Sunday, June 9, 2019

Review: "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt

I recommend this book.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt shows that different people have different foundations which underlie their moral judgments or beliefs.

 On the "left," the foundations of fairness and charity are more prominent.  On the "right," the foundations of loyalty and "purity" are more prominent. 

These styles or foundations may be propagated in culture or family upbringing,  but also are partly influenced by heredity (genes).  In the middle part of the book, Haidt argues that each of these moral foundations can convey improved survival or natural selective advantage to whole groups.   For example, a group which values loyalty very strongly as a moral foundation is more like to be cohesive, and therefore more resilient to various stresses, including warfare or internal discord.

Haidt concludes his book with a strong message that we should empathize with people or groups which have different moral foundations, rather than simply fight with them or view them as enemies.  He espouses the goal of befriending opponents, including those who have different political or religious beliefs or moral foundations.  Such friendship would then reduce extremes of polarization and conflict, and allow groups to move forward more peacefully.

I respect his thesis very much, of cultivating understanding and empathy for people or groups which have different moral, religious, or political beliefs than one's own.  In a psychotherapy environment, such empathy is required in order for progress to occur, even when the therapist may object strongly to aspects of the patient's behaviour.

But I have some criticisms of Haidt's thesis:

Haidt seems to disparage the importance of reason or rationality.  In a type of "straw man" argument, he suggests that "reason" without other moral foundations such as loyalty, is insufficient or even pathological.   He uses a metaphor of a person or a mind being like an elephant, a powerful creature guided by instincts and passions, with the "rider" of the elephant being our "reason" or logical faculties.  The "rider" is described as a recent evolutionary development, intended to serve the elephant, rather than rule over it.

He anticipates in the book that some people will disagree with him on this.  I certainly do.  I do not disagree that the development of sophisticated reason or rationality is a recent development in evolutionary history, that it indeed did develop in service to the "elephant,"  and that there are strong selective advantages for "non-rational" qualities, which remain prevalent in nature.  But the evolutionary presence of traits is not evidence of their high moral value.

Modern rationality is the foundation of the justice system.  Imagine a court system, a scientific lab, a factory producing safety equipment, or a spacecraft agency such as NASA, which would not hold reason as the highest foundation in its decision-making, but instead would consider "loyalty" or "purity" as most important.  Such foundations would, and often have, led to disaster.

I realize that some applications of reason may in retrospect prove not so "reasonable" after all.  Reason is always fallible, and can be the foundation of huge mistakes--not just technical failures due to mistaken ideas that were apparently well-supported at the time (e.g. the belief in medical remedies such as bloodletting), but also moral catastrophes.   But the process of reason requires it to be flexible, to monitor itself for mistakes, to be willing to make corrections when new information arises.  This differs from "loyalty" which is by definition resistant to change despite the arrival of new information. 

"Loyalty" could be considered a component of "reason" which requires a waiting period before acting on new ideas.  It could be like electing a senator for a 6 year term, with other representatives elected for 2 year terms.  The senators would be more resistant to rapid or erratic whims of a capricious populace, while the representatives would be poised to act more quickly; the two chambers would ideally lead to an effective equilibrium, sensitive to change, but not impulsively so.

I am not saying that "loyalty" or "purity" are unimportant, but they cannot be viewed as morally equivalent to reason, on some kind of equal footing, such that differences between people can be understood simply as cultural variation.

I was bothered in Haidt's book by his passing disparaging reference to "new atheists" such as Richard Dawkins, more or less dismissing the value of their ideas without acknowledging their wisdom or contribution.  There are major problems with these thinkers which warrant fair criticism, but they do deserve respect and attention.  This is ironically contrary to Haidt's best conclusion, which is to have some empathy and respect for viewpoints different from one's own.

I am more allied to scholars such as Steven Pinker or Paul Bloom, who are "rationalists" in their approach to psychology and morality.    But I have to admit that Jonathan Haidt is an important thinker as well, and deserves respect and attention.

Any author of a book has a tendency to have some inflexibility in their position afterwards, due to several psychological biases.  If you have publicly asserted a position, and have become famous for it, you are more likely to maintain it in order to appear consistent, even if there are good arguments against it.  There can be some degree of ego involved as well--people don't like to admit that they are wrong.  I wish there was a little bit more humility when scholars or experts assert positions on these issues. 

I am not an author (except for this modest blog), but I know that I have an ego as well, and I would have a tendency to defend positions that I have asserted, even when they may need to be changed or adapted.  I need to watch this tendency in myself, as we all do in ourselves.

In some cases, it may not be possible to have a friendly, empathic dialogue in a setting of conflict, oppression, or injustice.  Haidt does not explore this type of scenario adequately.  Friendship and empathy are neglected in the management of conflict and polarization, but it is important to acknowledge as well that some of the necessary forces of positive change and justice can be rather more difficult and conflict-ridden.

The Psychology of Meetings

What does psychology teach us about the components of an effective or positive meeting?

Daniel Kahneman described psychological dynamics in meetings, such that those who contribute first or most vocally tend to bias the discussion excessively. 

Quieter members of a group may have important contributions, but they are never heard.   

A majority view can tend to prevail.   Dissenting positions are often suppressed by peer pressure.

People can be afraid to express themselves, due to fear of consequences. 

Many speakers or presenters in meetings are lecturing about information that is already well-known to most or all of the members, therefore this type of lecture is arguably a very inefficient use of everyone's time. 

Suppression of dissent or counterargument is the most powerful and morally troubling bias in persuasion and group dynamics. 

Overt bias in group dynamics and suppression of dissent can occur in overt ways, such as with an authoritarian meeting style.  But there can be subtler mechanisms, such as when a presenter is charming, articulate, humourous, rhetorically skilled, and equipped with attractive visuals.  Good food probably helps as well.  We all enjoy such presentations, but it is important not to let our enjoyment cause us to shut down our critical thinking.  Otherwise, a presentation can be more like a marketing campaign, a revival meeting, or a political rally. 

One tactic to reduce this effect can be to ask members to offer their opinions or questions, anonymously if necessary, before the meeting begins, so that opinions are not suppressed by the social dynamics in the group itself.  It can be helpful if the leader of a group is the last person to speak, rather than the first. 

A related bias in many presentations is the "focusing illusion."  Here, a single idea, plan, or thesis is presented, perhaps with good rhetorical style, nice visuals, and strong supportive evidence.  This leads to a strong persuasive effect.  But if there is only one single idea, plan, or thesis, without presentation and fair discussion of alternatives, the audience will be unduly persuaded towards the single plan they hear about.   In some extreme cases, what may seem like a reasoned, balanced,  presentation may instead be more similar to a sales pitch or a political rally.  To prevent the focusing illusion, it is important to allow time in presentations for debate, counterargument, and alternative ideas.   Audience members should be strongly encouraged to think for themselves, to question, and to debate. Many audience members might be reluctant to do this, even if it is allowed, because they may feel it is rude or disrespectful to the presenter.

Another big problem in meetings has to do with the efficient use of time.  Sometimes an hour is spent on a subject which could have taken just a few minutes of focused attention.   In other areas of our lives, such as when we are listening to music, or watching a TV program, or reading a newspaper, we would rapidly divert our attention to something else if the activity was not useful or enjoyable.  But in most meetings you are stuck there, with no capacity to change the activity.

I find that the "cost" of meetings is often not acknowledged.  By cost, I do not mean the direct financial cost, which could often be zero (though not always, if there is rented space, catered food, or  lost income).    I mean the cost in terms of the other activities that could have been done instead.  For example, if the meeting is attended by 24 psychotherapists, the total cost of a one hour meeting is 24 "person-hours" of psychotherapy time.  The value of "24 person-hours" of psychotherapist time is equal to the treatment of 4 depressed patients with a course of CBT for 6 sessions each.   We should acknowledge the costs, and keep these 4 untreated depressed patients in mind as we sit through the meeting.

Another cost of a meeting is of psychological well-being of the attendees.  Many professional activities are psychologically neutral.  Others could be beneficial, because they lead to better group cohesion or social connection.  But others still could be demoralizing, depleting, or frustrating, if they have a negative dynamic.  They could add to the stress of the day, since other work  would have to be done later.  If the meeting is psychologically depleting then it would be harder to keep up with other work.

But of course, some meetings are effective, enjoyable, educational, and socially beneficial for individuals and groups.  They could help people and groups work more enjoyably and efficiently, could help solve problems in the work environment, and could help with creative planning for the future.  We need to find ways to have more of these!

While I am not normally a fan of using questionnaires extensively with  my patients, I have a simple suggestion for meeting management, based on some of the recent trends in psychotherapy research:  obtain and measure feedback data from attendees.  The absence of feedback can often give the impression that everyone feels ok with the process, and therefore there is no need to change.  Such data would need to be qualified, since the data gathering process itself involves a bias.  Reviewers of any service may be more likely to rate it more favourably, otherwise they might not have used the service in the first place.  For example, if you gather outcome data from customers at a fast food restaurant, you may get very positive reviews.  Such data should not be used as evidence that we should have more fast food restaurants in a community!  But with this proviso in mind, here is a suggested questionnaire for meeting attendees, to be submitted anonymously after each session, or after each segment of a meeting.    Each question could be rated on a scale with 0="not at all" and 5="very much":

1) I learned valuable new information in this meeting, which is likely to improve my work practices.
2) The presenter took too much time. *
3) Everyone's point of view was welcomed and respected.
4) Disagreement, counterarguments, and dissent were encouraged.
5) I got a fair chance to express my point of view.
6) The time spent at the meeting was worth the time, compared to my other tasks and duties which I missed due to attending the meeting. 
7) The meeting was a good chance to connect with my coworkers.
8) The presenter was articulate, engaging, and organized.
9) I enjoyed this meeting.
10) I was bored during this meeting. *
11) The process of this meeting was fair and respectful.
12) The meeting made use of time efficiently.
13) I would like more such meetings in the future.
14) There were instances of disrespectful or objectionable content in the meeting. *
15) The presenter, and fellow attendees, could be heard clearly.
16) The presenter and/or visuals could be seen clearly by all.
17) The presentation contained a lot of unnecessary jargon or needless complex terminology.*
18) The meeting began and ended on time, and stuck to the schedule as announced in advance.
19) The cost of the meeting (in terms of money and time) was acknowledged.
20) Personal information was requested of me which felt uncomfortable to share in a work setting.*

The starred items should be reverse-scored.  That is, for starred items, if you initially rate something as a "5" then it should be scored as "0."  The score could be summed, with a maximum score of 100 (a "perfect meeting" !)  and a minimum of 0 (the "worst possible").

I estimate an average score for most meetings in a relatively healthy organization would be about 60-70. 

Aside from only looking at the group average scores, it may be very important to look at the range of scores from all individuals, to ensure that outlier data is not just "dissolved" into the group average.