I have heard many people say they almost never listen to podcasts. Being a total podcast junkie myself, that to me just seems so interesting. I love most all things science and a big chunk of podcast listening is science-related. If you have read a few of my posts you already know one topic within science that I am really interested in these days is dealing with how the mind/brain works. It is amazing how much has been learned about this topic in the half-century that I have lived. It still feels like the surface has only been scratched.
I was listening to NPR’s “Hidden Brain” podcast from November 27 titled, “Money Talks”. The episode featured the host Shankar Vedantam and a guest Neeru Paharia. Paharia is an assistant professor at Georgetown University and an expert on judgment, decision making, consumer behavior, and other related topics.
At about the 12 minute mark the host says:
[Vedantam] Many of us understand the economic choices that we make can have real ethical consequences.
The products we buy can adversely affect the environment or take advantage of poor people in distant countries.
We can buy stuff from employees that treat their employees well or we can buy things, sometimes at a cheaper price, from stores that treat their employees poorly. Often after a big news story conditions in sweatshops or the use of child labor there is public outrage.
But as Neeru Paharia has explored, our actions don’t always match our rhetoric. She once wrote a paper on the subject titled “Sweatshop labor is wrong unless the shoes are cute”
And who says technical papers don’t have click-bait titles?
[Paharia] The idea there is that you kind of decide how much you like something and you really like a pair of shoes and the moral reasoning starts from there. It doesn’t start from a kind of a neutral place where you are like, where you say, “sweatshop labor is wrong under any circumstance. I don’t want to subject people to these unfortunate working conditions.” It actually starts at a place where you are like, “well the product is REALLY NICE and the shoes look really good on me!” And then you start reasoning about it and that is called motivated reasoning. So rather than think about morality in terms of this kind of objective thing, we kind of think about it more like a lawyer. So we decide what we want and then we kind of come up with the reasons to support it. So we may say Oh if we see a pair of shoes we don’t like we say, “sweatshop labor is wrong, I don’t like sweatshop labor. I don’t approve.” But if the shoes are cute you might say something like, “It is OK because people need jobs or companies need to make money.” So you’ll be more likely to agree with these things because you are motivated. And a sense the shoes are really cute and you want to find a way to reconcile your distaste for this situation and the reality of it.
[Vedantam]You have actually conducted experiments that people are more likely to reach for these kinds of rationalizations when they like the product?
[Paharia] The idea is that we just decide what is moral based on how much we want something.
Sounds quite a bit like the analogy of the elephant and the rider on top of the elephant in “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt as mentioned in a post I did earlier this year.
Haidt postulates that our subconscious usually makes a decision (the elephant) and more conscious fills in why we made the decision (the rider on the elephant creates a reason why the elephant did what it did).
Paharia brings up the term, “motivated reasoning”. I looked into this a bit and found one definition of this term described as confirmation bias taken to the next level.
I have several friends that voted for Trump. I just feel that my friends would have been totally outraged for other individuals that had much less sexual misconduct. When I would try and just understand how they could look past Trump’s indiscretion I actually never could get them to talk about the “how” they could look past the indiscretions. They would never say, “Yes he is womanizer, but …” Instead they would change the discussion to talk about other aspects.
And not to just cast stones. I would have to admit that I probably did the same when people pushed me for why I could vote for a crook. We ALL do this. We all put blinders on from time to time. It is just a matter of if/when we ever override this behavior from time to time. It is how we cope with life.
It seems to me that many (most?) Republicans can’t admit that carbon created by human activity could product dramatic climate change. Conversely, it seems to me that many (most?) Democrats can’t use the phrase, “Illegal Immigrant”.
Of course we see it within Mormonism also. Those that are strong believers see every positive event as a blessing for following commandments and every negative that either it is the work of Satan or they messed up and have to do better at more diligently keeping ALL the commandments.
And on the flip side there are those antagonistic towards the church that can’t see the 1 million hours of service given this last year by Mormon Helping Hands as a huge help to those in need of assistance or assume just about every high-level leader is scheming, “just to get more tithing.” Or they can’t see that secretly taping a meeting with a church historian and then releasing it is ethically sketchy.
As I experienced a faith transition, it was helpful to read books such as James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith.” It is a framework (with limitations) that explains some commonalities people experience. I found it interesting that as some individuals went from a “faithful” black and white perspective to a non-believing black and white perspective. They transitioned (sometimes very quickly) from a mental stance of, “There is nothing wrong with my church at all!” to “There is nothing good in my church!” For some it seems they kept blinders on and just faced a different direction. Even though I am trying NOT to fall into that category, I have to assume I am unaware of just how often I do exactly that.
Simon and Garfunkel said it as good as can be said in “The Boxer”:
still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregard the rest.
- Do you feel that you can see this in others?
- Are you able to see this in yourself?
- Have you been able to see this in yourself and correct it or decide it was good to keep?
 It wasn’t the first nor the last time I will vote for a politician that is less than perfect, sometimes knowingly and other times oblivious to the politician’s flaws.