate for a Sperber-style learning module. However, readers who do not like modularity theories can think of each one as an evolutionary preparedness (Seligman, 1971) to link certain patterns of social appraisal to specific emotional and motivational reactions. All we insist upon is that the moral mind is partially structured in advance of experience so that five (or more) classes of social concerns are likely to become moralized during development (Haidt & Joseph, 2008, p. 381, emphasis added).

Here is how we discuss modularity in our major description of MFT:

But you do not have to embrace modularity, or any particular view of the brain, to embrace MFT. You only need to accept that there is a first draft of the moral mind, organized in advance of experience by the adaptive pressures of our unique evolutionary history. (Graham et al., 2013, p. 63)

It is true that Haidt (2012, p. 144 in the paperback) referred to modules as “little switches”, but the actual quote is that “modules are LIKE little switches in the brains of all animals,” and the quote is describing how readers can think about modules in general; it was not stating that moral foundations ARE little switches in the brain. Haidt was trying to convey the idea of modularity to a general audience, without getting into the complexity of explaining the various types of modules in a “massive modularity” developmental theory such as that of Sperber and Hershfeld.

The bottom line is that in the academic papers where we discuss modularity, MFT bears little resemblance to the straw man presented by S&G.

2) Shapeshifting between strong and weak versions of the harm hypothesis

In contrast to their very strict standards for moral modularity, S&G have a permissive set of standards for Dyadic Morality. They say that their central claim is this:  “we test six predictions of dyadic morality, which can be summarized as follows: Harm is central in moral cognition for both liberals and conservatives.” (p. 1). Does “central” mean “most important” (weak version, tested by the studies)? Or does “central” mean necessary and sufficient, obviating the need for any innate capacity to process or learn about unfairness, disloyalty, disobedience or degradation (strong version, discussed in the introduction and discussion)? This strong version has been advanced by Gray in previous papers, e.g. “A dyadic template suggests not only that perceived suffering is tied to immorality, but that all morality is understood through the lens of harm” (Gray, Young, & Waytz, 2012, p. 108). And this strong version of the harm hypothesis is the primary claim of dyadic morality in S&G’s paper as well (except in the studies).

The term “harm” also comes in strong and weak versions. The strong version is stated clearly on page 2:  “More technically, harm involves the perception of two interacting minds, one mind (an agent) intentionally causing suffering to another mind (a patient)—what we call the moral dyad.” If S&G were to stick to this strong definition–which specifies suffering–then their definition of harm would match fairly closely to our description of the Care/harm foundation, but with the useful addition of the agent and patient. We could then debate whether there is any need for other moral foundations.

However, S&G go on to present a theory of “harm pluralism” which says that just about any way that one person can do something to another, which the other would object to, counts as harm. So failing to return a favor, saying something bad about your country, disrespecting an elder, or giving in to one’s “animal” urges are all said to be processed as variants of the harm-based dyadic template. When harm is diluted so much that it means any kind of badness, then Dyadic Morality becomes little more than the claim that moral judgments are intrinsically about dyads. And since the patient can now be anything — a group, a flag, a mountain, or a nation — the theory gets diluted even further to become little more than the claim that moral judgments are about social relationships. This weak version of DM should then be compared to Fiske and Rai’s Relational Models Theory, which also says that morality is about social relationships (Fiske, 1992; Rai & Fiske, 2011). Do S&G really believe that when people are engaged in an equality matching relationship, versus an authority ranking relationship, all we need to understand is the different ways in which people perceive their partner to be harming them?

The bottom line is that S&G present seven studies testing the weak version of the harm hypothesis — in which harm, expansively defined, is “central” to moral judgment — against a straw man version of MFT featuring five fully encapsulated, biologically-based moral processing modules. From these tests, which have many methodological flaws (as described below), they claim that the strong version of the harm hypothesis has been vindicated. It has not.

3) Mischaracterization of moral pluralism, and of Richard Shweder

S&G offer a new concept of “harm pluralism,” which they say is compatible with the writings of “eminent anthropologist Richard Shweder” (p. 15). They argue that dyadic morality allows for “universality without the uniformity,” a phrase taken from Shweder (2012). We were surprised by this claim, for we know Shweder’s work quite well. MFT is based in part on Shweder’s theory of the “big three” ethics of moral discourse (Shweder, Much, Mahapatra & Park, 1997).

S&G’s attempt to apply “universalism without the uniformity” is to argue that once you understand that people in different cultures have different beliefs about harm, you can see that morality is universally about harm. Cultural differences (including political differences) are shallow, simply a matter of differing beliefs about facts (e.g., does gay marriage actually hurt anyone, including the institution of marriage?)

But this is not what Shweder meant by “universalism without the uniformity.” S&G’s position is in fact the very position that Elliot Turiel and his colleagues took in the 1980s, when they argued (contra Shweder) that once you take account of the “informational assumptions” held by Brahmins in Bhubaneswar, India, then the cultural differences between Bhubaneswar and Chicago would vanish (Turiel, Killen & Helwig, 1987).

The differences don’t in fact vanish (Haidt, Koller, & Dias, 1993). But more importantly, S&G’s use of the term “pluralism” is radically incompatible with Shweder’s use. In the very essay that Schein and Gray cite, Shweder (2012) explains what he means by “universalism without the uniformity.” It is based on the moral pluralism of Isaiah Berlin (2001), who believed that human beings pursue many different moral goods, yet the list of goods is finite, and we can understand people who choose different goods than we do. As Shweder explains:

the imagined moral truths or goods asserted in deliberative moral judgments around the world are many, not one…. On a worldwide scale the argument-ending terminal goods of deliberative moral judgments privileged in this or that cultural community are rich and diverse, and include such moral ends as autonomy, justice, harm avoidance, loyalty, benevolence, piety, duty, respect, gratitude, sympathy, chastity, purity, sanctity, and others” (Shweder, 2012, p. 98).

Shweder and Berlin both reject the pursuit of parsimony for its own sake. They embrace the messy multiplicity of moral life. Dyadic Morality in its strong version (immorality = harm = infliction of suffering) is parsimonious, but it cannot distinguish disobedience from unfairness. Dyadic Morality in its strong form turns Occam’s razor into Occam’s chain saw, cutting down every tree except one. Dyadic morality in its weak form (immorality = harm = anything people object to in social behavior) sacrifices parsimony, and even then, it can’t tell us how disobedience differs from unfairness, beyond saying that they are different ways in which people harm each other. S&G’s new offering of “harm pluralism” is not really pluralism (in Shweder’s terms). It is a procrustean monism, straining to shoehorn all moral violations into the single template of agent-causing-suffering-to-patient. No real explanatory work is done by such monism.

Pluralism, on the other hand, improves explanation. S&G claim (p. 5) that MFT has limited predictive utility because foundations overlap and harm is the best predictor. This is an odd use of “predictive utility.” Contrast this with the real predictive utility shown in papers like Koleva et al. (2012), which found that sanctity scores greatly improved prediction of culture war attitudes, over and above Care/harm scores and ideology; or Waytz, Dungan, & Young (2013) predicting whistleblowing with loyalty and fairness, or Rottman et al. 2014 predicting judgments of suicide with sanctity over and above harm. None of these findings would be possible if researchers embraced Dyadic Morality and only measured beliefs about harm. Later (p. 13) the authors chide MFT for not asking about taxation, gun control, euthanasia, capital punishment, and environmentalism, but this is exactly what we have done, in Koleva et al. 2012, and what many others have done in their research demonstrating the utility of using multiple foundations to understand and to change political attitudes (e.g., Feinberg & Willer, 2013).


We describe the specific problems with each of S&G’s 7 studies below. But first we note the two major flaws that run across all 7 studies. First and foremost, as detailed above, the studies claim to pit MFT predictions against dyadic morality predictions. But what they really contrast are predictions from the weak harm hypothesis (harm as most central, important, etc.) with predictions from a strong Fodorean modularity MFT has never endorsed. The studies are then said to support dyadic morality over MFT, even though the actual claims of these theories – the weak modularity of MFT and the strong harm hypothesis of dyadic morality – were never tested.

Second, in these seven small to medium sized studies on MTurk (Ns between 79 and 111), S&G divide their participants into 2 groups based on responses to a continuous 7-point ideology measure.  Those who chose 1-3 (“strongly liberal” to “somewhat liberal”) are classed as liberals, and usually comprise 50-60% of the sample. Everyone else – including moderates – is lumped into the group “conservatives.” This is extremely problematic, not only because moderates are not conservatives, but because participants who do not know where to place themselves (including many libertarians, and people who are simply non political) have little choice but to pick 4, making the “moderates” a hodge podge of political views.

To make matters worse, S&G cite Haidt (2012) as their precedent for this step:

“Consistent with past work (Haidt, 2012), we define liberals here and elsewhere as those who respond 1 through 3 on the political scale and conservatives as those who respond 4 through 7” (S&G, p. 6).

We asked S&G by email to clarify what passage in The Righteous Mind justified a dichotomous split with moderates counted as conservatives. They responded that there was no specific passage, they were just drawing on Haidt’s general arguments about differences between left and right. In other words, they had no justification for lumping moderates in with conservatives, and had cited Haidt (2012) inappropriately. With low power and this unjustifiable dichotomous split, we are not surprised that so few significant left-right differences were found. Moderates should never be included with the conservatives. Instead, effects of ideology should be investigated with the full continuous measure rather than losing information with the dichotomous split. Such correlations are not provided in the paper nor in the supplements.

Study 1: Recalling Immorality

Study 1 shows that if you ask MTurkers for an example of an immoral act, harm comes up most frequently. This should surprise no one. It confirms the finding of Hoffman et al. (2014) that Care/harm was the most frequent MFT category in a beeper study of daily moral judgments, as well as the claim of Haidt, Koller, and Dias (1993) that educated Western groups have a largely harm-based morality. Nobody doubts the weak harm hypothesis (that harm is “central”), so the findings of study 1 are consistent with both MFT and Dyadic Morality.

There is also something odd about study 1. In the results section we find this text:

Examining participant labels revealed that 68% of participants categorized their first act recalled as harmful, 9% labeled it as unfair, 14% labeled it as disloyal, 8% labeled it as disobedient, and 1% labeled it as gross.

What do they mean by “first act recalled”? The method section states that only one act was requested. Yet in Gray’s previous write-up of this study, it was reported that three acts were requested, and all three acts were analyzed. That analysis reported an uncomfortable finding for S&G: Harm violations were most common in the first act listed, but when all three acts were analyzed together, fairness violations (including dishonesty) were more frequent than harm violations. We cannot tell if the final published manuscript simply does not report the additional acts, or if the authors ran a new study that only asked for one act and then used that new data to update the text in the final published article.

Study 2: Morality of a Hypothetical Tribe.

People rate the immorality of a hypothetical tribe’s foundation violations, and harm is rated the worst overall. But note that harm violations are not worse than fairness for liberals, but this is dismissed because “unfair violations are fundamentally dyadic”. A liberal/conservative difference is found in purity, and might have been found for other foundations if they had looked at correlations with the continuous ideology measure (not a 1-3 / 4-7 split). Again, this provides evidence for the weak claim that harms are the worst actions (perfectly compatible with MFT), and no evidence at all for Dyadic Morality’s strong claim that all moral judgments reduce to harm judgments.

Study 3: X But Not Y Task

This study provides good support for the weak harm hypothesis that harm is seen as the worst, most important, or most central, with lots of other foundation differences as well. The importance ordering seems to be harm, unfair, betray, subvert, impure, just as Graham (2010) found in his dissertation’s “which is worse” task.  Once again, there is no evidence for the strong version of DM.

Study 4: Correlated Response Times

Response times for harmful ratings correlate with response times for immoral ratings. This is discussed as something special and unique to harm, but the study does not even test whether similar correlations emerge for ratings of fair/unfair, pure/impure, etc. Finding higher correlations between response times for harm and immorality ratings could support the weak harm hypothesis that harms are the most prototypically immoral actions. But again no evidence is provided for dyadic morality’s claims that all moral judgments are caused by perceived harm.

Study 5: Correlated Ratings

This study employs the same unusual design employed in Gray & Keeney (2015) to make it look like all foundations correlate with each other at r=1.0, based on participants’ ratings of the same violations using different foundation adjectives, which they use interchangeably. See Graham (2015) on why this is a problem. As that paper notes, correlations between severity ratings using different adjectives tell us little about how distinct these moral concerns are. But correlations across people between moral judgments about harm and impurity violations can tell us more (e.g., how well can you predict people’s impurity judgments from their harm judgments?). The harm-impurity correlation is r=.06 for the MFQ, r=.35 for the Moral Foundations Sacredness Scale (MFSS; Graham & Haidt, 2012), r=.23 for the MFSS adjusting for overall willingness to do things for money, r=.19 for the Moral Foundations Vignettes (MFV; Clifford et al., 2015), r=.06 for MFV items selected to match on severity and arousal (Dehghani et al., 2015), and r=.29 for the participant-generated naturalistic measures used by Gray and Keeney in Study 2. These correlations vary across formats, but all are substantially lower than the misleading ratings correlations (e.g., r=1.0) in S&G’s Study 5.

Study 6: Common Currency

Study 6 presents U.S. mTurkers with violation comparisons, asking which is more immoral and then which is more harmful, unfair, disloyal, disobedient, and gross. Unsurprisingly, the study shows that for these people harmfulness ratings correlate most highly with immorality ratings, followed by unfair, gross, disobedient, and disloyal. This provides further evidence for the weak harm hypothesis that harm is the most important or most prototypical kind of immorality, at least for US participants. However, the authors fail to note that in their own data, by their own criteria, four of the five foundation violation terms served as common currency.  Rather than showing that harm is the only common currency, the study shows that harm, unfair, gross, and disobedient are all used as types of common currency between different moral violations. Study 6 thus provides evidence against the strong claim that harm is the one true common currency, obviating the need for any other currency. One might say that this study disproves Dyadic Morality on its own terms.

Study 7: IAT Studies

Although MFT doesn’t make any a priori predictions about patterns of relations between the foundations, in just about every measure we’ve used to capture multiple moral concerns the clustering has been along the individualizing-binding distinction found in the exploratory factor analysis of the MFQ (Graham et al., 2009; see also Chakroff, 2015). So it would be surprising to us if a new measure came along that found higher correlations between harm and loyalty or between harm and purity, than between loyalty and purity. However, this is not what this study actually shows.

In the first IAT reported, harm items have the label Harmful (so far so good), disloyalty items have the label Disloyal (good), but the impurity items have the label “Immoral.” The task for these items is to distinguish them from the nonmoral items “forget,” “procrastinate,” and “boring.” So even though the stimulus items for moral are all purity violations, the task itself is about distinguishing immoral content from nonmoral content. Several studies show that harm is seen as the worst, the most immoral, so if the participants link “harmful” with “immoral” more easily than they link “disloyal” with “immoral” (which they no doubt do), then the overall d-score of the IAT would reflect that association, NOT a greater association between harm and impurity than between disloyalty and impurity. This interpretation is supported by the authors’ use of “Gross” as the label in Study 7b (and actually changing the impurity moral words to the far less moral words “disgusting,” “gross,” and “filthy”), rather than Impure, further stacking the deck for the association between “harmful” and “morality.”

This confound could be easily addressed with single-category IATs using all three labels (Harmful, Disloyal, Impure), comparing reaction times when, say, harmful and disloyal share a response key and impure is the other key, vs. disloyal and impure sharing a key when harmful is the other key. This would be a straightforward test of how these concepts implicitly relate to one another.

Overall, this study provides no support for either the strong or weak version of the “harm is common” hypothesis. We suggest an improved design to remove a crucial confound in these IATs; this design could provide support for a weak version of the “harm is most common” hypothesis, but not a strong claim that therefore no psychological distinctions exist between foundations.


In conclusion, S&G have made a useful point: all foundations are not equally central, important, or frequent in the lives of Americans, even conservative Americans. Harm is probably more central or frequent, followed by fairness. But S&G’s empirical studies had so many flaws — particularly their unjustified decision to lump moderates in with conservatives — that we can not conclude from their studies that liberals and conservatives do not differ. Nor can we conclude that liberals and conservatives all share a harm-based “template” that is necessary and sufficient for their moral judgments. And because S&G created a straw man out of MFT and compared it with a shapeshifting version of Dyadic Morality, their article does not shed light on the validity of either model.



To learn more about Moral Foundations Theory, please click here.



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Haidt, J., Koller, S., & Dias, M. (1993). Affect, culture, and morality, or is it wrong to eat your dog? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 613-628.

Hofmann, W., Wisneski, D. C., Brandt, M. J., & Skitka, L. J. (2014). Morality in everyday life. Science, 345, 1340-1343.

Koleva, S., Graham, J., Iyer, Y., Ditto, P.H., & Haidt, J. (2012) Tracing the threads: How five moral concerns (especially Purity) help explain culture war attitudes. Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 184-194.

Rai, T. S., & Fiske A. P. (2011). Moral psychology is relationship regulation: Moral motives for unity, hierarchy, equality, and proportionality. Psychological Review, 118, 57–75.

Rottman, J., Kelemen, D., & Young, L. (2014). Tainting the soul: Purity concerns predict moral judgments of suicide. Cognition, 130, 217-226.

Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2015a). The unifying moral dyad: Liberals and conservatives share the same harm-based moral template. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin41, 1147–1163.

Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2015b). Making sense of moral disagreement: Liberals, conservatives and the harm-based template they share. SPSP Blog post, August 12, 2015.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1971). Phobias and preparedness. Behavior Therapy, 2, 307-320.

Shweder, R. A. (2012). Relativism and Universalism. In D. Fassin (Ed.), A Companion to Moral Anthropology (pp. 85–102). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Shweder, Richard A, Much, N. C., Mahapatra, M., & Park, L. (1997). The “big three” of morality (autonomy, community, and divinity), and the “big three” explanations of suffering. In A. Brandt & P. Rozin (Eds.), Morality and health (pp. 119-169). New York: Routledge.

Sperber, Dan. (2005). Modularity and relevance: How can a massively modular mind be flexible and context-sensitive? In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence & S. Stich (Eds.), The innate mind: Structure and contents (pp. 53-68). New York: Oxford.

Sperber, D., & Hirschfeld, L. A. (2004). The cognitive foundations of cultural stability and diversity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences8, 40-46.

Trivers, Robert L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35-57.

Turiel, E., Killen, M. , & Helwig, C. C. (1987). Morality: Its structure, function, and vagaries. In J. Kagan & S. Lamb (Eds.), The emergence of morality in young children (pp. 155-243). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Young, L., Saxe, R. (2011). When ignorance is no excuse: Different roles for intent across moral domains. Cognition, 120, 202-214.

Posted in moral foundations, moral psychology, Response to Critiques | No Comments »

Descriptive vs. Normative Moral Psychology

December 12th, 2014 by Jesse Graham

Kugler, Jost, and Noorbaloochi recently published a critique of Moral Foundations Theory in Social Justice Research. A couple of people have asked me what I think of this critique.

In 2011 I provided a signed review of a previous version of Kugler et al.’s paper for a different journal. I think this review is still an accurate representation of my thoughts on these issues. In a nutshell: I agree with the authors that at points in Haidt’s and my writings we have blurred the line between a. the descriptive moral psychology MFT is concerned with, and b. normative recommendations that it is not concerned with. They rightly point out places where we seem to have been trying to derive ought from is. However, I find the entire empirical project of this paper to suffer from this same blurring of normative and descriptive. The authors attempt to derive isn’t from oughtn’t.

I provide my review here for those interested in the often-blurred lines between normative and descriptive moral psychology. (There’s also some discussion of the normative implications of flatulence, if you’re into that sort of thing.) This is NOT intended to be a review of the published paper, which has changed since the version I reviewed; it’s merely provided to show my thoughts on descriptive vs. normative as applied to MFT, authoritarianism, and ideology. (For more on the need to make a clear distinction between the normative and the descriptive, see section 4.1.5 of this paper, or listen to this cringe-tastic interview.)

2011 Review:

A scientific  theory is only as good as its critics. Fortunately for Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), John Jost has been a constructive, supportive, yet nevertheless vigorous and tireless critic of both MFT’s theoretical model and its very approach to studying morality and ideology. His criticisms have led to new ideas and research by myself and other moral foundations researchers (e.g., current efforts to measure moral intuitions of outrage at bullying and domination not simply derived from Fairness-related considerations). So I am pleased to be able to offer my opinion about this manuscript by Kugler & Jost offering “an empirical critique of ‘moral foundations’ theory.”

Although much of my work is the target of the authors’ critique, I found some of their criticisms valid. Specifically, I agree with the authors that at points in Haidt’s and my writings we have blurred the line between a. the descriptive moral psychology MFT is concerned with, and b. normative recommendations that it is not concerned with. They rightly point out places where we seem to have been trying to derive ought from is. However, I find the entire empirical project of this paper to suffer from this same blurring of normative and descriptive. The authors attempt to derive isn’t from oughtn’t. Below I give my view of this manuscript’s confusions, and then – in the spirit of fairness – turn to my own confusions.


1. This manuscript’s confusions. The authors provide correlational evidence that ideological differences in Ingroup, Authority, and Purity concerns are mediated by authoritarianism, and ideological differences in Harm and Fairness are mediated by opposition to equality. From this they conclude, “Thus, it seems premature to abandon the notion that morality consists in fulfilling the requirements of “justice, rights, and welfare” and to argue instead for a “broadening” of the moral domain to incorporate ingroup, authority, and purity concerns” (p. 19). The leap seems to be in this “Thus” – because these foundations are related to authoritarianism, which is normatively bad, they cannot be part of a descriptive account of morality (and since Harm and Fairness are related to low opposition to equality, which is normatively good, they can stay in). This reflects a deep confusion about the aims of MFT (and the aims of any scientific understanding of human morality), which we have written about extensively, including in the papers cited. The confusion may be in the fact that the words “moral” and “morality” can be used normatively – to describe something that is morally good, that others should promote and protect – but it can also be used descriptively, as in scientific descriptions of the domains and processes of human morality, intended to better understand them.

The patterns of correlations described in this paper are entirely consistent with MFT’s descriptive account of the domains, concerns, and intuitions involved in human morality. It would be shocking to me if the moral concerns about respect for authorities and traditions didn’t relate to RWA. In fact, the Graham et al. (in press) paper cited in this manuscript makes clear that both RWA and SDO were used as external validation criteria in the very development of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. Use of these scales as validity criteria is no more a normative defense of authoritarianism than our use of the Disgust Sensitivity Scale is a normative defense of disgust sensitivity. (Further, the findings by Schnall, Pizarro, and others that fart sprays can increase the severity of moral judgments – which I take to be descriptive evidence for including Purity concerns in accounts of human morality – do not necessitate any normative endorsements or condemnations of flatulence.) The MFQ and MFT are attempting to measure and describe the full range of moral concerns people have – the good, the bad, and the heinous – which I see as a scientific step beyond previous treatments of morality (e.g. Kohlberg, Turiel) that only considered moral concerns with which the scientists normatively agreed.

The authors seem to be saying that since some moral foundations relate to authoritarianism, they can’t be a descriptive part of morality, because authoritarianism is so UNrelated to morality. And yet the RWA scales have plenty statements of moral concern. To use one item the authors give as an example: “Our country will be destroyed someday if we do not smash the perversions eating away at our moral fiber and traditional beliefs.” Just because this is an item that the authors and I may normatively disagree with does not mean that people who agree with it are not expressing a moral concern or belief. Part of the scientific benefit of MFT is understanding how there can be deep intuitive moral passions associated with authoritarianism, system justification, prejudice, violence, and even genocide. Human morality isn’t always normatively good.


2. My confusions. Haidt and I (2009) wrote at length about how binding moral concerns (especially Authority) can be wrapped up in system justification, and we tried to make clear that this did NOT mean system justification was a normatively good thing (see passage quoted below). However, most of our writing about this last point (human morality isn’t always normatively good) is in a paper (Graham & Haidt, in press) that I should not expect the authors to have read. In this paper we make the point that ALL moral concerns (including Harm and Fairness, but especially Ingroup, Authority, and Purity) can be dangerous, and can lead to violence in the service of protecting some morally sacred object, person, or idea. Here it is clear that what is descriptively moral can be normatively bad, disastrous, heinous, or immoral. But I have to agree with the authors that this has not always been clear in our previous writings (or in the press). I think it perfectly defensible for Haidt and I (2007, 2009) to have argued that MFT’s descriptive account of the full range of human moral concerns can help academic liberals understand – descriptively – the moral bases of many conservative (or religious, or non-Western) opinions. But when we claimed that the binding foundations were “moral (instead of amoral, or immoral)” this confused the point, and allowed for the authors’ reading of this to say “these foundations are normatively good, not normatively neutral or normatively bad.” Kugler and Jost are right to criticize us for this blurring of the normative and the descriptive.

Most of the other quotes from our writings I would stand behind, because we are speaking descriptively (i.e., these concerns are part of human morality) and not normatively (i.e., these concerns are good and right and we should all adopt them), as the authors took them. I think the authors do not “get” conservative morality descriptively, but this does not mean I think they should adopt it normatively. But one passage quoted on page 17 had me rushing back to the original. Did we really claim, based on our data and descriptive theory of morality, that embracing conservative moral values could lead to “a more healthy, human, and satisfying place overall”? We did, in a way, and the context from which the quote was taken is illustrative:

  • “Our goal in offering this descriptive account is not to claim that conservative morality is superior to liberal morality, normatively speaking. Our normative position is a kind of consequentialism—we think moral systems should be judged by the quality of the worlds they lead to. We believe the benefits of modernity have been enormous, and that it is neither possible nor desirable to reduce ethnic diversity, eliminate existing technologies, or otherwise return to the Gemeinschaft social systems that prevailed centuries ago. But our consequentialism leads us to ask whether there might be some hidden utility in the three traditional foundations. Even from a liberal perspective, in which all that matters is the welfare of individuals (particularly those who are least well off), might there be some paradoxical benefits to individuals of social policies that do not put the welfare of individuals first? The social policies favored by conservatives, shown in the right-hand column of Table 15.1, are, broadly speaking, Durkheimian policies. They increase the cohesion and stability of communities. They therefore also increase the social capital (Coleman, 1988) of communities, which includes the dense networks of obligation and trust, social information channels, and effective norms and sanctions for deviance. By extension, we might say they increase the symbolic capital, too—the culturally evolved network of shared symbols and meanings from which people construct their identities and make sense of their worlds. (See Appiah, 2005, on the challenges of identity construction for liberalism.) Given the many arguments from psychology and sociology about the costs of anomie and hyperindividualism (Bellah et al., 1985; Leary, 2004; Schwartz, 1986), and the benefits of close, enduring social bonds and shared meanings (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), we believe that a modern society that makes some use of the three traditional foundations might—at least in theory—be a more humane, healthy, and satisfying place overall than a society that builds its values and policies exclusively on the first two foundations. We are not confident that the traditional foundations offer such benefits in practice, but we believe that traditional and conservative ideas are frequently mischaracterized, prematurely dismissed, or simply ignored by many psychologists, philosophers, and other academics.”

As this passage makes clear, we expressed (in an uncharacteristically tentative and unconfident way) a normative view that is mostly in line with what the authors seem to profess (binding foundations are dangerous in modern society) but diverges in our allowing for the possibility that there might be some benefits, in theory, to making some use of the binding foundations. The authors could certainly disagree with this normative claim, and reply that modern society should make absolutely no use of these foundations. But the point here is that we were clearly distinguishing these normative wanderings from MFT’s descriptive account of human morality.


3. Recommendation. Despite its title, this manuscript does not offer an empirical critique of Moral Foundations Theory, because the empirical findings do not contradict any of the scientific claims or predictions of the theory. Because [journal] is an empirical journal, I thus do not think this manuscript is appropriate for it. However, as detailed above, I do find merit in some of the authors’ normative claims, and while I find some of their quotes unfair, I do think they are justified in criticizing points at which Haidt and I strayed into normative territory based on our descriptive findings. If this exchange serves to clarify for all of us (and especially for others) the distinction between normative and descriptive accounts of morality and ideology (much as the Tetlock-Sears debate did several years ago) then there is a value in this being a part of the public record. I think this would be more appropriate for the Jost-Haidt exchange planned for Perspectives on Psychological Science. Regardless of the outlet, however, I think that the use of this manuscript’s data to claim an empirical critique of MFT will only add confusions, rather than clear them up.


Jesse Graham


Posted in liberals and conservatives, moral foundations, moral psychology, political ideology, social psychology | 1 Comment »

Some good news about everyday moral life

September 15th, 2014 by Sena Koleva

“To err is human, to forgive divine” (Alexander Pope, 1711). But what is also divine is finding out that you didn’t err (much). A paper in the latest  issue of the journal Science has given morality researchers a cause to feel great about the state of their field.

In an impressive new study, Hofmann and colleagues (2014) examined everyday morality by text messaging 1252 study participants 5x a day for 3 days and prompting them to report any moral or immoral events they experienced in the past hour: acts that they committed or were the target of, that they witnessed directly, or that they heard about. In each prompt the researchers also assessed the participants’ levels on various emotions, happiness, and purpose in life.

Collecting and making sense of this type of rich, text-based field data offers high ecological validity, but it can be extremely challenging and effort-intensive and is regrettably rare in morality research, and in psychology in general. Instead, most such research relies on more artificial methods and settings, e.g. tightly controlled lab experiments on unsuspecting (though increasingly, very much suspecting) college students, hypothetical decisions about unusual scenarios, reactions to moral stimuli while keeping still inside a brain scanner, large-scale Internet surveys (such as ours on this site), and so on. When more ecological data become available, they sometimes  paint a different picture than the one suggested by theories and findings arrived at with other methods.

But not this time! The Hofmann et al study is strikingly consistent with a number of moral psychological frameworks and phenomena under active investigation in the field, bringing scholars a collective sigh of relief.

For example, their participants reported committing and receiving more moral than immoral acts (i.e. good news! we tend to do and encounter more good than bad), but learn about twice as many immoral than moral acts (i.e. we talk about other people’s bad deeds more than their good). This finding is consistent with previous theorizing that our moral sense evolved primarily via third-party monitoring of moral behavior and reputation management (Dunbar, 1996; Haidt, 2012). In other words, we’ve got morality because we evolved to gossip and to want others to like and respect us.

Consistent with our own work here at YourMorals.org, 80% of the reported moral events could be categorized into the five dimensions proposed by Moral Foundations Theory, offering resounding support for the theory itself, but also for the broader notion that everyday moral life is rich and  multidimensional. Morality extends beyond a singular moral concern with harm and the reduction of suffering (see my take on this topic here). Consistent with our own analysis of open-ended text data, Hofmann and colleagues also found evidence that everyday moral events feel along 3 additional dimensions: Honesty, Liberty/oppression, and Self Discipline. For over a year, we’ve discussed adding these exact dimensions to our framework, so we are extremely excited and encouraged that a completely independent research team using a different method has arrived at a very similar conclusion. Lastly, the study replicated one of the landmark findings based on MFT obtained using questionnaire data from YourMorals.org, namely that liberals and conservatives place different emphasis on the five moral foundations. Hofmann et al.’s data showed that, even when controlling for religiosity, liberals were more likely than conservatives to report events related to Fairness, Honesty, and Autonomy, whereas conservatives were more likely to report events related to Loyalty and Sanctity.

The new study confirmed two other moral phenomena that have come out of lab research: moral contagion and moral licensing. Namely, people who reported being the targets of moral acts within the last hour were significantly more likely to subsequently report acting morally themselves, consistent with findings of moral contagion (i.e. good news again! we tend to “pay it forward”). However, moral contagion’s evil twin — moral licensing — also found support, wherein committing a moral act earlier in the day was associated with greater likelihood of subsequently committing an immoral act (i.e. bad news! once we’ve done our good deed for the day we feel licensed to be jerks later on).

Several other interesting patterns emerged. Not surprisingly, being treated morally increased one’s happiness and being treated immorally decreased it. What is more intriguing is that the greatest increase in a sense of purpose and meaning in life came after reports of having acted morally oneself. This is consistent with previous work, and suggests that while our moment-to-moment happiness depends on (how we are treated by) others, our larger sense of purpose in life is our own doing. More good news, right?

Another interesting pattern was that religious and non-religious people did not differ in their reports of how many moral or immoral deeds they committed. While we should keep in mind that these data are based on participants’ self-report of their own moral/immoral behavior (and all the biases self-reports might bring along), it is nevertheless surprising that there was no evidence of a heathen effect.

In short, a new study with a unique “out in the real world” method suggests this about our moral psychology:

  • we tend to give and receive more good deeds than bad, but
  • we mostly hear about the bad
  • when someone does us a kindness, we tend to pay it forward, but
  • then tend to rest on our laurels
  • holding religious beliefs doesn’t make us more moral or less immoral, but
  • holding a liberal or a conservative political ideology does affect our moral experiences
  • being the targets of moral deeds makes us happy while the reverse makes us unhappy, but
  • we feel our lives have the most purpose when we act morally ourselves
  • even though most moral psychology research relies on artificial methods removed from people’s everyday lived experiences, the insights generated appear right on track. Phew!
Posted in cellphone users, everyday morality, moral behavior, moral emotions, moral foundations, moral psychology, smartphone research, social psychology | 3 Comments »

Can Newspapers Emulate the Psychographic success of Magazines?

April 4th, 2014 by Ravi Iyer

While newspaper circulation continues to decline, many magazines have held their own in the digital age. Magazines differ from newspapers in that they have a more defined “identity”, such that Chip Conley (who now helps run a similar effort at AirBNB) developed successful boutique hotels around the concept of a magazine.

“We determine which magazines will best define the hotel, and then we come up with the five adjectives that best describe that magazine,” explained Conley in a recent Forbes interview.  ”We’ve found that the people who fall in love with a hotel are people who use those five adjectives to aspirationally describe themselves. The Hotel Rex, in San Francisco, is based on The New Yorker, and the adjectives are “clever, literate, artistic, worldly and sophisticated.” When you check out of the Rex you feel like we’ve refreshed your identity. We’ve created an ideal habitat for you.”

There is a lot of research detailing how, as societal wealth increases, consumers’ needs are moving out of the realm of utility and into the realm of lifestyle and aspiration.  Newspapers can’t compete by being simply informational, in a world where information is cheap and ubiquitous.  What aspirational values can a newspaper help a reader fulfill?

A lot of my research has been about showing that different people have very different aspirational goals (values), not just goals that people in California deem readily aspirational like feeding the poor or achieving world peace, but also goals like being loyal to their group, keeping faith with family traditions, providing for one’s family, achieving success, etc.  These later aspirational goals (among others) may prove more fruitful in a more conservative environment.  The Army has a good case study in the use of such values toward achieving organizational goals.  I would definitely recommend that forward thinking newspapers attempt to fill a specific aspirational niche, as a result.

Once a niche is decided, a news organization can consciously leverage the fact that these goals have specific storytelling and emotional triggers.  For example, in work that I’ve been doing with Zenzi‘s Social Values project, our research indicates that newspapers that wants to serve more traditional aspirations may want to have more stories with happy endings, while a newspaper that wants to serve more hedonistic aspirations might want to instead consider featuring stories about people from far away places.  Emotions such as disgust, empathy, and anger vary widely and predictably amongst people with different aspirational goals and stories could be framed accordingly.  Editors likely have an intuitive sense of these relationships, but making them more explicit can bring cohesion to marketing, editorial, and journalistic practices toward a singular newspaper voice that better speaks to the higher-order needs of consumers in the modern age.

- Ravi Iyer
ps. Groups that wish to learn more about similar insights may wish to visit Zenzi’s Insights page.
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Moral Foundations of Windows vs. Mac Users

March 11th, 2014 by Ravi Iyer

Recently, the topic came up of whether values profiles (and Moral Foundation Scores more specifically) predict behavior.  On the one hand, social and contextual factors often loom larger than individual factors in determining moral behavior.  On the other hand, it seemed rather unlikely that something as central as a persons values would not predict their behavior.  While the effects may be small and indirect in many cases, I would expect a person’s value profile to predict almost everything they do in life.  As a test case, I decided to examine whether moral foundation scores, which measure how much a person cares about harming others, fairness, obeying authority, being loyal, and being pure, in the context of moral judgments, predict whether a visitor to YourMorals.org visited using a Mac vs. a PC.  Below is the graph.

The Values Profile of Mac vs. PC Users

The Values Profile of Mac vs. PC Users

While all visitors to YourMorals.org are generally liberal, it looks as if Windows users are more conservative than Mac users, within this group.  Note that while this isn’t a representative sample, in some ways it is better for answering this question as the users in this sample have such similar characteristics that many variables are naturally controlled for.  Windows users appear to value harm less and purity more.

The take home message for me is that while context certainly matters, so to does a person’s values, even for relatively unrelated decisions, such as which computer to use in daily life.

- Ravi Iyer

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People in a Bad Mood Judge Others Harshly…Unless Made Aware of Their Bad Mood

March 6th, 2014 by Ravi Iyer

Reposted from this post on the Civil Politics Blog

One of the many great posters I saw at the main conference for Social and Personality Psychology belonged to Mayuko Onuki, a graduate student at the University of Southern California.  I’ll let her introduce the poster herself.

This is a link to the full poster: Onuki_Poster SPSP2014.

Along with colleagues at USC, Onuki analyzed the effects from 55 separate studies which show that people who are sad tend to judge others more harshly.  Beyond establishing the baseline effect, which was indeed significant, they looked at the differences between studies to see what may account for smaller or larger effects.  For those of us who wish to reduce harsh judgments within or across groups, which may be exacerbated by foul moods, the boundary conditions for the effects of mood on judgments are important.  For example, they found that effects were smaller when individuals were aware of the source of their sadness, suggesting that one possible way to reduce harsh judgments among individuals who are in a bad mood is to have them take a moment to consider that the source of their bad mood may not be the individuals they are judging.

Like all research on unpredictable human beings, there are limitations here.  Social science findings are best thought of as parables, giving you evidence for ideas that may or may not apply to your current situation through data-driven, as opposed to narrative-driven stories.  Perhaps the next time you are trying to bring two groups together on a dark rainy day where a foul mood permeates the room, you’ll consider this data-driven parable and consider pointing out the weather.  And maybe the groups you are working with will be a little bit less harsh on each other.  If anyone does have stories which mirror this research, please do contact us.

- Ravi Iyer

Go to Source

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What Psychologists Could Learn From Data Science About Exporatory Research

February 28th, 2014 by Ravi Iyer

I recently attended the main conference for social psychologists, even as I’m slowly transitioning to think of myself less as an academic and more as a data scientist.  Of course, the term data science is a pretty poor term as all science has to do with data, but I think it serves a purpose in that there are methods for answering questions with data that operate across the domain where the data was collected.  There is no real reason why a person well trained in understanding and analyzing data can’t apply their techniques on medical data, sports data, psychological data, and online data.  In fact, research on the wisdom of crowds would suggest that any discipline would benefit from analyzing data in different ways as colleagues are likely to make correlated errors concerning understanding anything.  This is certainly true in social psychology, where a common error that has been made is the under-valuing of exploratory research.

To our credit, social psychologists are beginning to understand this.  Many years after Paul Rozin formally published a great article concerning the need for more diverse ways of researching questions, psychologists are starting to accept the idea that exploratory research has value alongside the experimental methods that are so popular.  Below is a picture from one of several such talks given.


It’s great that psychologists are willing to consider exploratory approaches.  However, I don’t think we necessarily need to pretend like we are starting from scratch.  It seems like many psychologists want to simply let people fiddle with data in the haphazard ways they have been doing, label it exploratory, and then get on with “real” (confirmatory) research.  This is an area where data science, with it’s emphasis on how to automatically, efficiently extract well-supported insights from large datasets, has a big head start.  What can data science offer psychologists?

- More efficient exploration.  Running haphazard regressions til you find a good model is inefficient for a number of reasons.  It takes a lot of human effort and then when you do find something, you have no real way to reproduce the algorithm that you used to find the result you did on a subsequent dataset.  To put it in more practical terms, every psychologist who wants to run exploratory regressions should at least understand GLMnet (details of which I’ll put in a future post).

-  Cross-validated exploration.  Data scientists have given a lot of thought to questions of how to be more sure that a result is true, when one is testing so many hypotheses that one is bound to find something by chance.  Cross-validation is not a cure-all, but then again, nor are relatively artificial lab studies.  Certainly a cross-validated exploratory finding is more likely to be true than a non-cross-validated exploratory finding.  Broadly, just as some experiments are greater evidence than less well-designed experiments, so too are some exploratory findings greater evidence than other explorations.  Of course, this last sentence will completely confound those who insist that publications can only publish “true” findings that are supported by p<.05 statistics, which leads me to my last point.

- Bayesian models of findings.   There was a ton of talk about the problem of false positives, but the entrenched interests of the journal system (IMHO) inhibit the paradigm shift that is needed, which is to think of findings and papers as evidence as opposed to truth.  Good publications are not true…they are merely stronger evidence.  And rejected publications are rarely worthless.  Rather, they may be weaker evidence or may not affect prior beliefs to quite the same degree.   Setting a high bar for publication is great for creating a tournament for job seekers.  But it’s a terrible way to find truth in an age where data and research is ubiquitous.  If you want to read a more detailed argument about this, I’d read Nate Silver’s Book.

There are some things that social psychologists are really good at.  They understand experimental methods and can critique them really well.  They understand measurement much better than most disciplines.  But there are some things that other disciplines do much better with data, such as exploration.  The banner of data science presents the opportunity to break down these barriers, so that the social psychologist can help the Google engineer design the perfect study to validate the results of their latest machine learning algorithm, while the political scientist helps the social psychologist with representative sampling and the Google engineer helps the political scientist explore the latest national survey in a far more efficient way and then mash up that data with more ecologically valid social media behavior.  And so, the end result is that there really isn’t a huge need for disciplinarity in an age of big data (which was a theme of Jamie Pennebaker’s presidential address at SPSP).  It actually gets in the way of us all being data scientists.

- Ravi Iyer

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Creating Shared Goals Using The Asteroids Club Paradigm

January 10th, 2014 by Ravi Iyer

Reposted from this post on the Civil Politics Blog

One of the most general and robust findings in social psychology is the power of situations to shape behavior.  For example, if you are in a situation where you are competing with others, you will tend to dislike them, whereas when you are cooperating with them, you will tend to like them.  This is relatively intuitive, yet we often fail to appreciate this in practice, and then we end up amazed when arbitrary groups put in competition end up in deep conflict.  If artificially created competitions can inflame divisions (e.g. sports fandom usually pits very similar people against each other), perhaps we can also manufacture cooperation to reduce division.
Jonathan Haidt (a director of CivilPolitics) conceived of the idea of The Asteroids Club with this in mind and the idea is currently being incubated by To The Village Square, a non-profit dedicated to improving political dialogue.  Below is an excerpt from an op-ed by Haidt in The Tallahassee Democrat:

Partisanship is not a bad thing. We need multiple teams developing multiple competing visions for the voters to choose among. But when our political system loses the ability for national interest to come before party interest, we’ve crossed over into hyper-partisanship. And that’s a very bad thing, because it paralyzes us in the face of so many impending threats.

What can we do about this? How can we free ourselves and our leaders from hyper-partisanship, and return to plain old partisanship? By joining the Asteroids Club! It’s a club for all Americans who are willing to grant that the other side sees some real threats more acutely than their own side does. It’s a concept developed with Tallahassee’s Village Square, which is hosting a series of Asteroids Club Dinner at the Square programs this year.

Asteroids Clubs would never hold debates. Debates often increase polarization. Rather, a local Asteroids Club would hold telescope parties in which members help each other to see approaching asteroids — one from each side — that they hadn’t really noticed before. Telescope parties would harness the awesome power of reciprocity. If we acknowledge your asteroid, will you acknowledge ours?

So come on, people! Dozens of asteroids are closer to impact than they were yesterday. Don’t wait for Washington to fix itself. Let’s just start working together, and if we can do it, it will be easier for Washington to follow our example. The alternative is for us to follow theirs.

If you are in the Tallahassee area, consider joining the event on Tuesday, January 14, 2014 from 5:30 to 7:30pm (more info at www.tothevillagesquare.org).  At Civil Politics, we plan to both support the work of such groups, by giving them access to academic research and to support the work of academics, by giving them access to the findings generated by such real-world events.

- Ravi Iyer


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Murray-Ryan Budget Deal Illustrates the Importance of Good Personal Relationships

December 17th, 2013 by Ravi Iyer

Reposted from this post on the Civil Politics Blog

One of the reasons that we feel that politics has gotten more uncivil is that the relationships that used to bind partisans across parties have frayed.  Partisans of the past seemed to know how to compete for their policy priorities while still remaining cordial to each other.  It is no longer enough to question a politician's policies and we now question their motivation and character.  Social psychology research shows that it is much harder to cooperate with others when we do not have positive contact with them.

Of course, research in a lab may not map onto real world situations so it is important to note when real world examples confirm what is suggested in research.  Recently, Patty Murray and Paul Ryan, leaders of their respective parties were able to put together a bi-partisan budget deal that will ostensibly remove the threat of government shutdowns for two full years.  According to this Politico article, some amount of the credit for this deal can be given to the relatively warm personal relationship between Murray and Ryan.

Fresh off the campaign trail last year, Ryan and Murray sat down for breakfast in the Senate dining room last December, talking about their upbringings, their churches (both are Roman Catholic), two families and two states. They found more in common than they thought, Murray said.

“I had no idea what to know about this guy,” Murray said. “He ran for vice president, he was a political figure, he walked in, and we had a really good conversation about it, about his family, my family — about who we are. Honestly, his state was kind of compatible with mine — unless you talk about football.”

Ryan praised Murray on Thursday evening, calling her a “delight” and saying the talks were “very tough, very honest … but we kept our emotions in check and we kept working at it.”


Given the convergence of evidence from both social science research and real world examples, groups and individuals who wish to reduce inter-group conflict would be well served to consider how to increase positive relationships across groups.  

- Ravi Iyer

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Evidence Based Techniques for Transcending Political Divisions: Newt Gingrich Praising Nelson Mandela

December 9th, 2013 by Ravi Iyer

Reposted from this post on the Civil Politics Blog

Human beings are the only ultra-social species (e.g. we gather and cooperate in groups of thousands and millions) where there is not a common reproductive source (e.g. a queen bee or queen ant).  The trick that allows human beings to form such large scale groups is in our moral motivations, which enable us to suppress individualistic goals in service of the group.  This trick is powerful and has a dark side, whereby we can demonize and reflexively oppose anything that benefits the other group.

This phenomenon was evident following the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, who generally is more likely to be cited as a role model by liberals and minorities.   For example, some members of the conservative base reacted negatively to praise of Mandela by conservatives like Ted Cruz.  The motivations to deny moral credentials to members of an opposing group are strong, yet psychological research suggests that one can mitigate the effect by positing larger super-ordinate groups with common goals and by demonstrating positive relationships between members of different groups.

Newt Gingrich demonstrated both of these tactics in a recent statement, entitled "What would you have done?"

Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country. [Freedom as a super-ordinate goal across groups ]

When he visited the Congress I was deeply impressed with the charisma and the calmness with which he could dominate a room. It was as if the rest of us grew smaller and he grew stronger and more dominant the longer the meeting continued. [Demonstrating personal attachment ] 

Many of the ways to reduce inter-group division that we at Civil Politics wish to highlight are used regularly by politicians with good intuitions who understand moral psychology at an implicit level, without necessarily knowing the social science that supports what they do.  We hope to make these techniques more explicit so that any interested group or individual can use these methods to break down group divisions consciously as well.

- Ravi Iyer

  If you want to hear more on hive psychology, consider watching this video:

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