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Wed, 22 May 2019
The World for People who Think

Science of the Spirit


What's wrong with moral foundations theory, and our attempt to get it right

morality angels
© Antonio Marín Segovia/Flickr
Once the exclusive preserve of philosophy and theology, the study of morality has now become a thriving interdisciplinary endeavor, encompassing research in evolutionary theory, genetics, biology, animal behavior, psychology, and anthropology. The emerging consensus is that there is nothing mysterious about morality; it is merely a collection of biological and cultural traits that promote cooperation.

Best known among these accounts is Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). According to MFT: "Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperative social life possible." And MFT proceeds to argue that, because humans face multiple social problems, they have multiple moral values-they rely on multiple "foundations" when making moral decisions. These foundations include: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity.
  • Care: "The suffering of others, including virtues of caring and compassion."
  • Fairness: "Unfair treatment, cheating, and more abstract notions of justice and rights."
  • Loyalty: The "obligations of group membership" including "self-sacrifice, and vigilance against betrayal."
  • Authority: "Social order and the obligations of hierarchical relationships, such as obedience, respect, and the fulfillment of role-based duties."
  • Purity: "Physical and spiritual contagion, including virtues of chastity, wholesomeness, and control of desires."
These moral foundations have been operationalized, and measured, by the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ; you can complete it here).

Comment: See also:

Cloud Grey

The illusion of truth: Believing something is true when it's not

blonde woman holding cloud
The illusion of truth is a mechanism by which one comes to believe something is true when it's not. In fact, they don't just believe it; they also defend it as true. Also, they close themselves off to the possibility that it might be false.

The illusion of truth, also called the illusory truth effect, occurs because there's a flaw in the processing of reality. As humans, we have the tendency to say that familiar things are true.

In 1977, a study was done on it. A group of volunteers was presented with 60 statements. Researchers asked them to say if they were true or false. The same exercise was repeated later. The researchers noticed that these people deemed the statements they had already read before as true, regardless of how reasonable they were.
"A lie would have no sense unless the truth were felt dangerous."
-Alfred Adler-

Comment: This illustrates the importance of deliberately engaging our thinking faculties when encountering new information, especially information that comes at us repeatedly with little meaningful analysis.

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Light Saber

New test of 'light triad' traits explores the saintlier side of the human personality

holding hand
Psychologists have devoted much time over the last two decades documenting the dark side of human nature as encapsulated by the so-called Dark Triad of traits: psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. People who score highly in these traits, who break the normal social rules around modesty, fairness and consideration for others, seem to fascinate as much as they appall. But what about those individuals who are at the other extreme, who through their compassion and selflessness are exemplars of the best of human nature? There is no catchy name for their personality traits, and while researchers have studied altruism, forgiveness, gratitude and other jewels in our behavioural repertoire, the light side of human personality has arguably not benefited from the same level of attention consumed by the dark side.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, a team led by US psychologist and author Scott Barry Kaufman at Barnard College, Columbia University says it is high time we redressed this imbalance. "Too much focus on one aspect of human nature at the expense of the other misrepresents the full capacities of humanity," they write. Through four studies featuring more than 1,500 online participants, Kaufman and his team have created a new questionnaire that taps what they are calling the Light Triad (see example items below, and you can take the test online). They've also provided preliminary evidence for the kind of personal characteristics and psychological outcomes that are associated with being a high scorer on the light side of personality - or what they call an "everyday saint".

The research involved participants rating their agreement with statements designed to tap into the more positive, compassionate and selfless aspects of human personality. Kaufman's team took inspiration for these items from surveys used to measure the Dark Triad, but they made sure that their new items were not simply the Dark Triad questionnaire items in reverse; they also sought advice from experts in positive psychology and personality psychology to help them with the compilation. Participants also completed established measures of the Dark Triad, of the Big Five personality traits, and various other measures of psychological outcomes, well-being, values and characteristics.

Comment: See also:

Life Preserver

Thought crime science: Case studies in becoming an enemy of liberal orthodoxy

James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA helix
© REUTERS/Richard Carson
James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA helix and father of the Human Genome Project
The Western world considers itself a bastion of free thought - a marketplace of ideas. But some scholars who questioned prevailing liberal groupthink have quickly discovered that academic inquiry has tightly-controlled limits.

There are more Democrat than Republican supporters among scientists of almost every academic field in the US, voter registration studies have shown. In fields such as social studies and sociology, conservatives can be outnumbered a dozen or more to one. With such an overwhelming advantage in numbers, one might think that dissenting viewpoints in these fields would not pose a meaningful threat to prevailing orthodoxies. Unfortunately, a number of high-profile cases reveal that scholars and thinkers - some who do not even identify as conservative - risk their careers when they challenge the liberal majority.

Lisa Littman and 'rapid onset gender dysphoria'

Lisa Littman, assistant professor at the Brown University School of Public Health, found herself the target of liberal rage after her research challenged a sacred tenant of LGBTQ dogma. She published a paper which supported the thesis that some young adults who identify as transgender but previously showed no symptoms of gender dysphoria may have been influenced to "transition" by social media, friends and their environment.

Comment: See also: How genetics is proving that race is not necessarily a social construct

Evil Rays

The toll of excessive text communications on your psyche

family text
I am not known for being especially easy to get hold of via text. I tend to keep my phone on silent as the high-pitched ping of an incoming message makes my cheeks flush with dread. I wish I could mute all my contacts' notifications - sorry, mom, dad, and everyone I care about, but communicating with you makes me incredibly anxious. But, obviously, that's not feasible. I do, however, mute text threads with more than three people, and I opt out of family threads entirely. It is a small gesture, but bowing out of these communal conversations eases my mind, even if I sometimes feel left out and lonely - not to mention guilty that I've made my family feel like an annoyance.

Yet I've found that ignoring my family for the sake of my sanity can be therapeutic. Smartphones seem to cause more trouble than they're worth: these devices have opened up a universe of new ways for people (not just family) to bother us. One study from the American Psychological Association in 2017 found that constantly checking emails and texts contributes significantly to our overall stress. Nancy Cheever, professor of communications at California State University, Dominguez Hills, research show cellphone use affects our moods, and says that being 'constantly connected' through email, text and social media guarantees that you'll experience anxiety. The distraction seeps into your work life, too: as Scott Bea, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told the Daily Mail last year, constantly checking your notifications can drop productivity by about 40 per cent.

Comment: Avoid texting so much: Science shows how it's psychologically messing with your mind

Blue Planet

Kids are missing out on climbing trees

As long as I can remember, my girls have climbed trees. Skinny trees, big trees, crooked trees, straight trees, old trees, young trees, pine trees, deciduous trees... They've climbed trees in snow suits in the winter and barefoot in the summer. On more than one occasion, they've climbed trees wearing princess dresses. And you know what? Sometimes I join them on their tree climbing missions. (Minus the Disney dresses, that is...)

For my generation, tree climbing was a quintessential childhood experience, on a par with running under the sprinkler on a hot summer day and skinning your knees when riding your bike just a tad too fast on a gravel road. But today, it isn't a given activity for many kids, and for a number of reasons. For one, we all know that they spend more time indoors on electronic devices, which leaves less time to romp around in the woods in the first place. Parents and caregivers also worry more about the safety of tree climbing and many simply don't allow it. (A study by Play England showed that as many as half of all British children have been stopped from climbing trees.) In some cases, home owners associations or neighbors complain about kids climbing trees because they think it's a nuisance, and in more than a few places, tree climbing is banned altogether.

And the kids are missing out.

Comment: Tree-mendous health benefit of trees

Cell Phone

Social media is making Americans unhappy, but can they ditch it?

Sad face
© NurPhoto via Getty Images / Jaap Arriens 3041
The digital age has coincided with decreasing happiness and well-being. Study after study shows this to be true, but the latest sign that we might all benefit from a digital detox comes from the World Happiness Report.

It's bad news for the United States, which dropped in the ranking to 19th position, the unhappiest the US has been since the study began. This could be due to what the researchers called an "epidemic of addictions" - everything from drug and alcohol abuse, to gambling - and yes, obsession with digital media, which is hardly an American phenomenon alone. Hands up if you're a recovering Twitter addict, like me?

These days, most of the criticism I fire off at sites like Facebook and Twitter has to do with their many privacy-related failings or their political biases and fondness for censorship - but what if it was something else that really started pushing us away? Something that the social media gods of Silicon Valley have less control over: How spending time on these platforms actually makes us feel.

It seems like every other day I'm hearing about a new study linking social media and unhappiness - and when you look into it, the statistics are fairly shocking. Happiness and life satisfaction in US adolescents increased between 1991 and 2011 - but suddenly declined after 2012. Similar trends were seen across the same period in the United Kingdom.

Comment: See also: How to unwind your busy monkey mind


Keeping the candlelight illuminated: Thich Nhat Hanh's final mindfulness lesson - how to die peacefully

Thich Nhat Hanh, 92, reads a book in January 2019 at the Tu Hieu temple. “For him to return to Vietnam is to point out that we are a stream,” says his senior disciple Brother Phap Dung.
"Letting go is also the practice of letting in, letting your teacher be alive in you," says a senior disciple of the celebrity Buddhist monk and author.

Thich Nhat Hanh has done more than perhaps any Buddhist alive today to articulate and disseminate the core Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, kindness, and compassion to a broad global audience. The Vietnamese monk, who has written more than 100 books, is second only to the Dalai Lama in fame and influence.

Nhat Hanh made his name doing human rights and reconciliation work during the Vietnam War, which led Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for a Nobel Prize.


How science fixed my wandering mind

Caroline Williams transcranial magnetic stimulation
Researcher Mike Esterman applies transcranial magnetic stimulation to Caroline Williams’s brain at the Boston Attention and Learning Lab at the VA Medical Center.
Could a stint in a Boston lab change my brain? I was willing to find out.

My space-cadet tendencies earned me the nickname "butterfly brain" when I was about 8 years old. Even as an adult, working from home, I can spend the day flitting from one thing to the next, doing nothing of any use at all. When that happens, I'll feel stressed and frustrated - and I'll have even more to do the next day.

Lack of focus and a susceptibility to procrastination are both hallmarks of a brain that is not under the proper control of its owner. I'm not the only one who struggles with this problem. In one recent survey, 80 percent of students and 20 to 25 percent of adults admitted to being chronic procrastinators. The evidence suggests that this behavior actually leads to stress, illness, and relationship problems.

Letting the mind wander off doesn't seem to make us any happier. In another study, researchers interrupted people during the day to ask what they were doing and to score their level of happiness. They found that when people were daydreaming about something pleasant, it only made them about as happy as they were when they were on task. The rest of the time, mind-wandering actually made them less happy than they had been when getting on with their work.

Comment: While few readers will have access to the type of experimental equipment discussed in this article, many report that neurofeedback therapies are showing the same types of results. Retraining the brain, without changing its structure, seems to be possible with these technologies, offering hope for all who find their attention, mood or other cognitive skills lacking.


Alarm Clock

There's a hidden cost to reminders

man behind wall
© Raj Eiamworakul/Unsplash
This morning my alarm sounded at 7:30. Shortly after, my Headspace app sent a notification reminding me to meditate for 10 minutes. When I sit down at work, my calendar pops up to remind me of a grant meeting. Before lunch, I shoot my colleague an email to remind her that we planned to meet. In the afternoon, I am greeted at my desk by several more email reminders about the seminar this afternoon, the planned IT works this weekend, and the meeting I need to set with my teaching assistants for next week. I add a couple of items to my paper to-do list, so I won't forget them. Then my phone beeps to let me know that I haven't completed my daily Danish lesson and that I signed up for a gym class tonight. All told, in a typical day, 20-30 digital reminders vie for my attention.

We are surrounded by reminders - some we schedule ourselves, and many we receive from others. Reminders range from the trivial (apps that coax us to drink water or sit up straight) to the consequential (annual notices to file your taxes or update your health care and retirement plans for the year).

Generally, setting up reminders makes sense. By delegating a task to a list or a device, we can reduce our cognitive load and free up brain capacity for other things.

There is also plenty of evidence showing that we will not act if we are not reminded to do so. Studies show that reminders can increase savings, adherence to medical treatments, charitable donations, and just about anything that isn't permanently at the top of our mind.

Comment: See also: