Are moral foundation scores heritable? A new paper by Kevin Smith et al. has tested moral foundations theory in a sample of Australian twins and found that moral foundations are neither heritable nor stable over time. The authors summarized MFT fairly, and they used a research design that is appropriate for the questions they asked, but with one major flaw: They improvised an ultra-short measure of moral foundations (around 2008) that turned out to be so poor that they essentially have no measure of moral foundations at time 1. Then at time 2 (around 2010), they used a better measure when the MFQ20 became available. As I show below, little can be concluded about heritability and nothing can be concluded about stability from their data.
Citation: Smith, K. B., Alford, J. R., Hibbing, J. R., Martin, N. G., & Hatemi, P. K. (2016). Intuitive Ethics and Political Orientations: Testing Moral Foundations as a Theory of Political Ideology. American Journal of Political Science. doi: 10.1111/ajps.12255
Abstract: Originally developed to explain cultural variation in moral judgments, moral foundations theory (MFT) has become widely adopted as a theory of political ideology. MFT posits that political attitudes are rooted in instinctual evaluations generated by innate psychological modules evolved to solve social dilemmas. If this is correct, moral foundations must be relatively stable dispositional traits, changes in moral foundations should systematically predict consequent changes in political orientations, and, at least in part, moral foundations must be heritable. We test these hypotheses and find substantial variability in individual-level moral foundations across time, and little evidence that these changes account for changes in political attitudes. We also find little evidence that moral foundations are heritable. These findings raise questions about the future of MFT as a theory of ideology.
Below is the signed (non-anonymous) review I submitted in August of 2014, when I was asked to evaluate a previous version of the manuscript for a different journal. The authors seem to have added some new datasets that use the MFQ 30 (on non-twins) to examine the factor structure of the MFQ, but there is nothing they can do to fix the measurement problems from wave 1 of their twin study. I have put in bold the main problems with the article, so you can get the point by just reading those sections.
I did not know who the authors were, in 2014. Now that I know, I can add that I am a fan of their work and their general approach integrating to integrating biology, psychology, and political science. We all agree that individuals are biologically and genetically “predisposed” to find certain political ideas more agreeable, but that these predispositions are not predeterminations — life experiences and learning shape political identities as they develop beyond those predispositions. So we all agree that something about political identity is heritable. (To see our main statement on Moral Foundations Theory, evolution, and personality, click here.)
This paper has the potential to be very important. It is always a big deal when a psychological construct gets is first heritability data, particularly when that construct is related to highly visible recent developments on the heritability of ideology. It is also the case that this paper is well argued and well developed theoretically. The authors have read my work closely and summarized it fairly with a few small exceptions.
The entire question of publication, however, turns on whether the authors have adequately measured moral foundations. If the measures they use to quantify the moral foundations in each participant are nearly as good as the measures they use to quantify ideology, then the inferences they make about causal directions and heritability are on solid ground. But if the two-item measures of moral foundations used here are much less reliable than the 23 item measure of ideology, then of course it will appear that ideology is stable and heritable (if indeed it is heritable), while moral foundations will appear unstable and unheritable (even if they are heritable).
I believe that the 2-item measures used in this paper to assign scores on moral foundations are extremely poor measures, based on my own data, on nationally representative American data, and on the authors’ reported data.
Here’s the main problem: My colleagues and I have examined scales of varying lengths, and concluded that 20 items is the shortest MFQ that we are willing to endorse. We base this conclusion on what we think was an innovative analysis. In Graham, Nosek et al. 2011, the paper that presented and validated the MFQ-30, we conducted a variety of tests of reliability and validity. We began with our original 40 item scale, consisting of 20 “relevance” items – 4 for each of the 5 foundations, and 20 “judgment” items, consisting of 4 statements for each of the 5 foundations. We then asked how much we would lose, in terms of the scale’s ability to predict other scales (as markers of external validity) if we shortened the scale. We found that nothing is lost when we move down from 40 to 30 items, dropping the worst 2 items for each foundation (one relevance, and one judgment item). However, dropping from 30 to 20 items produces a moderate loss, and dropping from 20 to 10 produces a big loss in predictive validity. We therefore endorsed the MFQ-30 as our main measure of the moral foundations, and we also offered the MFQ-20 for cases in which researchers need the absolute shortest form they can get away with. However, on our website, MoralFoundations.org, we specifically say this:
“If you must have a shorter version, you can use the MFQ20 (a 20 item version of the MFQ, with alphas that are slightly lower and with less breadth of conceptual coverage)… Please use the MFQ30 if at all possible. It’s hard to get good measurement with just 4 items per foundation!”
Unfortunately, the current authors used just 10 items – a mere 2 items per foundation. To make matters worse, they chose the format that is more abstract, further away from moral intuition, and, in our experience, harder for less educated participants to process. As we say in our 2011 paper validating the MFQ:
“we wanted to supplement the abstract relevance assessments—which, as self-theories about how one makes moral judgments, may be inaccurate with regard to actual moral judgments (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977)—with contextualized items that could more directly gauge actual moral judgments…. the Relevance subscale may better assess explicit theories about what is morally relevant, and the Judgments subscale may better assess actual use of moral foundations in judgment.”
To make matters even worse still, three of the ten items they chose happen to be among the worst of our 40 original items – they are items we don’t even include in the MFQ30, because they reduced (or did not contribute to) reliability. The items are “harmed” “affected your group,” and “fulfilled duties of his or her role.” So three of the five subscales in Wave 1 are essentially using a single valid item to assess foundation scores.
To examine the matter empirically, I found an old database from 2008 that had data from our original 40 item scale, including all 10 of the items used by the present authors. The dataset had 28,596 participants who completed the MFQ40, mostly from the USA, followed by Canada, UK, and Australia. I then examined how well each of the 5 foundation subscales do in terms of reliability and also correlation with self-described political ideology (1=very liberal, 7 = very conservative). I computed these values for the full MFQ (with 6 items per scale), as this is our baseline, or best measure of the constructs. Those numbers appear in the first data column, below. You can see that reliability is generally good (average alpha = .74), and the correlations with ideology are robust (average absolute value = .45)
I then examined how much these numbers fall off when the scale is shortened to the MFQ-20, using the items that we endorsed. As you can see, the dropoff is slight, which validates our choice of items for the MFQ20. Finally, I examined how these numbers fall off when the scale is shortened to the exact 10 items used in Wave 1 in the current study. The dropoff is large. Reliability plummets to .532, and correlations with ideology plummet to r=.286.
2008 Megafile with n = 28,596 who took the MFQ40
|6 item (MFQ-30)||4-item (MFQ-20)||2 item scale used in twin study wave 1|
|CORRELATIONS W. IDEOLOGY|
|Avg absolute value||.445||.401||.286|
I believe this very poor measurement constitutes an insurmountable defect in the data, and therefore in the argument made in the paper on the basis of the data.
To use an analogy, suppose I wanted to assess the stability of a mountain range over time. I ask my 8 year old son to draw mountain #1, and I take a photograph of Mountain #2. Two years later, I ask my son to draw mountain #1 again, and I take another photograph of Mountain #2. If I compare the images across time, I would conclude that mountain #1 was unstable and highly changeable, whereas Mountain #2 was very stable over time.
I think the same thing is happening here: The present study claims that moral foundations and the MFQ are largely useless, but in fact it’s just a measurement problem. It is not appropriate to demolish a theory when one has not actually measured the central constructs of the theory.
I will now run through the manuscript in order, noting additional points.
–p. 1-6: excellent summary of the theory and its entailments, except as noted below.
–p.2: The claim is made that “any within-individual change in these modules should cause a predictable within-individual change in ideology.” This is false. If people become a bit more compassionate after traveling in a poor country, or a bit more prone to endorse authority after having children, there is no reason to think that one would pick up a change in their self-described ideology or political party. Ideology is a very pronounced social identity; it is socially sticky. It is not just a direct readout of one’s scores on the MFQ.
–p.5, the environmental component of moral development is not just “social reinforcement”. We are not behaviorists. It’s learning of all sorts, some of which is self-constructed, some of which is related to narrative… moral development is complex. People’s moral and political identities can change with no change in their underlying foundations, just as a house can be remodeled with no change to its foundation. It’s just that some kinds of houses/ideology are more likely than chance to be built on some kinds of foundations.
–p.7: its not appropriate to speak of fractions, such as “a fifth of the moral domain”. Care and Fairness support most of the moral domain for just about everybody in the Western world, liberal or conservative. We do not claim that all foundations are equally important or prominent; it’s very difficult to judge percentages anyway.
–p. 7, the affirmative action example is a poor one, because it’s about differing conceptions of fairness, mostly, on both sides.
–p. 8, the social reinforcement point again. Also, “ideology is a stable dispositional trait IN PART because the underlying moral foundations are stable dispositional traits.” People’s self-narrative, local community, public identity, etc contribute to the stability of ideology.
—-p.9, with the above modifications, the 3 assumptions of MFT seem valid to me. I would not expect small changes in moral foundations to be detectible in later ideology, but big changes might. And given that just about everything is heritable to some degree, I would expect moral foundations to be so too, even if they are Level 2 constructs in MacAdams’ terms. So I really like the overall design of this study.
–P. 12: The authors devote considerable effort to showing that their 2-item MFQ subscales have high reliability and predictability, but as I’ve shown above, I think this is unlikely. One of the problems with the “relevance” items is that it uses an unusual item format, which we have found is difficult for less educated participants. They are not asked to tell us what they believe, as in the “judgments” format. They are asked to rate “When you decide whether something is right or wrong, to what extent are the following considerations relevant to your thinking?” We have concluded that this format introduces a large method effect – some people interpret the request in such a way that everything gets a high rating; others interpret it such that they use the middle of the scale, or a broader range of the scale. As evidence of this, we can look at the alpha of the entire scale for each format – all 15 items in the relevance section, compared to all 15 items in the judgment section. There is no reason why the entire relevance section should have a very high alpha – there are 5 subscales, and we don’t want to see that they all correlate with each other. Yet in fact, they do.
Using that same dataset as before, with the whole MFQ40, we find that alpha for the Full set of 20 relevance items is very high, .853, whereas for the 20 judgment items, it is lower, .728. This indicates that there is more of a method artifact in the Relevance section. Some people give really high scores, on all questions, some give lower, on all questions.
When we first started getting nationally representative datasets, in which the education level is lower than at YourMOrals.org, we began to see that this problem is even more acute. We have one nationally representative American sample, collected as part of a paid module added on to the ANES, which included the full MFQ20. We can assume that this dataset is more comparable to the Australian dataset than is data collected at YourMorals.org. When I run the alphas for the two parts there, the relevance section goes up, to .89, whereas the alpha for the judgment section goes down slightly, to .699. If the present study also has an overall alpha for the 10 relevance items that approaches .90, then of course any two items will correlate well, and will produce alphas in the .6 or .7 range.
Again, my point is that the relevance section is just less powerful and reliable as a measure of moral foundations than is the judgments section. This is why we are phasing it out in the new MFQ that we are currently developing. It is not surprising that the authors obtained moderately high alphas on their two-item MFQs, which use just one format that has a big method effect. Their alphas are indeed comparable to the alphas we report in Graham et al, but those alphas reflect subscales with two different item formats (relevance and judgments). Using two item formats was a choice we made to reduce the influence of any one method effect, but it lowers our alphas substantially from the standard personality measure, which uses just a single item format.
–P. 12 Given how poor the measurement of moral foundations is in both waves, particularly wave 1, it is neither surprising nor informative that the authors could not replicate our factor findings.
–P.13. The authors say: “ Overall, then, the MFQ items perform reasonably well psychometrically and replicate the key empirical finding of MFT in two different, though overlapping samples. This gives us confidence that we have a robust platform to test the stability of moral foundations, their impact on political attitudes across time, and their heritability.” I strongly disagree. The moral foundations were simply not measured well enough to conclude anything about stability or causality or heritability. This would explain why the test-retest numbers are so dismal on p. 14.
–P. 15: The authors attempt to validate their 2-item MFQs by analyzing a larger dataset that used MFQ-20. They show that for each foundation, their 2 items correlate with the four items for that foundation in the MFQ-20 quite well, ranging from r=.73 to r=.88. But these correlations seem to reflect part-whole correlations. Of course a score composed of two numbers correlates with a score composed of 4 numbers including those two numbers. To test just how much the part-whole confound could account for their high correlations, I used a random number generator to create 4 columns of 1000 digits each, ranging from 1 to 6, as MFQ items do. I then calculated one score that was the average of the first two columns, and a second score that was the average of all four columns. I then checked the pearson correlation of the two scores. The answer: r = .744. Four columns of random digits give us nearly the same correlations that the authors report as a validation that their 2-item MFQ scores are good proxies for the 4 item MFQ20 scores. They are not good proxies. The authors are therefore incorrect when they say that “These results give us considerable confidence that our MFQ instruments are capturing the lion’s share of the variance that would be picked up by the more contemporary MFQ 20, and that the psychometric properties of our instruments are reliable and consistent.”
The bottom line is that if the authors had used the actual MFQ20 in both waves of their study, they would have obtained good enough measurement to begin drawing conclusions. But because their proxies are demonstrably worse – much worse — than the MFQ20 and MFQ30, their measures of moral foundations simply cannot be compared to their measure of ideology, which we presume is much more accurately measured with a 23 items scale. So even though I think their logic is generally sound while drawing these inferences on pages 13-21, they simply don’t have data that could justify ANY inferences about the moral foundations, or about moral foundations theory.
–P.24: The authors raise some valid concerns about the MFQ: we agree that many of the items are measuring contexualized judgments and attitudes, which we believe are constructed on top of the foundations – they resonate with some people more than others because of underlying psychological differences. But such items do not measure the foundations themselves. We are trying, in our ongoing revision efforts, to create assessment methods that activate more rapid intuitions, and less reasoning.
To conclude, let us look at the authors’ summary or the implications of their work, on p. 23: “Our findings run contrary to assumptions underpinning MFT as it gains increasing traction in the political, psychological and behavioral sciences as theory of ideology. The obvious inference to take from our analyses is that individuals are not born with innate moral value systems, or at a minimum that MFQ instruments do not comprehensively tap into these innate systems.”
I think this inference simply cannot be drawn when, as I have shown, the authors did not use a valid version of the MFQ and do not seem to have accurately measured the key constructs of MFT. Furthermore, all data aside, how likely is their conclusion to be true? What should our prior expectation be? Given that almost every aspect of personality is heritable to some degree, including emotional predispositions such as compassion (which is at the heart of the care foundation), how likely is it that the authors have discovered one of the very few aspects of personality that is not heritable? Is it more likely that moral value predispositions don’t exist, or that they were not measured well in this particular study?Read More
[This guest post was written by Emily Ekins]
We recently published an essay at Vox titled The Moral Foundations of the 2016 Presidential Primaries. That essay was written for a non-academic audience. In this post we expand on our analyses, detail our methodology, and present expanded graphs and data. Please read that essay first, and see the appendix at the end, which lists the 15 questions we used to assess the various moral foundations.
In this post we present:
1) An expanded Figure 1 for all candidates who received support from more than 35 respondents in the sample
2) An expanded analysis of the Democratic race, showing a version of figure 1 for Democratic voters only, which breaks out Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity as separate bars (Figure 1-D)
3) An expanded analysis of the Republican race, showing a version of figure 1 for Republican voters only, which breaks out Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity as separate bars (Figure 1-R)
4) Details about our LOGIT regressions (Table 1-D and Table 1-R)
5) Responses to any questions that come up in response to the Vox essay.
1) Expanded Figure 1 for all candidates
Figure 1(a) shows the top Democratic and Republican candidate vote getters, ordered from left to right according to their supporters’ average reported ideology.
Figure 1(b) shows the 2nd tier candidates also ordered from left to right according to their supporters average reported ideology.
2) An expanded analysis of the Democratic race
The analyses we presented in our Vox essay examined each candidate’s supporters compared to the average American. But these candidates are competing to win over their respective parties’ median voters in the primaries and caucuses. So in this post we zoom in on each party separately. How do each candidate’s supporters compare to the average Republican or average Democrat?
Here we re-standardized each foundation scale among just Democrats. Thus each foundation scale has a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1, in which 0 represents the average Democrat in our sample. Then for each Democratic candidate’s supporters, we graphed the average standardized response for each of the six moral foundations.
In Figure 1-D below we show how each Democratic candidate’s supporters prioritize the moral foundations compared to the average Democrat. This means that bars above (or below) zero indicate that Sanders or Clinton supporters place more (or less) emphasis on that moral foundation compared to the average Democrat. Here we break out the Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity foundations separately to get a more granular picture.
Supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders do not differ on the Care foundation. Both candidates are progressives who prioritize concerns over those who are suffering. Beyond that Sanders and Clinton supporters diverge.
Sanders draws those with a more libertarian profile, prioritizing concerns about personal freedom and eschewing the socially conservative foundations. Clinton supporters tend to draw from a (relatively speaking) more conservative profile. In some ways, 2016 looks a lot like 2008. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler found that while Clinton and Obama’s voting records were essentially “ideologically indistinguishable,” Clinton managed to attract more authoritarian-leaning Democrats while Obama attracted liberals concerned with individual autonomy. In both the 2008 and 2016 campaigns, Clinton has exuded an image of toughness, often characterizing herself as a “fighter.” She voted for the Iraq War in 2003, has supported greater US involvement fighting ISIS and training Syrian rebels, and keeping troops in Afghanistan, while Sanders opposed the war and these interventions. In fact, Terry Michael writing for the libertarian Reason magazine even declared that compared to Hillary Clinton, “Sanders looks downright Ayn Rand-ish.”
Sanders supporters also stands apart from Clinton’s supporters (and libertarians), in rating proportionality much less relevant to their moral judgments. This aligns with Sanders’ proposing greater expansions of government social welfare programs and higher taxes on the wealthy in comparison to Clinton.
3) An expanded analysis of the Republican race
Next we turn to the top four vote getters in the Republican primaries: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson. How do their supporters compare with the average Republican voter?
To examine this, we re-standardized each foundation scale among just Republicans. Thus each foundation scale has a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1, in which 0 represents the average Republican in our sample. Then for each Republican candidate’s supporters, we graphed the average standardized response for each of the six moral foundations.
In Figure 1-R below we show how each Republican candidate’s supporters prioritize each of the moral foundations compared to the average Republican. This means that bars above (or below) zero indicate the candidate’s supporters place more (or less) emphasis on that moral foundation compared to the average Republican. Here we also break out the Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity foundations.
Notably, the two candidates catapulted to public office by the tea party movement—Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—stand out because of their supporters’ high endorsement of proportionality. These candidates have drawn in the fiscally conservative wing of the GOP that wants people to be rewarded in prorportion of their achievements, and punished in proportion to their failings. Both sets of supporters also score relatively low on on the Care foundation. When it comes to government adjudicating between justice and mercy, these voters opt for justice. This may be why David Brooks has called Cruz “brutal” while Rush Limbaugh described him as principled and consistent.
These results also highlight the rift between Rubio and the remaining top contenders. Rubio draws the more secular or centrist supporters (indicated by lower purple and grey bars on Loyalty and Sanctity) while Cruz, and Trump attract more religious and culturally conservative supporters. While both Cruz and Rubio have heavily courted key evangelicals for endorsements, Cruz has taken the lead, as some religious leaders express skepticism of Rubio’s financial backers who support gay rights.
These moral differences among supporters also map onto to policy differences of the candidates: For instance, Marco Rubio has sought to liberalize immigration rules while Ted Cruz has promised to oppose a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants “today, tomorrow, forever” and Donald Trump has gone even further promising to deport every undocumented immigrant.
Ben Carson stands out as the candidate with more empathetic voters, those who score higher on the Care foundation. This may reflect Carson’s warmer style and refusal to engage his opponents in what he calls the “politics of personal destruction.”
One of the biggest surprises in our dataset was that Donald Trump’s supporters did not appear particularly unusual. Part of this is due to the fact that his higher vote share means his supporters are closer to average. However, his supporters do significantly deviate from the average Republican voter in placing greater weight on the Authority/Loyalty/Sanctity composite variable.
4) Details about our LOGIT regressions
To find out if moral foundations improves predicting vote choice we performed a series of regression analyses, one for each presidential candidate. We carried out Logit regressions separately for the Democratic candidates among Democratic respondents, and Republican candidates among Republican respondents.
In order to see if adding the moral foundations improved prediction above and beyond the demographic factors that are usually used, we ran three different models per candidate:
- Model 1 (Column A): This model examines how well self-reported ideology (liberal to conservative) and the standard set of demographic variables predict vote choice.
- Model 2: (Column B): This model examines how well each moral foundation predicts voting for each candidate, while controlling for the effects of the other moral foundations, but without accounting for the effects of demographics and self-reported ideology.
- Model 3: (Column C): This model combines Model 1 and 2 to examine how well each moral foundation predicts vote choice, while also accounting for the effects of demographics, self-described ideology, as well as the other moral foundations.
First we report results that predict voting for a Democratic candidate among Democrats in Table 1-D:
Before controlling for demographic factors, the Liberty foundation significantly predicts a vote for Sanders and a vote against Clinton among Democrats. However, young white civil libertarians seem to largely be driving this effect. Once age and race are included in the analysis, the Liberty foundation no longer predicts voting for Bernie Sanders. When accounting for demographics, Sanders is negatively predicted by Proportionality and Authority/Loyalty/Sanctity. The moral foundations do not significantly predict a vote for Hillary Clinton, after controlling for background and ideology among Democrats.
Second we report results that predict voting for a Republican candidate among Republicans. We first present logit regression results for the top four Republican vote getters shown in Table 1-R(a). Candidates are ordered from left to right according to their respondents’ average reported ideology.
Next we present logit regression results for the remaining Republican candidates shown in Table 1-R(b). Candidates are ordered from left to right according to their respondents’ average reported ideology.
Among Republicans, the moral foundations significantly predicted vote choice for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, but not for Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, or Chris Christie.
We find the Authority/Loyalty/Sanctity foundation is significantly predictive of voting for Donald Trump, but none of the other GOP candidates. The Care foundation significantly predicts voting against Trump. This pattern is consistent with claims that Trump attracts authoritarians. Proportionality significantly predicts support for Cruz and Rubio even when controlling for ideology and demographics. These candidates draw the fiscal conservatives who want society to reward people according to what they have earned, not according to their needs. However, in contrast to Cruz and Rubio, Proportionality predicts voting against Jeb Bush. Instead Bush attracts Republicans who are less focused on enforcing proportional fairness in society. High ratings on the Liberty foundation significantly predict a vote for Rand Paul while the Authority/Loyalty/Sanctity foundation negatively predicts it. Rand Paul draws the libertarian vote but has projected a rather narrow moral appeal.
4) Responses to any questions that come up in response to the Vox essay.
[We will post responses here as questions or criticisms arise. Please send questions to eekins at cato.org]
Updated 4/6/2016: Response to commenter Betsy: Because Trump has a larger share of the vote, his supporters’ standardized scores for each moral foundation are more likely to be closer to average. Since 0 indicates the median voter, candidates with larger vote shares will appear closer to average. However, Jeb Bush who had only about 4% of the vote also had supporters who are close to the national average. Table 1-R(a) shows that Trump is the only Republican candidate significantly positively predicted in a multivariate regression by the Loyalty-Authority-Sanctity foundation and negatively predicted by the Care/Harm foundation. While not all Trump supporters fit the profile of a voter who scores low on compassion and high on respect for authority, a considerable share do. Another method to investigate your question is to conduct cluster analyses of Trump supporters. We have done some preliminary tests finding roughly 2-3 groups. One group scores particularly high on Loyalty-Authority-Sanctity, while another group appears to be less engaged and scores lower on all the foundations. When these different groups are averaged together, the average Trump supporter is closer to the average.
Regarding model fit, Wald Tests reveal that adding moral foundation variables often does significantly improve model fit. For instance for Bernie Sanders Wald=17.70 p < .001, or for Donald Trump Wald=11.14 p <.05, for Ted Cruz Wald=14.01 p < .01. However, it does not for Hillary Clinton. As we have shown, for several candidates the moral foundations were significantly predictive of vote choice. Table 1-D should address the logit model you suggest. This regression is run among Democratic voters only and predicts voting for Sanders or Clinton respectively among Democratic voters.
 The survey included oversamples of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Tea Party supporters. We apply weights throughout our analyses.
 Since Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity are moderately intercorrelated, we included the composite variable in the regression.Read More
No, I don’t mean that we should have shame circles and ruinous economic policies. I mean that I hope someone will find a way to bring the extraordinary collection of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center to America in time for the 50th anniversary of the cultural revolution, this June. I spent four months traveling across Asia last year, and one of the high points was my visit to this small museum, tucked away in the basement of an apartment building in Shanghai’s Former French Concession neighborhood.
I was in China to do research for my next book, on capitalism and morality, and wanted to learn how China made the transition from demonizing capitalism to embracing it. Just look at this poster from 1951 – it’s a “super-stimulus” for all the bad things ever said about capitalism. The caption reads: “America is a rotten imperialist country, and the camp of such people around the world.” The fat banker drops money down to the “running dogs” of American imperialism — President Truman (holding The Bomb), Dean Acheson, and Douglas MacArthur.
At the bottom of the scene.. well, the racism, violence, and moral degradation that are thought to flow inevitably from capitalism could not be clearer.
At the PPAC, you can follow the evolution of Chinese history, economics, and aesthetics, from the “Shanghai girl” posters of the 1930s through the early post-revolutionary optimism, the cold war, and the madness of the cultural revolution, in which young people were urged to band together to destroy large parts of China’s cultural and philosophical heritage, to make way for a fresh start, as in the poster below:
You can feel the calmness return after the death of Mao, when Deng Xiaoping allows the first sprouts of economic freedom, and prosperity begins to rise. Contrast the anti-capitalist poster above with this poster from 1982, which in a sense is just a return to the ancient Chinese value of prosperity. The caption reads “getting better each year.” Boy was that prophetic.
During my visit, I struck up a conversation with the quiet, gentle proprietor and owner of the collection, Mr. Yang Pei Ming. He was born in 1945, in the desperate last months of the Japanese occupation. His father was murdered in an early wave of anti-capitalist fervor in the early 1950s. Yang lived through the famine of 1960 and was in college in 1966 when the cultural revolution broke out, first among college students in Beijing. He was sent to the countryside and never finished college. (You can read a profile of Mr. Yang here).
He began collecting propaganda posters on a whim in 1995 and he now has what appears to be the world’s largest collection of such posters. It is his personal collection, part of which he puts on display in a few basement rooms of an ordinary apartment building. The rooms are barely heated — the museum earns so little money from admission fees that he can’t afford to pay for heat (hence the parka in the photo above). The “museum” is not climate controlled, and the posters will decay over time from fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
And this is why I hope that we can “bring the cultural revolution to America.” I hope somebody reading this post knows somebody who is connected to an art museum. Mr. Yang needs help to preserve the best parts of his collection. I’m hoping that the curator of an art museum will take an interest, visit the collection, and work with Mr. Yang to bring the best pieces to America or Europe. He has done several shows before. But he needs much more financial support, and 2016 would be the perfect time for a major show. It’s the 50th anniversary of the cultural revolution, and interest in China and Chinese history has never been higher in the West. In particular, there has never been an exhibit outside China of the Dazibao — the giant calligraphed political statements and street art that were put up by students in Beijing, which launched the cultural revolution in 1966. Mr. Yang has preserved many of the originals of these fragile artifacts:
If you are interested in supporting Mr. Yang, or bringing his collection to an art museum, please contact him directly: pmyang999 [at] 163.com or else contact me: haidt [at] nyu.edu
Tom Edsall has an excellent column in today’s NYT titled: Purity, Disgust, and Donald Trump. He begins with the work that I and my colleagues at YourMorals.org have done on the role of disgust in political life. How else can we explain Trump’s twin obsessions with bodily fluids and closing the borders to keep out human contaminants (see Bruni’s “Blood, Sweat, and Trump.” You can also read more about our empirical work in Donald Trump and the Politics of Disgust).
But even more important than purity and disgust, I believe, is the psychology of authoritarianism. That term is somewhat contested, but it’s striking that most of the experts Edsall interviewed agreed that that however you define it, Trump exhibits and exploits it. In this blog post I just want to point readers to what I think is the best treatment of authoritarianism out there: Karen Stenner’s 2008 book The Authoritarian Dynamic.
Here’s the full quote I sent to Edsall, trying to steer him to Stenner’s work;
I’d say the key to understanding Trump’s appeal is to look beyond values. We’re all accustomed to thinking about a range of conservative and progressive values, and Trump’s phenomenal success can’t be understood just by re-arranging values into a new recipe. The key is to be found in the work of political scientist Karen Stenner, whose research showed that there are three very different psychological types of people who have been supporting the Republican party since the 1980s: the “laissez faire” conservatives, who are not conservative at all, they are classical liberals who oppose government intervention in markets (like Rand Paul); the “status quo” conservatives, who are the classic Burkean conservatives, cautious about change, and highly responsible and conscientious (Jeb Bush and John Kasich); and the authoritarians, who are the most malleable or changeable depending on the political environment (Trump).In times of low moral threat, when they perceive that the country is relatively unified and the moral order is not being subverted, they are not particularly intolerant (Stenner finds). But, when they perceive that the moral order is falling apart, the country is losing its coherence and cohesiveness, diversity is rising, and our leadership seems (to them) to be suspect or not up to the needs of the hour, its as though a button is pushed on their forehead that says “in case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant.” So its not just rising immigration and diversity that has activated American authoritarians — it may be our rising political polarization itself, which has activated and energized a subset of the electorate that is now lionizing Trump as the first major candidate in a long time who has spoken to their fears and desires. In short, Trump is not a conservative, and is not appealing to classical conservative ideas. He is an authoritarian, who is profiting from the chaos in Washington, Syria, Paris, San Bernardino, and even the chaos on campuses, which are creating a more authoritarian electorate in the Republican primaries.
Stenner’s book is long, but she has produced a much shorter synopsis in a 2009 article titled Three Kinds of Conservatism. It is behind a paywall, but I’ll see if I can contact Stenner to get her to post a manuscript version.
The only slight correction I’d like to add to Edsall’s column is that he goes from my claim that Trump is not a conservative to my older writings about social conservatives and disgust, including my attempts to make sense of the widespread focus in ancient moral texts on food, sex, and bodily functions. I actually don’t know whether disgust is really characteristic of “status quo conservatives.” It’s possible that it is the authoritarians who drive the general correlation of disgust and self-declared conservatism. Given Hitler’s obsessive focus on disgust and vermin in Mein Kampf, and the general absence of such talk in classical conservative writings, I would guess that it is most characteristic of authoritarian psychology. I will have to look into this in the YourMorals dataset, and I hope other researchers can address that question.
I close by emphatically agreeing with Edsall’s concluding lines:
Whatever happens next, he has remade the landscape on which these conflicts will be fought — for better, or, more likely, for worse.
One of the things that most bothers me about the modern “victimhood culture” of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces is how directly it flies in the face of the world’s greatest wisdom, which I reviewed in The Happiness Hypothesis. For example, chapter 7 is about the uses of adversity: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” as Nietszche put it. Mencius explained the idea more fully in the 3rd century BCE:
When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, […and] place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent
Nasim Taleb nailed the idea with his recent book “Anti-Fragile.” A carton of eggs is fragile, so you’d better handle it with care. But many things in our world are anti-fragile: they are systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. The immune system is anti-fragile: If you protect your kids from dirt and germs, you’ll weaken their immune system and set them up for more autoimmune diseases. Similarly children and teenagers are anti-fragile. If you protect their feelings with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and micro-aggression training for everyone in the community, you weaken them, you make them fragile.
I was making a list in my mind of all the ways that victimhood culture violates ancient wisdom when I was invited to give a talk at the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale. In my talk, I run through three sets of ancient ideas that many modern “coddling” universities (and high schools) violate, and I imagined what a university would look like if it was built on ancient wisdom instead. I called this mythical university “Strengthen U.” In the video, I pretend to be admissions officers from the two universities, trying to recruit high school students to apply.
Here is the video (30 minutes)
Here is a link to a condensed transcript of the talk, including most of the slides.
Incidentally, I thought the Buckley program was terrific. It’s a student organization for conservatives, but in my visit I found that it has some real political diversity in it. The audience at my talk was roughly a third right of center, a third left, and a third libertarian — this is the most political diversity I have ever seen when speaking at a university. These students are engaging with arguments from all sides, and doing it civilly. They will emerge stronger and smarter. Progressive Yale students who don’t get involved with Buckley have few other chances to be exposed to conservative ideas or conservative faculty. (That’s what happened to me when I was at Yale in the 1980s.) If they go on to careers in law, politics, or business, where they must engage with conservative ideas and arguments, they will not know what to say, and will fall back on the kinds of Marcusian rhetorical devices that I describe in the video, and which you can see in action in the Twitter exchange at the bottom of this post. For more on the benefits of political diversity at universities, please see HeterodoxAcademy.org.Read More
Below is the letter to the editor that Greg Lukianoff and I submitted to the New York Times in response to an op-ed by Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne, which defended the use of trigger warnings.
The Times did not respond to our submission, so here it is:
To the Editor:
Re: “Why I use trigger warnings” (Opinion, Sept. 19): Kate Manne’s efforts to alert her philosophy students about potentially upsetting course content shows her to be a caring teacher. But her critique of our essay condemning trigger warnings begins with a non sequitur. She is surely right that “the evidence suggests” that some of her students “are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma.” But that does not logically imply that “the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant.” We have not found any empirical evidence that trigger warnings yield any psychological benefits, whereas there is empirical evidence suggesting that they might be harmful. So it is more logical to conclude that if trauma is common, then the harms caused by trigger warnings might be significant.
Manne then offers an analogy: “Exposing students to triggering material without warning seems more akin to occasionally throwing a spider at an arachnophobe.” This is not a valid analogy. Asking students to read novels or Greek myths that include sexual assault is like saying the word spider in the presence of an arachnophobe, which anxiety experts tell us is a good way to reduce the long-term emotional power of spiders. If well-meaning teachers and friends work together to help an arachnophobe avoid exposure to the word spider, or to pictures of spiders, spider webs, and Spiderman, they will strengthen the arachnophobe’s conviction that mere reminders of spiders are dangerous. This is how a temporary and reversible phobia can be hardened into a lifelong and debilitating identity.
Manne also asserts that “there seems to be very little reason not to give these warnings.” It’s simple courtesy, no? Trigger warnings are like “advisory notices given before films and TV shows.” But those warnings are given so that parents can keep their children safe from material for which they are not yet emotionally mature enough. This is why the American Association of University Professors has condemned the use of trigger warnings as being “at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”
Furthermore, once a few professors start giving these warnings, students will begin to request them from their other professors, and this may lead to a cascade of caution among the rest of the faculty. Last year, seven humanities professors from seven colleges penned an Inside Higher Ed article stating that “this movement is already having a chilling effect on [their] teaching and pedagogy.” The professors reported receiving “phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings.”
There is a more subtle harm caused to students when professors use trigger warnings. One of us (Haidt) teaches in New York City. Suppose Haidt took his students on field trips all over the city, but every time he took the class to the Bronx, Haidt took additional steps: he gave the class a warning, weeks in advance, and he hired a paramedic to ride with them in the bus. Just in case. What effect will this have on the students, and on their future willingness to visit The Bronx on their own?
Do we really want to tell our students that some of their fellow students could end up in emergency care if they were to read certain novels without being properly steeled for the task? This message would reflect and strengthen the “culture of victimhood” that sociologists have identified as emerging on our most egalitarian college campuses. It could weaken students to the point where we might, someday, really need paramedics in our classrooms.
For the record, below is the Twitter exchange I had with Manne as a result of this blog post. Note that Brad Wilcox’s tweet was not part of this exchange — it just happened to be posted during my exchange with Manne.
[Below is a guest post from Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, in response to my previous blog post on their article]
Jonathan Haidt’s discussion on this blog of our article “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” led to a number of comments here and elsewhere. We are grateful for everyone’s insights and observations, and especially for those that have directed us to some very useful resources (commenter D.M. Ryan was especially helpful, as were the blog posts of Ronald Bailey and Alan Jacobs). Many of the commenters brought up important objections and questions that we’d like to address more thoroughly.
1) Is the culture changing? What’s your evidence?
Some have questioned whether the changes we discuss have actually occurred. These questions tend to deal with our conception of moral culture, our evidence, or both. Commenter Sarah, for example, asks about whether all three cultures we discuss are actually distinct moral cultures, and Steve Ruble wonders “what the objective evidence for an actual shift in the cultural moral code would look like.”
One thing to keep in mind is that our concept of moral culture is just shorthand for identifying clusters of traits that are more prevalent in one setting than another. The “moral cultures” we identify are in that sense both a simplification and a matter of degree. This is true of the honor and dignity cultures identified by previous scholars as well as the victimhood culture we view as divergent from each of these. When we talk about a new moral culture arising, we mean that a cluster of traits has become frequent and prominent enough that we think it ought to be distinguished from the others.
What we are interested in is what people have conflicts about and how they handle them. Certainly many of the things we identify as characteristic of victimhood culture can be seen in the past. Just about every society in history has had people complaining and appealing to third parties. For that matter, just about every society has had violent aggression, direct negotiation, tolerance, avoidance, and so forth. And one can still see honor conflicts and violent retribution in the contemporary United States. But we doubt college students today are as likely to worry about maintaining a reputation for toughness and pugnacity as young men in the antebellum South, and they’re certainly less likely to fight duels. Similarly, we think they are more likely than young people 50 or 60 years ago to complain to the public or to authorities about being hurt by offensive remarks.
These are empirical matters, and perhaps someone will find evidence to counter or to support our claims. In science, a single paper is rarely the last word on any subject, all the more so when the paper involves general theoretical ideas like the principles of conflict and social control employed in our paper.
But for now the evidence we do present – the microaggression complaints, the calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces – seems to us to illustrate well enough the emergence of a fairly distinct kind of moral thinking. Consider too that some very stark examples are too new even to have made it into our article, published just nine months ago. Since then university administrators have begun to heed the cries of the microaggression complainants. The University of California system, for instance, has issued a set of guidelines for faculty listing a number of statements that might be microaggressions, and its regents are now considering a policy guaranteeing the right of everyone in the university community to be free from “expressions of intolerance.” There seems to be a change in social control and moral life afoot.
2) Don’t people other than campus activists complain about microaggressions?
The term “microaggression” comes from the campus left, and it is there that we see victimhood culture at its peak. But we certainly see manifestations of it elsewhere, and many of our readers have, in person or online, pointed to various examples of conservatives, evangelical Christians, or others complaining about minor slights, portraying themselves as oppressed, or in some other way claiming victim status. This is something we point out in our article – that if victimhood confers status, then all sorts of people will want to claim it. But the extent of this is something worth investigating. As Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, asks, “To what extent are non-collegians engaged in policing microaggressions by another name? How are their actions the same as and distinct from Oberlin Microaggressions [a microaggression website he discusses] and its analogs at other campuses?”
One reason microaggression complaints illustrate so well the cultural change from a dignity- to a victimhood-based morality is the name itself. Microaggression complainants differ from others who complain about often unintentional slights or other verbal offenses in that they label these offenses as a kind of “aggression.” Someone asking you a normal question, perhaps inappropriate for the occasion, like “Where are you from?” is thus not friendly and well intentioned, or even awkward and ignorant, but an “aggressor” who has victimized you. It is this terminology, in part, that makes these kinds of complaints so appealing to the complainants and their supporters and at the same time so outrageous to others. What might otherwise be understood as the rudeness or cluelessness of individuals is now cast as a way in which dominant collectivities marginalize and oppress minority groups.
Still, as Alan Jacobs notes, “Friedersdorf’s post encourages us to consider whether these habits of mind are characteristic of society as a whole.” We think they are to some degree, and this is likely to increase. True, there may be a backlash. And yes, it’s always possible social conditions will change in ways that send the course of moral evolution down some other path. We cannot see the future in a crystal ball. But what we do see is that the conditions we claim give rise to a full blown victimhood culture among circles of campus activists are present to lesser degrees elsewhere and show few signs of abating. And it seems that victimhood begets victimhood, as those accused of oppression and privilege find it easiest to defend against such accusations by claiming victimhood themselves. For instance, someone taken to task for being blinded by privilege might be able to silence a critic by labeling his criticism an instance of mansplaining or some other microaggressive offense. And even those most opposed to the morality of victimhood might become similar to their opponents in the course of the conflict, as they increasingly focus on minor and verbal offenses. A complaint about a microaggression complaint is, like the microaggression complaint itself, a complaint about a matter most people would see as trivial.
Under the right social conditions, social behaviors reproduce themselves like a seed crystal dropped into solution. Introduce one violent gang into a lawless setting, and it won’t be long before other gangs form to defend or compete against it. Victimhood culture might self-replicate in similar ways, with the clash of victimhood and dignity giving way to clashes between competing victims.
3) Is the term “victimhood culture” appropriate?
The supporters of microaggression complaints, trigger warnings, and safe spaces commonly object to the term “victimhood culture.” As commenter Andrew puts it, “I don’t think anyone in this emerging set of norms, frameworks, and models for reactivity to speech would describe it as a culture of ‘victimhood.’” Is our use of the term therefore pejorative rather than descriptive? We think it is not, though the question is a fair one. Elsewhere we have noted our own moral preference for dignity culture and commitment to academic freedom, but we don’t find the moral assessment of moral cultures nearly as interesting as the descriptive sociology of moral cultures. As sociologists we are fascinated by alternative moralities such as those of honor and victimhood. Honor is interesting because it is such a peculiar type of status, one associated with a reputation for bravery. So is victimhood, which involves the conferral of a kind of moral status on those designated as victims of oppression. Since this is what best distinguishes this emerging morality from others, we see “victimhood culture” as the most appropriate name.
We do understand why some might see the term as pejorative, though. There is an asymmetry between this term and the terms honor and dignity: People in honor cultures openly refer to their honor and judge it a good thing, people in dignity cultures openly refer to their dignity and judge it a good thing, but people in victimhood cultures would not likewise openly refer to victimhood as a kind of status and judge it a good thing.
We believe this could not be any other way, as there is an inherent tension – a cultural contradiction if you will – in demonizing the privileged and valorizing the oppressed. Supporting one side in a conflict – judging it as virtuous and throwing your weight behind the cause – accords that side a kind of status. The contradiction is that support goes to those who lack privilege, but the ability to attract support is a kind of privilege. It is perhaps then quite difficult – a source of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance – to openly acknowledge this: that a reduction in oppression – however limited in context and extent – comes from being recognized as oppressed. If this is the case, it is not really the term “victimhood culture” that people are objecting to, but the very idea that victimization is increasingly valorized, or that anyone might find it attractive to gain recognition as a victim or member of a disadvantaged group.
It is likewise difficult to admit that privilege can ever be a liability. What Lukianoff and Haidt call “vindictive protectiveness” creates “a culture in which everyone must think twice before they speak up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” But the advocates of this type of morality seldom acknowledge they are harming anyone at all. This is especially so since, while everyone can have dignity, not everyone can be a victim. As commenter Andrew puts it, the culture “seems to separate people into those-who-harm, those-who-are-harmed, and those-who-protect-from-harm.” And as Jake Was Here adds, in response to Andrew, “Those Who Harm can NEVER become Those Who Are Harmed, and Those Who Are Harmed can NEVER become Those Who Harmed.”
Designating one group as protected implicitly designates others as unprotected. While some advocates justify this inequality as serving the purpose of counterbalancing other systemic inequities, such as the continuing effects of historic oppression, it seems that others have difficulty recognizing that the distinction creates any inequality at all. For example, recall the policy the regents of the University of California are considering – to guarantee a right to be free from verbal expressions of intolerance. The policy also says that it “does not apply to the free exchange of ideas in keeping with the principles of academic freedom and free speech.” But obviously these two things cannot both be true. To say someone has a right to be free from some type of speech means someone else is prohibited from speaking. Which groups fall into which category is the only question. They do not answer that question explicitly, of course, since, as Megan McArdle points out, it’s “hard to establish a rule that only some groups are entitled to be free from offense.” The groups on the losing end “will not take this lying down.” They might even start complaining of their victimization and launching campaigns to sway authority figures and the public to their cause.
Owing to these contradictions, we believe, any accurate description of this moral milieu is bound to offend. As sociologists of morality, though, we must discuss these things as clearly as we can. Others can choose whatever terminology they like, so long as they too try to be clear and descriptively accurate as well. Again, our main purpose is neither to make ethical arguments nor to quibble over terminology. Our concern is with the grievances that people have, how those grievances are handled, and how these things vary across different social settings. It’s an endlessly fascinating topic, and we invite others to join us in exploring it.Read More