Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Elephants Rule (3)

I laughed repeatedly as I read the third chapter of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, titled, "Elephant's Rule." Here are summaries of previous chapters:

1. Introduction
2. Intuitive Dogs and Rational Tails

1. Of course the laugh is on me, because I too am subject to the principles of this chapter. But Haidt showed repeatedly, largely on the basis of experiments conducted, that people immensely follow their immediate intuitions rather than coming to conclusions on the basis of reason. Intuition is like an elephant that turns the rider (reasoning) in a certain direction, and then reasoning strategizes in that direction. Bottom line: "Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second."

Our intuitions are like an elephant, and we have them in a fraction of a second. One study in the chapter compared the results of past elections with the flash intuitions of contemporary individuals looking at the pictures of the candidates. The question asked was, "Who looks more competent?" The results of the election highly correlated to those immediate intuitions of people who had no idea who these candidates were, what party they belonged to, or what their actual competency was.

2. One of the funnier examples in the chapter involved "fart spray." So a psychologist on a street corner asked about controversial issues near a cleaned out trash can. However, for some of those surveyed, he sprayed the can with a light "fart spray." The result was that individuals with the fart spray made harsher judgments than those without it.

In a contrary study, people asked moral questions after washing their hands or near cleaning products are more likely to become more moralistic and self-righteous in their answers.

3. Let me apply. I was at a large church recently and I noticed that the pastor had started holding a Bible at multiple points during the sermon. I smiled. There's a certain kind of complainer who always says, "That sermon didn't have enough Bible in it." Ironically, those who make these complaints are often those who understand the Bible the least.

Now, mind you, the Bible is only as helpful as it is applied, so quoting Scripture in itself is only as effective as its application. That means that a sermon that applies the principles of Scripture well is, from a logical standpoint, just as scriptural as one that quotes the Bible all over the place but is unclear in how to apply it.

But people aren't logical. I thought to myself, this pastor might not have changed the amount of Scripture in his sermon at all. But because he holds the Bible, the intuitions of this congregation are going to feel like they are getting more Bible. He's helping them getting over their faulty intuitions, thought I, by showing them a Bible. "Bible spray" makes people feel better about the sermon.

4. This chapter is a smack down to all those who think we are primarily, "thinking things," as Jamie Smith has also argued. It defies those who think our worldviews or ideologies are primary or that our actions somehow flow from what we believe with our reason. Au contraire. We overwhelmingly direct our ideologies, our theologies, our moralities, on the basis of our basic disgusts and attractions, our gut feelings.

There is actually a prejudice test that times how quickly you respond to pictures of differing social groups. If you have a basic negativity toward a certain social group, it will take you 250 milliseconds longer to respond toward the picture of a certain group because you have to undo your intuitive lean toward negativity. Again, it is the emotional processing centers of the brain that fire up when being asked to make a moral decision.

5. Psychopaths reinforce this line of thinking. They can reason just fine. "The rider is perfectly normal" (73). The problem is with the elephant, the moral intuitions. They don't have them.

Even babies already come with the capacity to evaluate individuals on the basis of their social interactions. They are attracted to helper puppets, not hinderer puppets. They have an innate preference for people who are nice rather than people who are mean. Moral intuitions develop very early.

As far as philosophy, "deontology" (duty based approaches) are not rationally driven at all, but driven by our fundamental moral intuitions. Cold utilitarianism must be learned (greater good reasoning). So deontology is our primary mode of operation, but it has little to do with logic.

6. Perhaps to keep people like me reading, he throws us a bone at the end of the chapter. Who are people like me? We are people who want to think that we are not as un-self-aware as all the other moral animals among the masses whose reasoning is a servant of their blind intuitions.

So I want to think that I am more reflective than the throngs going to hear Donald Trump. I want to think I am a better scholar than the popular scholarly books that pretend to go through a logical interpretive process only to end up telling us the orthodox theology we wanted to hear in the first place. I'm thinking of two scholarly books on Hebrews that I would consider popular because they use scholarship to say what people want to conclude anyway.

So he ends the chapter by saying that elephants are sometimes open to reason. In some cases, the rider can convince the elephant to change directions. Usually, he says, it is in social interaction, where someone else's elephant can convince my rider to steer my elephant in a different direction. "The elephant my not often change its direction in response to objections from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants... or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants" (80).

He allows the possibility that in some rare cases, people may reason their way to a different moral conclusion that contradicts their initial intuitive judgment. He ends the chapter with an experiment where, after being told not to make a moral decision for 2 minutes, the subjects did change their mind from an "initial disgust" position to a more reasoned one.

This week emphasized, "intuitions first." The next chapter will emphasize, "strategic reasoning second."

1 comment:

jps said...

You might find this article interesting: