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You Thought I'd Forgotten All About Jonathan Haidt

Posted by LizardBreath
on 06.01.12

(You're right, I had. This isn't me, it's a guest post from Helpy-Chalk)

Haidt has a new book out--are you sick of talking about him yet? I've just read the middle third of it, which is the part where narrates the genesis of his four five six foundations theory. This is actually the first time he's addressed the theory in a book, rather than a journal article or TED talk. I was hoping to get a better sense of what the evidence base for the theory is. Mostly, I think he is just synthesizing the empirical work of others. That is certainly the strongest part of the evidence for the theory. His original empirical work actually assumes the truth of the theory and then uses it to draw conclusions about American politics. If you assume the existence of these four five six sets of modules, he can show that whether you identify as liberal or conservative correlates with different answers to questions meant to stimulate those modules. He does not, however, make a novel empirical hypothesis that would be true if his use the four five six module theory
were true.

Let's get straight what he needs to show here. He can't just point out the existence of common behaviors or emotional responses. He has to show that these behaviors or emotions are the result of mental modules that have been subject to evolution. He does have a loose sense of what a module is. He is following a definition from Sperber and Hershfeld, rather than the hardcore definition from Fodor, so this gives him some flexibility. He has also obviously never claimed his list to be exhaustive. He is committed to the idea that the items on his list are exclusive, though. So he's got to show that there are distinct sets of evolved mechanisms in some sense at work here. I don't think he's done this. In fact, I think he can reduce the whole thing to two sets of modules. (More in a second.)

Haidt starts out in these chapters discussing the work of his teacher, Richard Shweder, who distinguished three kinds of ethical culture: the ethic of autonomy (think western Europe), the ethic of community, (think Confucian China) and the ethic of divinity (think Hindu India). There isn't any causal theory here that I can see. Shweder was just making some reasonable generalizations about different cultures. You can see how the original four foundations theory grew out of this work. Haidt noted that the ethic of autonomy actually has two components, one based on care and one based on fairness. The ethic of community was renamed hierarchy and divinity became purity. A fifth foundation was added when Shweder's ethic of community was divided into separate ideas of hierarchy and group loyalty.

But Haidt also adds to Shweder the idea that these are not just generalizations about cultures, but the result of evolved mechanism. Here, too, he can draw on the work of others. A lot research has been done on caring instincts, for instance. (Haidt's major citation here is to someone named Bowlby) So it seems natural to say that there is a set of modules Haidt can label "care/harm." Notice that this is a set of modules. Presumably there are actually separate mechanisms that create emotional responses to, say, big eyes, or the sound of babies crying. Similarly, Haidt can point to bodies of research on the evolution and psychology of reciprocity and disgust. He's on shakier ground, though, when he discusses loyalty and hierarchy. Here he is really just giving evolutionary just so stories for commonly observed human behaviors. He admits that there are a lot of competing ideas for these, and the sixth foundation he introduces, freedom, is actually directly opposed to hierarchy, one of the original four.

The thing that bugs me is that all of these "foundations" are actually sets of modules, and they are grouped into sets based on common observations of culture, and not anything known from cognitive science. The modules in fairness are quite heterogeneous. His most recent changes to the system include shifting liberal egalitarianism out of the fairness foundation and putting it in the new freedom foundation, and making fairness now be mostly about the conservative concern that hard work be rewarded. This now means that there are three foundations that are all concerned with creating ranking systems. The original hierarchy foundation is obviously about social rank. Purity is also explicitly a ranking system, though, separating the sacred from the profane, using metaphors of up and down to boot, and in the case of the Indian caste system this even becomes a social ranking. Now fairness is about ranking, too, because it is about the conservative idea that certain people have earned more goods.

So here's my proposal. Rather than grouping moral modules on the basis of input, which we have to define in terms heavily laden with contemporary political culture, lets group them in terms of their output, which we can define in more strict cognitive science terms. Some modules lead to outputs of shame--either feeling of shame about oneself or the desire to shame others. Other modules lead to outputs of guilt. The difference between shame and guilt, classically, is that you feel guilty about what you have done, but ashamed of who you are. This means that the shame modules cover everything that involves ranking people, including hierarchy, purity, and fairness as proportionality. These shaming modules also product outputs of disgust. Everything else comes from modules that output guilt. If I'm right, we should political correlations between shame-proneness and guilt-proneness similar to the ones Haidt has observed for his foundations. Are there other empirical predictions I could be making? Am I on to something here?


 

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First Week, New Job

Posted by LizardBreath
on 06.01.12

So, as anyone who reads all the comments knows, I got a small promotion last week, into a sort of second-in-command/aide to my boss sort of position, where I wasn't even quite sure what that would require on top of what I was already doing, given that she'd been functioning without an aide for quite a while. Then, slightly later last week, she suddenly went out on an unplanned leave, and is incommunicado, and I'm doing her job.

I feel like an untrained border collie puppy -- I've got the running in circles barking bit down, but I'm not dead sure where the sheep are supposed to be going.

Also, thank God for admins. The woman who handles our section has been there since the dawn of time, and knows everything, and is saving my ass. Repeatedly.


 

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La Nouvelle-Orléans

Posted by Stanley
on 06.01.12

I asked for suggestions here, but that didn't go so well. Let me try again on the front page:

Does anyone have any recommendations for things to do in New Orleans? I'm heading down there for a sort of birthday thing, and I gather it's a rather free-form schedule (which I appreciate). So I can suggest anything: museum, historical thing, nature thing, bar, restuarant. Whatever.

Last time I was in NOLA, a bandmate totally broke a tooth eating a chicken nugget, so no chicken-nugget-based suggestions, please.


 

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Fatter and Generally Worse

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.01.12

Over the last, say, seven years, I've made a concerted effort to un-doctrinate myself from caring about how much I weigh. Prior to that, I'd say I was typical for an American female, which is to say fairly neurotic and self-judgmental. At times very so.

Now I generally exercise a lot and mostly cook healthy food at home, and try to not think about my weight as it ties to my appearance beyond that. Let it be whatever it is, and get on with more important things. And then once in a blue moon, I get walloped, like recently upon seeing lots of photos of myself from our Memorial Day beach weekend. Exacerbated by being at my parents house, with lots of photos of myself as a teenager, and lots of people who remember me looking like I did, and feeling extra self-conscious about the difference.

If you've seen the recent photos on Facebook, please do not do the whole "No, you look totally fine!" reassurance, because that's not the point. (If I dug deep, what would actually be reassuring? I suppose my favorite thing to hear would be if people who've known me for years said "What? Of course you look fatter and worse. But that's totally dwarfed by all the great associations I have about who you are and the kind of things you say and do." Which is, of course, how I feel about my friends.)

The point is that I'm feeling grouchy about how goddamn difficult it is to be comfortable in your own skin, sometimes.


 

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Unemployed with debt

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 05.31.12

For the first time, a majority of unemployed people have attended college. This is mostly because 44% of people who enter college don't graduate. The unemployment rate is still significantly lower for graduates than everyone else.


 

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Noted

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 05.31.12

1. The playground nearest my parents' house is part of an elementary school. It's now fenced off and completely inaccessible to the outside, because they couldn't get a handle on the vandalism, which is sort of depressing. The school is located on the periphery of student housing for the local gigantic state university. Are college kids vandalizing the hell out of an elementary school? WTF, young privileged adults?

2. Little boys pants are now made almost exclusively in frat boy length. All toddler shorts hang past Hokey Pokey's knees. It's kind of stupid.


 

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End of life mood

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 05.30.12

Article written by a guy whose mom is a "dwindler" - someone who lives for years in the netherworld of deteriorated health and severe dementia, at considerable emotional toll to her family and against her explicit, pre-dementia wishes.

My grandfather's experience with Alzheimer's was very different. He was basically happy the entire time, with normal bouts of anger or sadness. I suppose that means that whatever part of his brain regulates emotion wasn't disrupted, or it was disrupted in a pleasant way. In contrast, the mother in the linked article is angry and unhappy. Some of her last intelligible words are mumbling "this is a violation. this is a violation" while having her diaper changed.

The author takes it as a foregone conclusion that incapacitating dementia is miserable and that we've got to create viable pathways to prevent this kind of lingering. My question is: how rare is my grandfather's situation? How unhappy do most people become under dwindling mental faculties? Do antidepressants work on people with dementia? Being loopy and content is a vastly different fortune from being gone and angry.


 

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Baseball sucks.

Posted by Stanley
on 05.29.12

Hey, the White Sox moved into first place? That's neat.


 

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Dearly Beloved

Posted by Stanley
on 05.28.12

I spent the weekend away at a wedding in lovely southwest Virginia. Some notes from my travels:

  • I really hate driving on hilly highways packed with semis. With a speed limit of 70 mph, I'm inclined to set the cruise control to 75 and, you know, cruise. And while the trucks can cruise at 75-80 down the hills, they tend to climb the hills at something more like 60. Which is annoying. And if I knew smart things about moving more freight traffic from road to rail, this sentence would say those things.

  • A new-to-me wedding thing that this couple did was having no assigned seating for the dinner. There were lots of available tables to sit at and plenty of food at various stations. But no long, small-talk-ridden dinner with strangers? Yeah, I'll take that every time please.

  • We listened to a lot of Top 40s radio, which meant hearing Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" approximately 402,912 times.

  • I have an irrational dislike for corgis. I'm given to understand that they're very smart and generally nice creatures to have around. But I can't get over the fact that they look funny. There, I said it.

  • A friend noted that the pace of life in certain parts of the South really does seem notably slower. So, far instance, if you're trying to grab a quick bite to eat at a fast-food joint, you should prepare for it to take at least twice as long for them to take your order and make your food. I can't say I noticed this phenomenon, but I report it here for your commentary.

  • A really great wedding band definitely trumps an iPod or a DJ, and this weekend's band was no exception. But I've never been to a wedding with a terrible band, and I could see the experience making me chary of hiring band for my own hypothetical wedding. Any horror stories in this category?

I'm probably forgetting something I meant to mention. It happens.


 

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Guest Post: Nick S.

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 05.27.12

I just read this well-written article about working conditions in large warehouses which ship e-commerce orders. A couple thoughts:

1) The working conditions sound similar to but notably worse than the conditions described in this article about working for Amazon ten years earlier.

2) The conditions sound awful and cruel but not (generally) arbitrarily cruel; it does sound designed to maximize profit and efficiency. It is almost a parody of soul-crushing Taylorism.

3) I was struck by how often everybody there, including the supervisors, said, "this is awful and the only reason we keep doing it is because we need the jobs and we can't find anything better." That makes it sound like a larger social/macroeconomic problem than a problem with one employer. Better regulations would help, certainly, but it isn't surprising that the suggestions that the article arrives are modest -- the problems are large and systemic, and there isn't one easy solution (though, again, better OSHA regulations obviously wouldn't hurt).

"The first step is awareness," an e-commerce specialist will tell me later. There have been trickles of information leaking out of the Internet Order Fulfillment Industrial Complex: ... Still, most people really don't know how most internet goods get to them. The e-commerce specialist didn't even know, and she was in charge of choosing the 3PL for her midsize online-retail company. "These decisions are made at a business level and are based on cost," she says. "I never, ever thought about what they're like and how they treat people. Fulfillment centers want to keep clients blissfully ignorant of their conditions." If you called major clothing retailers, she ventured, and asked them "what it was like at the warehouse that ships their sweaters, no one at company headquarters would have any fucking clue."
Further, she said, now that I mentioned it, she has no idea how to go about getting any information on the conditions at the 3PL she herself hired. Nor how to find a responsible one. "A standard has to be created. Like fair trade or organic certification, where social good is built into the cost. There is a segment of the population"--like the consumers of her company's higher-end product, she felt--"that cares and will pay for it."

4) Finally I was thinking about Robert Reich's analysis in which he suggests that the two categories of jobs which will have some leverage to resist downward pressure on wages and working conditions are, first, "symbolic analysts" -- jobs that can't be reduced to a set of rules and, secondly, jobs which are tied to a specific location, like hairdressers or restaurant cooks. This article reveals, I think, the limitations of that second category. "warehouse employee at a shipping
hub" is tied to a specific location (and there's a reason why dockworkers, for example, have been unionized for a long time) but that still doesn't give the employees any leverage in this case. The
employers know that they can easily import enough workers (see the description of the workampers) to meet demand that they aren't dependent on a local labor supply, and aren't going to bid up wages too far.

Just depressing. Reading that article I had a strong gut reaction of, "fairness demands that I have less and they have more" but getting that isn't easy

Nick


 

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