Has social psychology become a Tribal Moral Community since the 1960s? Are we a community that is bound together by liberal values and then blind to any ideas or findings that threaten our sacred values? I believe the answer is yes, and I’ll make 3 points to support that claim.
A transcribed speech by Jonathan Haidt
In recent years moral psychology has become a convergence zone for research in many fields. I have summarized the state of the art in moral psychology with these 4 principles. Whenever you want to understand what’s going on in a complex social system, these principles can help. As we think about the future of social psychology, and where we might be in 2020, I think that this 4th one is particularly helpful. Morality binds and blinds. This principle can reveal a rut we’ve gotten ourselves into, and it will show us a way out.
The biggest question of all time has sometimes been said to be this: Why is there something, rather than nothing? Why is there a universe at all, and why did it begin so rapidly 14 billion years ago? The question is usually asked of astronomers and other natural scientists, but it is just as puzzling, and just as grand, when addressed to social scientists. Why are there large cooperative societies at all, and why did they emerge so rapidly in the last 10,000 years? How did humans become ultrasocial?
Many animals are social. That’s not hard to explain from an evolutionary point of view. But only a few are ultrasocial. That is, they live together in very large groups of hundreds or thousands, with a massive division of labor, and a willingness to sacrifice for the group. This trick was first discovered over 100 million years ago by the hymenoptera, that is bees, wasps, and ants. But it was discovered completely independently by some cockroaches who became ultrasocial; we now know them as termites. And it was also discovered completely independently by one species of mammal, the naked mole rat. In all of these cases, though, the trick is the same, that is, they are all first degree relatives. They’re all sisters, or sisters and brothers, and they concentrate breeding in a queen. The queen is not the ruler; she’s simply the ovary, and in all of these species it’s one for all, all for one. If they keep the queen alive to reproduce, they reproduce.
There’s just one ultrasocial species on Earth that doesn’t use this trick, and that’s us. We humans qualify as being ultrasocial. We live together in very large groups of hundreds or thousands or millions, with a massive division of labor and a willingness to sacrifice for the group. But how do we do it? What’s our trick? Clearly we don’t suppress breeding and concentrate it in one queen or one breeding couple.
Our trick is very different, Our evolved trick is our ability to forge a team by circling around sacred objects & principles. This is a photograph of Muslims circling the Ka’ba, at Mecca. People of all faiths are brought together by their shared devotion to sacred objects, people, and principles. This ability is crucial in war. And in politics. We’re just really good at binding ourselves together into teams, mostly when we’re competing with other teams.
Sacredness is a central and subtle concept in sociology and anthropology, but we can get a simple working definition of it from Phil Tetlock [a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania]. Tetlock defines a sacred values as “any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance …” If something is a sacred value, you can’t make utilitarian tradeoffs; you can’t think in a utilitarian way. You can’t sell a little piece of it for a lot of money, for example. Sacredness precludes tradeoffs. When sacred values are threatened, we turn into “intuitive theologians.” That is, we use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred.
You can see sacredness at work most clearly in religion, of course. In Christianity, as in Hinduism and many other religions, there’s a very explicit vertical dimension running from God at the top to the Devil at the bottom. Religious Christians generally see the bible as holy; it’s not a book like any other book; it has to be protected from threats to its holiness. Those threats can be physical, as when somebody spits on or burns a bible. Or those threats can be threats to its veracity and authority, as arose when Darwin’s ideas began to spread. There’s a direct contradiction between Darwin and the book of Genesis, so something’s gotta give. Some Christians started reading Adam and Eve as metaphor. But those who really sacralized the bible were not able to make such a compromise. They went the other way. They became even more literalist, more fundamentalist. The bible goes up, Darwin goes down.
Of course, this makes it harder for them to understand the biological world around them, and they are then forced into a lot of bad biology, such as intelligent design. Sacralizing distorts thinking. These distortions are easy for outsiders to see, but they are invisible to those inside the force field.
And I really mean force field. Sacred values act like a powerful electromagnet, generating moral flux lines. Everyone and everything must fall into place along those lines. Here’s an image of a magnet under a piece of glass, with iron ore shavings spread on top. The shavings all fall into line. Within a moral force field, deviance is deeply disturbing. Apostates and heretics must be banished or executed.
But moral force fields are not only found in religious communities. They can operate in academic fields as well. Let’s look at the 3 very liberal social sciences: anthropology, sociology, and psychology. These 3 fields have always leaned left, but things really changed in the 1960s. The civil rights struggle, the brutality inflicted upon peaceful marchers, the Viet Nam war, the assassinations of black leaders… Racial injustice in America was overwhelming, highly visible, and for many people, revolting. The generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s was profoundly shaped by these experiences.
A vertical dimension formed, I believe, along the axis of race and racism. Martin Luther King was martyred and sacralized, and the fight for civil rights–the fight against racism–became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and in universities. Racists and oppressors were at the bottom. Victims of racism and opponents of oppression were at the top.
Social science research often bears on policy issues, and so many of those issues got caught up in the moral flux lines. Just look what happened when Pat Moynihan, a liberal sociologist and public policy expert, wrote a report, for president Johnson’s war on poverty, titled “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” Moynihan desperately wanted government action to help African Americans. But his report included a chapter called “the tangle of pathology” which was his term for the interconnected problems of unmarried motherhood and welfare dependency. Moynihan used the term “culture of poverty.” Even though he was very clear that the ultimate cause of this pathology was racism, he still committed the cardinal sin: He criticized African American culture, which means that in a way, he blamed the victims.
The moral electro magnet turned on, tradeoffs were prohibited. Victims had to be blameless. Moynihan went down and was shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard as a racist. Conversely, the policies went up. They became articles of faith; if your research cast doubt on their efficacy or ethics, you were in violation of the moral force field, and you were a traitor to the team.
Morality binds and blinds, and so, open-minded inquiry into the problems of the Black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along. Sacralizing distorts thinking. Sacred values bind teams together, and then blind them to the truth. That’s fine if you are a religious community. I follow Emile Durkheim in believing that the social function of religion is group binding. But this is not fine for scientists, who ought to value truth above group cohesion.
There’s a term you’ve probably heard in the last 5 years: the “reality based community”. It was a term used contemptuously by Karl Rove at the height of Republican power, when it looked as though the invasion of Iraq had been a smashing success, and Republicans could make their own reality. When the term was brought to light in 2004, liberals then embraced it, because liberals believe that they have science on their side, while conservatives are blinded by religion and ignorance.
But if it’s true that morality binds and blinds, then no partisan community is based in reality. If a group circles around sacred values, they’ll evolve into a tribal moral community. They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value. You can see this on the right with global warming denialism. They’re protecting their sacralized free markets. But when sacred values are threatened, the moral force field turns on, and beliefs fall into line. We become intuitive theologians.
III) Is Social Psychology a Tribal Moral Community?
Has social psychology become a Tribal Moral Community since the 1960s? Are we a community that is bound together by liberal values and then blind to any ideas or findings that threaten our sacred values? I believe the answer is yes, and I’ll make 3 points to support that claim.
1) We have taboos and danger zones.
First, we have taboos and danger zones. We social psychologists are normally so good at challenging each other’s causal theories. If someone describes a phenomenon and then proposes a causal explanation, the rest of us will automatically generate 5 alternative causal explanations, along with 5 control conditions needed to rule out those alternatives. Except when any of these issues are in play. These issues turn on the force field, constrain our thinking, and deprive us of our ability to think of the full range of alternative hypotheses. It’s too dangerous for me to work through examples. I’ll just refer you to Larry Summers’ famous musings about why men are overrepresented in math and science departments at the nation’s top universities.
As on one of his 3 hypotheses, he noted that there is a sex difference in the standard deviation of IQ scores between men and women. He didn’t say that men are smarter. He didn’t say that men have higher IQs. He just noted the well known fact that the variance of male scores is larger, which means that there are more men at the very bottom, and at the very top. Might that contribute to the underrepresentation of women at the very top levels of science? If you’re standing outside the force field it’s a good hypothesis, certainly worth exploring. But if you’re inside the force field, it is not a permissible hypothesis. It is sacrilege. It blames the victims, rather than the powerful. The ensuing outrage led ultimately to his resignation as president of Harvard. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.
2) A statistically impossible lack of diversity
My second point is that we have a statistically impossible lack of diversity in social psychology. This graph shows Gallup data since 1992. Self-identified conservatives have long made up about 40% of the American public. Self identified liberals have made up about 20%. So the ratio in America is about two to one, conservative to liberal. What’s the ratio in social psychology?
To begin calculating our ratio, I first turned to Google. I simply Googled the phrase “liberal social psychologist.” I got 2740 hits. Then I changed liberal to conservative, and got 3 hits. So it looks like a ratio of roughly 1000 to one, liberal to conservative. But it’s actually much higher than that because this first one is some guy on a dating site asserting that his father was the only conservative social psychologist; this second one is a typographical error; and this third one is a conservative blogger who is angry about liberal bias in social psychology, who writes … “we can further conclude that the possible existence of a conservative social psychologist is statistically insignificant.” So Google failed to uncover a single instance of a conservative social psychologist who is currently active.
I next conducted a small survey by emailing 30 social psychologists I know, spanning all levels from very senior professors down to grad student. I simply asked:… “Can you reply to this message with the names of any social psychologists that you believe are politically conservative?” There were 4 names mentioned one time each, but each of them was hedged with doubt, such as “I don’t really know, but she did work with Phil Tetlock.” So I won’t print these 4 names. Peter Suedfeld got 2 votes, and he definitely worked with Tetlock. Rick McCauley got 3 votes. The next most common candidate was “I can’t think of any conservatives.” And finally, it turns out there is a fair amount of agreement as to who the conservative is in social psychology, and its Phil Tetlock. So there you have it, we do have a conservative. That conservative blogger was wrong. Right?
Well, not quite. I wrote to Phil to ask him whether it was true, as widely believed, that he is a conservative. Phil wrote back to me, in characteristically Tetlockian fashion, and said: “I hold a rather complex (value-pluralistic) bundle of preferences and labeling me liberal or conservative or libertarian or even moderate is just not very informative.”
But I pressed on in my search for the wild conservative social psychologist, and I found him, hiding in a bamboo grove outside of Philadelphia. Watch closely: there he is. Rick McCauley, at Bryn Mawr College. Rick is the only social psychologist I know of who publicly acknowledges that he is politically conservative.
I am extremely fortunate that I got to know Rick when I was a grad student at Penn, because Rick was a friend of one of my advisors, Paul Rozin. When I first met Rick I was wary of him. I had heard that he was a conservative. I had heard that he supported the Viet Nam war. It was only after I forged a personal relationship with him that I got over my distrust. I had never before met an actual conservative professor, and it took me a while to realize how valuable it was to hear from someone with a different perspective. Rick is now one of America’s foremost experts on the psychology of terrorism. I am convinced that many of his insights have only been possible because he stands outside of the liberal force field.
But McCauley can’t be the only conservative in social psychology. If we did a poll of the whole field, we’d surely find at least, what, five percent? Well, this room is just about the best sample of social psychologists we’re ever going to find, so let’s see. If there’s around a thousand people here, we should have about 50 conservatives. That would be 5%. So please tell me, by show of hands: How would you describe your political orientation? If you had to choose from one of these 4 labels, which would you pick? How many of you would describe yourself as liberal, or left of center. [At this point, a sea of hands went up. I estimated that it was between 80 and 90% of the audience, and I estimated the audience size to be about 1000 people.] How many of you would describe yourself as centrist or moderate? [approximately 20 hands went up]. How many of you would describe yourselves as libertarians? [Twelve hands went up] And when I asked how many would describe themselves as conservative, or right of center? [Exactly three hands went up.]
As you can see, we have nowhere near 50 conservatives in this room, we are nowhere near 5%. The actual number seems to be about 0.3%. In this room, the ratio of liberals to conservatives appears to be about 800 to 3, or 266 to 1. So the speaker in the earlier talk was correct when he said, from this stage: “I’m a good liberal democrat, just like every other social psychologist I know.”
Of course there are many reasons why conservatives would be underrepresented in social psychology, and most of them have nothing to do with discrimination or hostile climate. Research on personality consistently shows that liberals are higher on openness to experience. They’re more interested in novel ideas, and in trying to use science to improve society. So of course our field is and always will be mostly liberal. I don’t think we should ever strive for exact proportional representation.
But a ratio of two or three hundred to one, in a nation where the underlying ratio is one to two? When we find any job in the nation in which women or minorities are underrepresented by a factor of three or four, we make the strong presumption that this constitutes evidence of discrimination. And if we can’t find evidence of overt discrimination, we presume that there must be a hostile climate that discourages underrepresented groups from entering.
I submit to you that the underrepresentation of conservatives in social psychology, by a factor of several hundred, is evidence that we are a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering.
3) Closeted Conservatives
And this brings me to my third point, closeted conservatives. I recently came across this narrative, written by a young gay woman in 1985:
Until about a year ago, I was very quiet about my sexual orientation… I often didn’t understand the sexual jokes made by my colleagues… the people making the jokes thought that we all felt the same way, and I certainly wasn’t going to reveal that I disagreed. That would have been much too awkward.
JB was really the first person I talked to about my sexual identity. He made me feel more comfortable and seemed to want to hear other perspectives…. Since then, taking PT’s class opened up a dialog and others have shared more as well. Before I thought that I was completely alone and was afraid to say much because of it. Now I feel both somewhat obligated to speak up (don’t want others to feel as alone as I did) and also know that I have more support than I originally realized.
Compare that text to this political coming out narrative, which was sent to me last week, as I was searching for conservative social psychologists. One of my friends said, in response to my email survey, that he knew of two grad students who might be conservative. I wrote to each of them and asked them about their experiences in social psychology. Both of them said they are not conservative, but neither are they liberal, and because they are not liberal, they feel pressure to keep quiet. One of them wrote this to me. As you can see, it’s nearly identical to the coming out narrative.
In fact, it differs by just five words, because that’s all I had to change to convert this text… into this text, which I told you, falsely, was a coming out narrative from 1985. This is the text of the email that was sent to me last week, by a graduate student who is here in the room with us right now. She and other non-liberal students would like to come out of the closet, just as gay students wanted to 25 years ago. I think we have an obligation to help them.
Of course it’s a moral issue, and the moral argument about political discrimination is being developed by Richard Redding, at Chapman University Law School. But I’m going to set that aside. I’m not even going to make the moral argument. Rather, what I really want to emphasize today is that it is a scientific issue. We are hurting ourselves when we deprive ourselves of critics, of people who are as committed to science as we are, but who ask different questions, and make different background assumptions.
Here’s the email I got from the other non-liberal student:
I consider myself very middle of the road politically: A social liberal but fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, I avoid the topic of politics around work… Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, thereby, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not.
This too is from a student who is in the room with us right now.
This how we like to see ourselves. We social psychologists are supertolerant free thinkers. We celebrate diversity and non-conformity. We boldly follow our science wherever it takes us, and no matter whom it offends. We care only about truth!
But in reality, we are a tribal moral community. In support of that claim, I made three arguments. I said that, because we have sacred values other than truth, we have taboos that constrain our thinking; we have almost no moral/political diversity; and we have created a hostile climate for graduate students who don’t share those sacred values. If these statements are true, then I think we must begin some serious discussions about how to turn off the magnet.
IV) Our Bright Post-Partisan Future
If we can do so, I think the benefits to our field and our science will be enormous. One obvious benefit of post-partisan social psychology will be more credibility in Washington and with the general public. It will be easier to claim that psychology should be treated and funded like the hard sciences if legislators in both parties feel they can trust our research.
A second benefit of post-partisan social psychology will be rapid progress on new topics. When women flooded into the social sciences in the 1970s, they often investigated topics that had been overlooked by men. They found different topics interesting. Just think of Shelly Taylor’s work on the “tend and befriend” hypothesis. If we can welcome a few hundred conservatives in the next decade, I can guarantee that they’ll pick bushels of low-hanging fruit that the rest of us missed.
But the most important benefit we’ll get from shutting off the magnet will be better science and freer thinking. We’ll escape from some ruts we are currently stuck in.
Here’s an example of one such rut. Stephen Jay Gould spent his life studying evolution in other animals, but was bitterly hostile to sociobiology, because he feared that it opened up a space for differences among human groups. Liberal politics DEMANDS that there be no innate differences between groups. So liberal politics DEMANDS that there has been nothing more than trivial genetic evolution in the 50,000 years since humans spread out from Africa. As Gould put it: “There’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.”
But this view, so widely held in psychology and anthropology, was never based on any evidence. Darwin didn’t think evolution was so slow; he wrote extensively about the effects obtained in a few generations by animal breeders. In a spectacular experiment in the Soviet Union, Dmitri Belyaev chose the tamest fox pups in each generation to become the parents of the next generation. By ten generations new features began to appear, such as the white patch and curled tail that dogs have. By 30 generations he had created what was essentially a new species of domesticated animals. So genetic evolution doesn’t require thousands of generations; it can happen in dozens, at least under special conditions.
What about under the actual conditions of human history? How fast is human evolution? That’s an empirical question, and thanks to the human genome project, we now have empirical answers. Several studies in the last 5 years have examined genomes from hundreds of people around the world. These studies focus on bits of the genome called SNIPS, or “Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms.” The studies rely upon a method for distinguishing SNIPS that simply drifted through populations randomly, and those that have been pulled along by natural selection. Here are the astonishing findings of one such study. [Hawks, Wang, Cochran, Harpending, & Moyzis (2007), Recent Acceleration of Human Adaptive Evolution, in PNAS] Each dot represents the number of SNIPS that seem to have been pulled along by natural selection, within each 200 year block of time, from 80,000 years ago to the present.
The red dots show findings from African genomes; the blue dots are from European genomes. The slight difference between the blue and red lines is irrelevant; it just shows that the speedup began earlier in Africa, which makes sense. [Because populations were much larger in Africa at that time, and increasing population size is the primary cause of the speedup; more people means more candidate mutations.] There’s just one feature of the graphs that matters, and that’s the gigantic increase in genetic change due to natural selection in the last 20 thousand years.
So Gould got it exactly backwards! Evolution isn’t slow, and it didn’t stop 50 thousand years ago. In fact, it sped up, between 10 and 100 times faster. Sure, the Pleistocene era was important. But I predict that in the next 10 years, the Holocene is where the action will be. That’s the last 10-12 thousand years, since the ice ages ended. There’s a vast new frontier opening up for scientists interested in gene-culture co-evolution. The Holocene is a guaranteed scientific growth stock for the next decade. But we social psychologists cannot take part in the rally because of our paralyzing fear of race differences. So we’ll be stuck with 20th century evolutionary psychology for another generation or two.
The irony, in my mind, is that if evolution really is this fast, then race is no longer a very useful construct for genetics. The issue is not: what happened to Europeans vs. Africans, it’s what happened to this lowland group that took up agriculture and lived in a hierarchical social structure for a thousand years, versus a nearby highland group that took up herding and lived in a more egalitarian way. Or, how do groups respond, culturally and genetically, to decreasing parasite load, or to increasing opportunities for trade? Genes and cultural innovations interact, in small groups, not in continent-wide races. If we can shut off our magnet, then we can participate in these exciting new cross-disciplinary discussions.
In closing, I hope I’ve convinced you that we are in fact a tribal moral community, and that our science will improve if we can shut off our moral electromagnet. Here are 3 things you can do to make that happen. First, be careful about “locker room” talk. Be careful when there are students around about creating a hostile climate. Don’t say things like “I’m a good liberal democrat, just like every other social psychologist I know.”
Second, expose yourself to other perspectives. I have a project along with Ravi Iyer and Matt Motyl, at CivilPolitics.org, where we bring together materials to help people understand the other side. I also suggest that you read a book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. And consider subscribing to National Review. I read about 8 magazines every month. Seven of them lean left. I get more new ideas from reading National Review than from any of the others.
Third, advocate for moral diversity, in admissions and hiring. It may perhaps be possible to shut off our magnet without finding any actual conservatives. But I think we should take our own rhetoric about the benefits of diversity seriously, and apply it to ourselves. I think we should make it a priority to find, nurture, and welcome a few dozen conservatives into our ranks. We are the world’s experts in this sort of challenge. We know how to do this.
Here is a screen shot from the SPSP webpage describing our diversity initiatives. It states as an explicit goal fostering “the career development of students who come from underrepresented groups, i.e., ethnic or racial minorities, first generation college students, individuals with a physical disability, and or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered students.”
I’d like to make 3 specific suggestions, which I issue as challenges to our incoming president, and to the SPSP executive board. First, can we change “i.e.” to “e.g.?” Why should it be i.e.? Do we really want to say to the public that this is the official list of groups that get benefits? Second, can we tack on a phrase like: “or who bring helpful and underrepresented perspectives in other ways?” And third, I’d like us to set a goal for SPSP that we become 10% conservative by 2020. Yes, I am actually recommending affirmative action for conservatives. Set aside any moral arguments; my claim is that it would be good for us.
Just Imagine if we had a true diversity of perspectives in social psychology. Imagine if conservative students felt free enough to challenge our dominant ideas, and bold enough to pull us out of our deepest ideological ruts. That is my vision for our bright post-partisan future.
[Click the link at the top to view the responses by other psychologists.]