More on our innate hypocrisy and confabulatory power

How do we make moral and ethical decisions? It would be nice if our choices were grounded in nothing but the facts, in the details of the issue at hand. Alas, that’s not the way it works. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, has famously argued that our moral judgments are like aesthetic judgments. “When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it,” Haidt writes. “If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate…Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other.” In other words, when it comes to making ethical decisions, our rationality isn’t a scientist, dispassionately chasing after the facts. Instead, it’s a lawyer. This inner attorney gathers bits of evidence, post hoc justifications, and pithy rhetoric in order to make our automatic reaction seem reasonable. But this reasonableness is just a façade, an elaborate self-delusion.

The Messy Reality Of Judicial Decisions, Jonah Lehrer

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That sounds pretty messy. But isn’t this how we make decisions: snap judgements followed by confabulatory backfill. Take politics for example.

Americans’ perceptions of the government as a threat may be less dependent on broader, philosophical views of government power, and instead have more to do with who is wielding that power.

-Gallup, as quoted in On The Hypocrisy of Voters: The politics of economics redux

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I think human beings are built to be hypocritical. We build two-dimensional models of reality to reduce the complexity of life to a manageable set of rules that can be followed on the fly regardless of the situation. That is what heuristics are all about. These heuristics usually work in an uncertain world with limited information- and that’s why they are effective. But what about when they don’t work?  Jonah Lehrer gives us examples in the judicial system. But there are many more in the world of economics as well.

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4 Comments
  1. Anonymous says

    Jonah’s article is pretty scary… but I don’t think this is limited to just moral and ethical decisions.

    “But what about when they don’t work?” – A better question is what happens when some people understand how they work and then use that knowledge to purposefully manipulate the person employing the heuristics?

    Consider some of the work of George Lakoff, professor of cognitive linguistics at U.C. Berkley:

    http://fora.tv/search_video?q=George+P.+Lakoff

  2. Anonymous says

    Jonah’s article is pretty scary… but I don’t think this is limited to just moral and ethical decisions.

    “But what about when they don’t work?” – A better question is what happens when some people understand how they work and then use that knowledge to purposefully manipulate the person employing the heuristics?

    Consider some of the work of George Lakoff, professor of cognitive linguistics at U.C. Berkley:

    http://fora.tv/search_video?q=George+P.+Lakoff

  3. Anonymous says

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    I subscribe to the guy from australia and his FFT economic newsletter at http://www.forecastfortomorrow.com that guy has called many big events before they have happend, including the stock market crash in 2008 and the current financial collapse of the US. (currently happening) I found him from a friend last year, and he has some important work.

    His oil calls are insane, and I have been making good money with them. He is well worth a look, if you want to keep two steps ahead of the sheeple out there.

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  4. fresnodan says

    I think it boils down to vanity.
    I on the other hand, am fatter,uglier, stupider, greedier, and dishonester than most. Oh, and I lie more too!

  5. Anonymous says

    I think it boils down to vanity.
    I on the other hand, am fatter,uglier, stupider, greedier, and dishonester than most. Oh, and I lie more too!

  6. Anonymous says

    Ethics and morals tend to be somewhat situational regardless of the person deciding – Darwin’s first law of biology is self preservation. Not rocket science, but sometimes disappointing nevertheless.

  7. Anonymous says

    Ethics and morals tend to be somewhat situational regardless of the person deciding – Darwin’s first law of biology is self preservation. Not rocket science, but sometimes disappointing nevertheless.

  8. John Sanford Newman says

    When you boil it down that way things seem so hopeless! Its like the popular economists’ perspective that humans are innately lazy and greedy. These are all competing tendencies we all share along with all of our better tendencies, but these are the ones economists like to define us by. Gigerenzer’s “Rationality for Mortals” is a much more hopeful and I think realistic look at this problem. We’re evolved beasts with a thin pipe from our internal models out to our only interface with the world, the crude sensors of eyes, ears, skin, tongues and sinuses.

    These wet and decay prone gizmos and the gray soupy models they support have worked well enough to make us the dominant biomass (at a particular scale) in the world. But our incredible success in the last 20 generations has totally transformed the physical environment we inhabit from the one we found and evolved for into one almost entirely of our own making. One that ironically we are increasingly mal-adapted to, and the effects of money in that environment are among the most alien and mal-adaptive.

    Hardships due this mal-adaption will break us on our demons or bind us through our angels: we are on the anvil now, will we shatter or fuse? I think that depends on how positively or negatively we in aggregate view our fellow man. And I also suspect these value judgements will be shown to have epigenetic affects that channel our conscious growth according to our life experiences: as we judge we experience judgement and its internal and external consequences, this experience triggers or suppresses latent genetic properties that propagate or recede through the medium of culture. Culture is always where the decisive fights are won.

  9. John Sanford Newman says

    When you boil it down that way things seem so hopeless! Its like the popular economists’ perspective that humans are innately lazy and greedy. These are all competing tendencies we all share along with all of our better tendencies, but these are the ones economists like to define us by. Gigerenzer’s “Rationality for Mortals” is a much more hopeful and I think realistic look at this problem. We’re evolved beasts with a thin pipe from our internal models out to our only interface with the world, the crude sensors of eyes, ears, skin, tongues and sinuses.

    These wet and decay prone gizmos and the gray soupy models they support have worked well enough to make us the dominant biomass (at a particular scale) in the world. But our incredible success in the last 20 generations has totally transformed the physical environment we inhabit from the one we found and evolved for into one almost entirely of our own making. One that ironically we are increasingly mal-adapted to, and the effects of money in that environment are among the most alien and mal-adaptive.

    Hardships due this mal-adaption will break us on our demons or bind us through our angels: we are on the anvil now, will we shatter or fuse? I think that depends on how positively or negatively we in aggregate view our fellow man. And I also suspect these value judgements will be shown to have epigenetic affects that channel our conscious growth according to our life experiences: as we judge we experience judgement and its internal and external consequences, this experience triggers or suppresses latent genetic properties that propagate or recede through the medium of culture. Culture is always where the decisive fights are won.

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