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.
Yes. Intellect served just like strength or charisma.
It is interesting how often people just don’t want to see the world as messy and want it to be stark black and white.
Good post, Happy Hubby. I’d suggest that the kind of polarized thinking you’re laying out is a problem particularly in the west and especially in America at the moment. And it’s problematic, because what happens is that any other perspective or point of view that isn’t one’s own is automatically, almost reflexively vilified. And as you point out, this is true in the church as well. I try to be as objective as I can, but when I can’t, I do try to be aware of my biases. For example, I believe in legalizing prostitution because of my belief in autonomy and economics, but I also own those biases and understand that many folks (esp. Mormons) would be on the other side of the issue. I try not to vilify them but rather understand where they’re coming from. Admittedly, I struggle to do this in some political situations, like with Trump/Roy Moore supporters, but I do try because I don’t want to turn into most of the politicians and most of the Mormons I know, who at times come off as insufferably self-righteous, not because I disagree with some of their views but because they are so absolutely convinced that their way or their side is 100 percent right all the time.
And I think this is where Simon and Garfunkel come back in. I’d actually focus on “Sounds of Silence” and the line “And the people bowed and prayed/To the neon god they made.” In the church today and in US politics of both parties, I see a lot of this kind of making a sacred cow out of an ideology or a particular way of doing things in order to lend absolute moral authority to things/practices/ideas that don’t really have that kind of moral authority, and shouldn’t. That, of course, means that anyone who’s not a “true believer”, anyone who’s a centrist or not a biblical literalist is ostracized and condemned because they don’t have 100 percent buy-in to whatever those in power are peddling. I don’t quite know how we’ve gotten to that point, but it frightens me for both the future of the church and the future of our country.
It’s less interesting to see how people assume others only see in black and white. We each have lives full of experiences that have shifted and molded us to who we are now. it’s certainly valuable to examine one’s own blind spots, but it’s difficult to apply to others as we’ve no idea the experiences that got them there. Instead we tend to reduce it down to something we can categorize and dismiss.
Excellent post. I know I’m certainly not immune. I recently had to make a correction concerning “trickle down economics”. Turns out the only ones who call it that are detractors. I still don’t believe it works so well, but it’s always helpful to clarify your own POV when you can better understand how others got theirs.
This is something that I learned long ago to be vigilant about in myself and to be aware of in the motivations of others. One tool I use for this, while imperfect, is Bayes’ Theorem. My career in information security and machine learning emphasizes my natural tendency toward skepticism and requires seeing the world as a spectrum of probabilities rather than binary. However, even with all of that training, I still catch myself, at times, letting my biases take control.
Stephen, I have also seen the reluctance to even acknowledge some terrible things. We can get wound up about baking or not baking a cake while each year while ignoring issues such as 1 in 9 people in the world don’t have health issues (including death) from under/malnutrition. Try bringing up the issue of female genital mutilation and breast ironing. Most people don’t even want to think about any of that.
I am still waiting to find any comment from Brother Sky I don’t agree with 🙂 I agree with your comments and they made me think how I didn’t mention this behavior is obviously part of the echo chamber’s we all are participating in. I too really hope that politics and religion back off this a bit more. I see some hope in the #metoo reaction and ‘womanizers’ being called out on the carpet for their behavior. Last November I was more pessimistic.
Frank – I hope it comes out in my posts that I TRY to look in the mirror. Before we can “examine one’s own blind spots” as you say, we first have to see them. That is hard to do. When I read Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” I of course kept saying to myself, “I have seen THAT in such and such!” But for some reason I kept hearing, “Remember, YOU do this too” and I would try to look for where I did this. This may be because I was primed a bit from really diving into some of my racism by listening and contemplating podcasts such as Ration Faiths “Racism 101” and NPR’s “codeswitch”, “Invisibilia”, and “We Live Here”. That made me just realize this issue with ignoring what we don’t want to see is very applicable to racism. It is easy for me to ignore my privilege as I use it than to see others that don’t have that privilege.
Cody – I think the fact that you catch yourself is good in that it shows you are looking for it. But don’t forget you need to hurry up and be perfect on this. 🙂
The elephant and rider thing is a little limited to try to explain something not human with human terms and reasoning, right? My wife and I do this with our animals. The cat does something…we like to think it is because of love or companionship…whereas I kind think it has to do with instinct like food or warmth. It isn’t thinking or choosing based on the reasoning of a human…so human explanations are just our projections. What we say about it tells us about ourselves, more than the reality of what is happening.
I try to avoid this and check myself and not project my level of thinking on to others or on to the universe and what’s happening outside myself.
But I also find it hard to never judge anything. In order to make some choices and enjoy life…judgement seems to be used, especially to make quicker choices and actions. Self-checking ourselves too much seems to lead to confusion, doubt, and inaction. Also not good.
At the end of the day…did the elephant take the rider to the correct place, or wander off course and be unsafe. Whatever the motivations were…the results are what is important.
Whatever Joseph Smith’s true motivations were…the Book of Mormon itself has helped me and millions others move in a good direction. Debating his motivations endlessly don’t necessarily help me week to week at church. Perhaps they are still good exercises to check my thinking and what I believe…but where I go with it is most important…who I become.
Herbert, what the op is describing is not Anthropomorphism (putting human experiences onto animals behavior) but rather a metaphor Haidt uses at length in his book The Righteous Mind. Haidt isn’t trying to explain animals, but rather give us humans to talk about the processes of our brains in a way that we can related to (thus the elephant and the rider are symbolic of the subconscious and conscious mind (Actually, I think it’s more complex than that, but you get what I mean).
I love Haidt’s work and have endlessly discussed the problem/struggle/joy of becoming aware of my own blinders with another Haidt lover. It’s transformative, but it is a transformation that doesn’t end because we never loose the blinders, we just trade them for ones set at a different angle and then ones shaped like triangles rather than squares, etc. I find myself more empathetic toward others though, the more I see blinders at work.
I, too am a podcast junkie.
In regards to attitudes toward the church–I interface with both sides of the divide. Those that see nothing wrong and those that see little good. Most of the time if I try to highlight different ideas or facts to consider–both sides are very resistant to enlarging /expanding their views.
I think people are more likely to listen when/if they believe you share their view.
Of course, I have my own challenges to remaining open to new information that could alter my viewpoints…
” …the problem/struggle/joy of becoming aware of my own blinders… It’s transformative, but it is a transformation that doesn’t end because we never loose the blinders, we just trade them for ones set at a different angle and then ones shaped like triangles rather than squares, etc. I find myself more empathetic toward others though, the more I see blinders at work.”
p.s. I’ll be checking out the “Hidden Brain” podcast. Thanks for sharing Happy Hubby!