THIS IS A GUEST POST BY PATRICK O’MALLEY, PH.D., A PSYCHOTHERAPIST IN FORT WORTH, TEXAS
My lifelong curiosity about human interactions led me to a career as a psychotherapist and consultant. In addition to learning the psychology of individuals, couples and families, I have also maintained the interest in social and moral psychology that I developed as an undergraduate student. Combine that with a longstanding fascination with the psychology of politics and religion and I bought Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” the minute I finished reading the review.
Haidt’s book delivered what it promised – a thorough and well researched answer to the question of “why good people are divided by politics and religion”. My desire for a new and deeper way of thinking about moral and social psychology in the area of politics and religion was satisfied. What I did not expect to obtain from this book was strategic applications in my clinical practice. If moral foundations theory can explain the behavior in large systems like politics, might it be useful as an explanation of fractures in a smaller but equally powerful systems like a couple? I have experimented with three applications of Moral Foundations Theory, which I describe below.
Application 1: Changing the focus of fighting couples from what they might be fighting about to what they may be fighting for
Beth and Mike were in my office going at it. I am a seasoned (sounds better than senior) therapist so I was in practice in the days when we believed cathartic release was a good thing for couples (any of you old enough to remember couples using bataka bats on each other as a therapeutic strategy?) Now that we know more about how the primitive part of the brain works, feeding anger is not useful as a solution for anger. So, as an up to date marital therapist, I attempted to slow down the interaction of this couple, identify some communication missteps, and teach some self-regulatory skills to manage the primitive fight responses.
As this couple calmed, I flashed back to my recent reading of moral foundations theory. I asked each spouse if it was possible that the energy in this fight might come from a drive to protect something very important and perhaps even very sacred to each of them. I asked them to consider what they were fighting for rather than fighting about. It took some work but each was able identify the important belief that triggered such a primitive fast brain response.
Over the course of our work together Mike had accepted he had a problem with alcohol. Mike eventually agreed with Beth that any amount of alcohol and driving was a great risk to their family’s wellbeing. Mike agreed with Beth’s sacred protection of the moral foundation of Care vs. Harm. The fight in this session was triggered because Mike came home in the afternoon smelling like alcohol after spending the night at their lake house. Mike’s defense was shaky. He admitted he had an uncounted number of beers the night before but he vehemently claimed he did not drive while intoxicated. He stated he had worked on the dock all day in the heat and had not showered. He smelled like he had been drinking because he was sweating out the alcohol. To my surprise, Beth believed his explanation. But also to my surprise, that did not matter. “No responsible adult would not know how much alcohol he had to drink in any circumstance,” said Beth. And, she questioned, “Did he not see the risk in walking around the lake and lake house drunk?” “A man ought to be able to have whatever he wants to drink as long as there is no obvious harm,” replied Mike. “I did not drive or operate any machinery after I drank. I agree driving and drinking is wrong. I cannot live in a relationship in which I do not have some freedom.” Mike had now voiced his moral foundation of Liberty/Oppression that overrode the agreed upon foundation of this topic of Care/Harm because he believed no harm occurred.
The pattern of couples polarizing over the competing needs of safety and freedom is common. The shift in my approach was to identify these beliefs as deep and sacred rather than just “differences of opinion”. This strategy deepened this couple’s level of acceptance of the other by identifying the sacredness of the territory being protected. In the session I actually used the language of moral foundations theory and described the information of Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression as two of six possible ways people differ that can create conflict. Both agreed the other’s sacred territory had value. They were able to acknowledge they each put extra energy into their position because they believed they were the only one able to see value in their particular moral foundation. At this level of each “getting” the other we could transition to some useful work on the early formation of their positions as it related to their family of origin history. Beth talked in more depth about the terror of living with an alcoholic mother and Mike’s disclosed his historical struggle to gain his freedom from an oppressive controlling father.
Application 2: Helping couples who actually fight about politics and religion deepen their understanding of the cause of the fight
Beth and Mike were aligned in their politics. Their conflict was about a different emphasis on two moral foundations as it impacted their interpersonal dynamics. Ruth and Bill, on the other hand, were like watching a rambunctious cable television show. Ruth contended she thought they were more alike than different politically until recently. She stated that ever since Bill began listening to certain radio programs and watching certain television shows he has acted “crazy” like the people he listens to. Bill could not imagine why any sane person, particularly his wife, is not as outraged as he is about the direction of the country.
I have seen so many similar couples in the last 5-6 years that this dynamic is beginning to look like a syndrome. Typically one spouse is an avid radio listener or television watcher of conservative commentary. The conflict is obvious if the other spouse leans a different way politically. Some couples like Ruth and Bill do not differ much politically. The problem is the intensity of the presentation of the partner who is outraged.
Prior to coming to therapy, the closest Ruth and Bill had come to fixing this frustration was Bill getting a headset so Ruth did not have to listen to what he listened to each afternoon. That solution was limited because Bill continued to yell in agreement with his afternoon show hosts creating what Ruth experienced as an unsafe environment.
Again, I encouraged this couple to dig vertically to discover the roots of the conflict using Moral Foundations Theory. Interestingly, in this conflict one moral foundation seemed to be at play in two different ways. Bill was a retired physician who had been beat up financially by managed care. His original motivation of caring for patients became overshadowed by his rage at insurance companies and forced pro bono work. He primarily tuned in to political commentary that would fire up his rage about lack of fairness as proportionality. Ruth was mad about his lack of fairness in the area of equality. She did not believe it was fair that she had to hide in her own home to escape his tirades at the radio and television. She also experienced him as not attuned to her need for a psychologically safe environment (Care/Harm). When this conflict was defined as the two different aspects of the moral foundation of Fairness and Bill’s lack of sensitivity to Care, Bill and Ruth could make a connection. She could understand that the anger he displayed was related to how hurt he was that his dream of practicing medicine was impacted by the changes in his profession. He could understand that she was not just against him, but that his aggressive presentation was unfair because it made their home less safe. Bill agreed to turn down his volume and Ruth agreed to have political discussions with him if the discussions were calm and thoughtful.
Application 3: Helping single patients assess potential partners.
Jeff was single with full custody of his three young children. Our early work in therapy focused on the expected adjustment to his new life as a single parent as well as his deep sadness about the end of his marriage. After a few years, Jeff decided he was ready to date. The children were more independent and Jeff was lonely. Jeff wanted a long-term partner.
As Jeff described his dating experience to me, I noticed an emerging pattern. If Jeff was asked to describe how his political beliefs, he would quickly respond that he was a true blue conservative. Jeff was clear with his friends who wanted to set him up that he wanted a partner who was compatible with his politics. However, Jeff would often let his elephantine sexual drive override his discerning rider only to later discover the woman he had been intimate with had liberal leanings. He came to understand how his strong drive sexually impaired his judgment. Once this fact was clear, he would more quickly dismiss relationship candidates who were “bleeding hearts” before the relationship escalated to sexual intimacy. The surprise for Jeff was even after he slowed down and made sure the women he dated shared his party affiliation, he still experienced a breakdown in their shared beliefs that he could not adequately understand.
I suggested to Jeff that he read a couple of short articles by Haidt to help him develop a deeper understanding of his political preferences and how he assessed the preferences of the women he dated. Jeff determined he was actually a political hybrid rather than his previous summary of himself as “conservative”. His moral foundations matrix was high on Care, high on Liberty, very high on Fairness, moderate on Loyalty, moderate on Authority, and low on Sanctity. One strong belief in his Fairness foundation included the idea that partners in a relationship should share the financial responsibility (distributive fairness). Several significant dating relationships ended when Jeff saw in the woman an expectation that the male should be the financial provider in a relationship.
Jeff concluded that he should not assume all Republican women he dated were a fit. His ideal partner would care for children and the disadvantaged who absolutely could not help themselves. She should value liberty and not desire a hierarchical relationship with him. She should be personally self-sufficient and with a strong belief that almost everyone else in the country should be self-sufficient as well. She should have some important group alliances and a moderate, not legalistic appreciation for authority. Finally, she should not be engaged in causes related to sanctity such as abortion or sexual abstinence outside of marriage.
I have other groups of related individuals with whom I am using moral foundations theory. I currently have several consulting cases with family businesses that are benefiting from understanding their conflict based on the theory. If you are a clinician or consultant and found Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations intriguing, keep a look out for applications with your patients and clients. You will be pleased how useful Moral Foundations theory is in your practice.
Patrick O’Malley, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist and consultant in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the past chair of the American Association For Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) Ethics Committee and the past chair of the AAMFT Judicial Committee. He also served on the Ethics Code Revision Task force for the AAMFT 2001 Code of Ethics. He has written several articles on ethical practice in marriage and family therapy. Patrick can be reached at pomalley AT swbell.net.
[Cross posted from CivilPolitics.org]
The Asteroids Club is any group of people with diverging political views who gather not to debate, but to listen to the other side explain why it is concerned about certain threats. The metaphor is meant to capture the fact that there are many threats coming at the United States–like asteroids scheduled for direct hits—yet each side of the political spectrum focuses on a few of them and ignores or discounts the asteroids that most worry the other side. As John Stuart Mill said in 1840: “in almost every one of the leading controversies… both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though in the wrong in what they denied.” The Asteroids Club is a novel format for bringing people together, over a meal, for a discussion in which each side helps the other to see more clearly. The format has been developed by The Village Square, in Tallahassee Florida.
The Nathan Cummings Foundation hosted the first New York City Asteroids Club dinner on February 26, 2014, in the home of its president, Simon Greer. The foundation is in the process of updating its research and funding portfolios, and its leaders were interested in learning more about the issues of income inequality and the causes of poverty. They were also interested in developing relationships with experts from diverse perspectives who could help them understand these complex topics. Simon and I therefore chose the two asteroids of rising income inequality (a topic of greater concern on the left), and declining rates of marriage and family stability (a topic of greater concern on the right).
This report is intended to be useful for anyone interested in hosting future dinners, or in bridging the political divide more generally. However, we note that we decided to invite experts from right and left to the first dinner, rather than ordinary people, to maximize the degree to which we could learn about the best thinking and research on these topics. This dinner may therefore not be representative of what will happen if the Asteroids Club format is rolled out and used widely by civic groups across the nation.
Preparing For the Dinner
We ran the dinner using the Chatham House rule, which says that participants are free to write about the event, but cannot reveal the identities or affiliations of the speakers. So we will simply say that we invited two very prominent and well-respected journalists, one clearly identified with liberalism, one with conservatism. We asked these two co-hosts to suggest additional people they wanted on their “team.” (We had hoped to avoid the terms “team” or “side,” but it was hard to do so.) These two co-hosts then nominated several other experts, and took a few suggestions from Simon and me about experts we know on both sides. All 10 people who were invited accepted the invitation. The final dinner was attended by 18 people: 6 liberals, 6 conservatives, Simon and me (who served as co-hosts), and four observers affiliated with the foundation. The expertise in the room was extraordinary, including journalists, economists, activists, and people with experience in government and policy-making.
Two weeks before the dinner, we assembled a list of readings nominated by the participants and posted them all in a google document that we used to share information and coordinate the evening. Because these prominent participants were all extremely busy, we did not push for them to do much preparation beforehand, although we did encourage them to read one or two articles from the other side, and to watch my TED talk that introduced the idea of the asteroids club.
The evening began at 7:30 with drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and unstructured socializing, which was quite cross-partisan. At 8:00 the two teams convened separately to go over final plans for their presentation. (In retrospect we should have encouraged the two teams to do more of this online, before arriving at the dinner). Around 8:30 everyone moved into the dining room and sat in seats that had been assigned to ensure a good mix of people at each of the two long tables. Simon welcomed everyone to his home and presented the Hebrew conception of two kinds of argument: machloket l’shem shamayim – argument that is for the sake of heaven which is intended to better discern truth and move the world forward, and 2) machloket she’lo l’shem shamayim – an argument that is not for the sake of heaven, but is just for the sake of itself or for the sake of being controversial. Argument in pursuit of truth is considered sacred in the Jewish tradition.
I then explained the history of the Asteroids Club format, and went over the groundrules, including the Chatham house rule, the exact schedule, and the role that I would play as timekeeper and moderator. Each of the participants then offered a 1-minute introduction of him- or herself. We then served ourselves dinner from the buffet, and began the structured discussion. The schedule that we intended to follow was this:
9:00 begin Asteroid #1: rising inequality, liberal side presents
–15 minutes to describe the threat; why this matters, why it’s urgent….During this time, the listening side gets to ask a few brief elaborative questions, but hold argumentative questions for the next step.
–5 minutes for “telescope” time — conservatives ask critical questions, request more info, challenge assumptions.
9:20 begin Asteroid #2 family breakdown, conservative side presents
–15 minutes to describe the threat; why this matters, why it’s urgent…. During this time, the listening side gets to ask a few brief elaborative questions, but hold argumentative questions for the next step.
–5 minutes for “telescope” time — liberals ask critical questions, request more info, challenge assumptions.
9:40: dessert served, short break
9:45 Integrative discussion, 20 min.
–10 min: Return to Asteroid #1: Inequality. Go deeper: what does the liberal side most want to change, address, or at least have understood (taking into account family breakdown)
–10 min: Return to Asteroid #2: Family Breakdown: Go deeper: what does the conservative side most want to change, address, or at least have understood? (taking into account rising inequality)
10:05 Concluding discussion and resolutions.
10:30: End of formal discussion, take closing survey.
The schedule we actually followed was close to this, but because we were running behind and because there was clearly a surprising amount of agreement on what aspects of poverty were of great concern, I decided to merge the two parts of the integrative discussion into a single discussion of what really matters – what issues either side had raised that seemed to elicit at least some assent from the other side.
In general there was bipartisan agreement that income inequality has been rising in recent decades, although there was NOT bipartisan agreement that rising inequality itself was a problem that needed to be addressed. There was, however, bipartisan (though not necessarily unanimous) agreement that the following issues are concerns or problems, and that we would be a better country if we could address them:
- Dignity, and the indignities disproportionately suffered by the poor
- Distrust of government and democracy
- Waste: the financial squeeze and inefficiency caused by “arms races” as people spend more money to attain “positional goods” such as a home in a good school district.
- Lack of opportunity for large segments of society; The waste of human potential among the poor.
- Declining motivation and economic dynamism – which can be stimulated by moderate degrees of inequality (this point was noted by a liberal)
- Abuses of power, which becomes easier for those with a lot of money
- Separateness – having communities that are cut off from the mainstream of society; having low social trust and cohesion.
In general there WAS bipartisan agreement that marriage rates and family stability have declined in recent decades. There WAS bipartisan agreement that these trends are bad for society, and that it would be good if we could find ways of reversing the trends. There was a very high degree of bipartisan concern about poverty, especially for its pernicious effects on children. There was also a consensus that the people who suffer most from these trends are single mothers (who bear the main costs and stresses of raising children under often adverse circumstances) and their sons. Daughters suffer too, of course, but there was consensus that boys’ outcomes are more adversely affected by the absence of a father, and these adverse outcomes then set up a feedback loop for the next generation in which there are way too few stable, employed, and marriageable young men who could break the cycle of father-absence.
The Post-Dinner Assessment
We are working with my colleagues at CivilPolitics.org to develop assessment tools that can be used by any organization running any kind of civility-enhancing event. For future events, we will send all participants a link to a web-based survey a few days before the event, then pass out a paper questionnaire at the conclusion of the event, then send out a web-based followup survey a week after the event, to assess the effects of the event on attitudes about the asteroids, and about the people on the other side. For this first dinner, with 12 super-busy people, we only obtained four responses to the first web survey. (You can see that first survey here. Future versions will be much more extensive.) We therefore decided to focus our efforts on obtaining measures of the key variables at the conclusion of the evening. Did people come to see the asteroid presented by the other side as a clearer or more pressing threat than they had before the dinner? That is the central goal of an Asteroids Club dinner.
We collected responses from all 6 liberals and from 5 of the conservatives. For each asteroid, we asked participants whether their views had changed regarding both the PACE of the threat and the SEVERITY of the threat. For example, here is the exact text of one of the four main questions:
How has tonight’s discussion influenced your beliefs about the severity of the problem of income inequality for the USA?
___I now see it as a much less severe problem than I did a week ago
___I now see it as a slightly less severe problem than I did a week ago
___The discussion did not influence my beliefs in either direction
___I now see it as a slightly more severe problem than I did a week ago
___I now see it as a much more severe problem than I did a week ago
The graph below shows the results. Let’s start with family decline. The liberals (shown on the left half) DID move in the desired direction. They now see it as a more rapidly approaching threat (gold bar, 4 moved), and a more severe threat (purple bar, 5 moved). The conservatives did not really move on family decline, nor did we expect them to. (The gold bar doesn’t even show because nobody moved.)
On inequality, the story was quite different. No conservative moved at all on the speed of the change (which is why the blue bar does not show), and the only movement on severity came from a single conservative who said that he/she now sees the problem as “slightly less severe” than before. (The liberals also showed no movement on inequality, except for a single participant who said “slightly more severe” than before.)
What can we make of this pattern? It appears that the asteroids club format worked for the family decline asteroid. The conservatives presented the asteroid, the liberals listened, and then came to see it as a greater threat. This is very encouraging.
But it is harder to know how to interpret the results on the inequality asteroid. The lack of movement could have resulted because A) the liberal team made a weaker case about inequality than the conservatives had for family decline, or B) the conservatives were less open-minded and willing to listen, or C) the facts about inequality and its harms are truly more ambiguous and contestable than they are for the family decline asteroid. My conclusion from the background reading, and from the conversation during the dinner, is that C is true and is at least part of the explanation.
We also asked: “Compared to other discussions about policy and politics you’ve had in politically ‘mixed company,’ how enjoyable was this ‘asteroids club’ format?” We offered 5 choices, ranging from “much less enjoyable” (scored as -2) to “much more enjoyable” (scored at +2). Six respondents said “much more enjoyable,” one said “about the same,” and four said “slightly more enjoyable.” There was no significant difference between the liberals and conservatives, which is quite encouraging
Conclusions and advice for future Asteroids Club dinners:
Based on the data above, and on comments made by participants after the dinner, I draw the following conclusions and lessons:
1) The format is enjoyable and promotes civil interaction. Sharing a meal in a private home seems to have made people particularly polite and open.
2) It is difficult to do two asteroids in a single 2 hour discussion. There are advantages to doing two – it led to a sense of balance and fairness. But at least 3 hours of discussion would have been needed to cover both.
3) Relationships matter, and it takes time to get to know each other and develop trust. Ideally, asteroids clubs will be true clubs, with a stable membership that meets every month or two.
4) The exact instructions for each part of the evening matter. More work is needed, drawing from experts in negotiation and facilitated discussion, on how to optimize the integrative discussion and conclusion.
5) More “warmup” exercises could be tried. We kept this evening fairly direct and cerebral – focused on the ideas and research. But future events could begin with more activities to build trust and cohesion, such as singing the National Anthem, or doing introductions in a much more personal way, or pairing off in bipartisan teams for short initial discussions, and then having participants report to the group by introducing their partner and his/her main concerns.
The bottom line is that we created a novel social situation which called for openness, trust, and collaborative thinking, and the participants rose to the occasion. There was no partisan sniping and not a shred of hostility. People sometimes made points that supported the other side. Many on both sides expressed a desire to continue the conversation. Which we will do, in a way soon to be announced.
If you are interested in hosting an Asteroids Club dinner yourself, please visit: www.AsteroidsClub.org