When Truth Isn’t Truth

“This is going to become a bad meme.“ – Chuck Todd (NBC interview)

A bad meme, indeed.  It’s bigger, way bigger than that.  On the good side, the meme throws a spotlight on the fact that we really do live in a Bubble, and most people are clueless about it.

The Bubble idea has become more bothersome in the last few decades, so I invested what I hope is an adequate amount of time to dig into this and come up with a better understanding about what “Living in a Bubble” really means.

Hang on.  This might not be pretty.  It’s been a journey, and it’s revealed a number of things.

Then again, it might be pretty awesome, at least for some.  You see, it’s not just Bubble: fundamentally it’s many Bubbles.  Many Bubbles for each of us, alone or in groups; it’s not just a “worldview.”

Where to begin?  (This might not seem like a difficult question, but as you will see, it is. As a consequence, I’ve chosen once again to begin where I typically begin: in the Middle.  And to keep it short.  If you want any additional chatty details, they will follow on Pages 2 and 3.)

In the middle of what?  As it turns out, the Middle is actually right here, right Now.  The “What” is what we’re actually looking into.  So, let us begin.

Terra Firma

You and I got up this morning and stepped out into, or rather onto, good old Terra Firma, “dry, solid earth.”  We take this rock solid foundation for granted, along with a number of other things that we sense and experience.  In doing this, we take comfort in knowing that we are just joining a long line of people throughout history that have done the same thing.

The idea of “solid matter” gained through our sense of touch is one of the earliest concepts developed by man through both our “common sense” and common senses.  This idea eventually led early in history to a definition of Substance (i.e., matter) as that which is extended in space and persistent in time.1

This working definition is so useful that it still forms the foundation of virtually every science course taught.  It was (and still is) a very good starting point (and, for most of us, a finishing point).  After all, if I drop it on my foot and it’s still there after I hop around in pain, it must be solid matter, generally speaking.

The problem is, it’s incomplete if not wrong.  It works for the physical “Bubble” we live in, but does not describe All That There Is, the rest of Reality.  Really.

Proof of Bubble

When the theories of Relativity (on the Mind-Boggling scale, Page 2) and Quantum Mechanics (on the Minuscule scale, Page 3) were proposed, most of us said, “Meh.”  After all, please note carefully: we choose to ignore what we think doesn’t affect us. We throw up a Wall.

It doesn’t change Reality.  Both Relativity and Quantum Mechanics invade our comfortable physical Bubble every day.  The GPS systems we so heavily rely upon depend on Relativity and the variability of time and would not work otherwise (Page 2), and research uses Scanning Tunneling Microscopes daily, based upon the Quantum Mechanical phenomenon of electrons tunneling through barriers they should not tunnel through (Page 3).

We use these phenomena, we count on them, but we can’t explain them let alone understand them.  It doesn’t change Reality; it just changes our “reality.”  That reality is a Bubble.  And that Bubble becomes a Fundamental Principle.

Taking Liberty

I am going to take a great liberty here and try, with a bit of irony and a lot of dependence upon Pages 2 and 3, to build on the shoulders of giants, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and Ernst Mach, and propose the big Bubble of the world that we live in as The General Bubble Theory:

The world we live in, affecting us all together, is the physical General Bubble, consisting of an unimaginable number of wave-groups, manifesting themselves as perceived particles, people, places, and things, plus our overall perception of space as Euclidian and time as “absolute.”  (Ok, you probably should glance through Pages 2 and 3).

On the other hand, the limitations in our individual senses, what we can experience directly and therefore process and interpret, leads to The Special Bubble Theory:

We each perceive and inhabit a unique cognitive Special Bubble, developed from our specific genes (from others), particular environment (including others), unique experiences (involving others), and choices (both ours and others).  We are probably trying to stay comfortable within it, and potentially get uncomfortable outside of it.

In reaction to all the other Special Bubbles (people, groups, cultures) we experience, and depending upon our personality and temperament, we may seek to expand our Special Bubble, carefully maintain it as it is, or actively seek to shrink it for protection.

Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) describes the expansion of his own Bubble during his studies in another culture, India.  We experienced the same when we lived in The Netherlands and in Romania.  Recognition of stuff outside one’s own Bubble coupled with a discerning openness to experience it can lead to growth of self as well as one’s Bubble.  A potentially growing Bubble has a strong but thin, flexible, transparent skin.  It’s part and parcel of a continuous learning mindset, an attitude of seeking opportunities for creating added value: a Positive Sum mindset, something culturally reinforced.

The desire to carefully maintain one’s Bubble (a Conservation of Bubble?) manifests itself as an attitude that leads to a chosen behavior:

If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist;
If I don’t understand it, it’s wrong.

This attitude is the unwillingness to deal with the possibility of Missing Information, or the direct rejection of it.  It is the ageless choosing to ignore what we think doesn’t affect us.  It is the attitude J. S. Mill addresses:

“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true.  To deny this is to assume our own infallibility (italics mine).  Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”
― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

This idea of the existence of Missing Information and Bubbles is not new, just forgotten or willfully ignored.

The predominance of people with this mindset is probably a major contributor to our current partisanship and our newfound Politics of Comfort. The world is perceived as being Zero Sum and every effort must be made to hold one’s ground. New stuff or understanding is uncomfortable because one’s Bubble skin has become thicker, stiffer, and clouded. Instead of a Bubble it has become more like a silo (the same process often identified in organizations).

Those who are actively attempting to shrink their Bubble probably perceive themselves in crisis mode and are primarily looking for survival, to eliminate threats.  The world is Negative Sum, abounding with Takers.  Defense is the primary action, and fortressing the norm by reinforcing the thick wall of the Bubble by putting Another Brick in the Wall.

The crisis very often leads to attempting to Fix the Blame by hurling missiles of their limited truth over the walls.

The attempt to claim that Truth Isn’t Truth (ignoring the Missing Information outside their Bubble and falling directly into the trap identified by J. S. Mill’s first point).  They risk converting their Bubble into a coffin, or a sarcophagus.

Much conspiracy theory follows this path (Flat Earthers come to mind), as well as the thinking of many groups (people groups, special interest groups, political and religious organizations).

Relative Reality

(image credit: Politico)

We live in Bubbles: one big one, the General Bubble for which we have no choice, and an unlimited number of Special Bubbles (ours and others), for which we can exercise some choice.

To boot, we each have multiple Special Microbubbles depending upon our interests and disinterests, strengths and weaknesses.  We react differently to crises, either seeking to fix the blame or choosing to fix the problem through recognizing opportunities.

Our collection of Special Microbubbles isn’t necessarily a perfect sphere.  We may seek to expand some of our Microbubbles in our strengths, and stabilize or shrink others in our weaknesses; some may even risk the opposite.  Regardless, the whole thing probably looks more like Special Foam.

We assemble our personal little Special Microbubbles (interests) to create our Special Bubble, then engage within bigger special interest Bubbles (our Dunbar groups and social neighborhoods, collections of people, different for different interests), and then interact with (or try not to) all the other Special Bubbles (people) we come in contact with, or hear or read about.

Can we call those other Special Bubbles (partisans) we prefer not to care about, Special Froth?  (Yes, but only if we live in a Negative Sum world (Bubble), and only care about withdrawing and defending.)

I think this whole concept, from which so many of the other Fundamental Principles evolve, deserves special status; it needs to be recognized as Fundamental Principle 0.

We can choose to withdraw, tread water, or grow, depending upon how we choose to hold ourselves accountable: to self, to group, or to a greater good, higher values, or even a higher authority.

Your health, and that of others, society, cultures, and nations depend upon stretching our Special Bubbles to make them larger.

Think Positive.

1History of Science, W. C. Dampier, p295.

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, Bubbles, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments


“Critical writing is thinking about your writing while you’re thinking about what you’re writing in order to make sure what you’re writing reflects what you’re thinking.”

One of the issues with writing is trying to make sure you are actually communicating the message you were thinking.

This is easier done than said.

The reason for this is that with writing one has the time to set things aside and reread them later.  This proofing, theoretically, provides one time to ponder one’s words and see if they really convey what you once thought they were conveying.  If not, edit.

Unfortunately, one does not have that opportunity when speaking.  The editing process (brain) should be engaged before one speaks.  Otherwise, you end up with the following rationalizing, self-defensive and justifying pontification:

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant” (attributed to Alan Greenspan, former Fed chairman, and in a slight variation to Robert McCluskey, the children’s book author, and, silently, to every one of us at one time or another).

There are times, however, when proofing focuses so much on meaning that it misses the visual clues, or, in the following, what’s hidden behind the word’s unintended camouflage.  (This is why it is good to have another pair of eyes proof one’s work.)

We speak here of Homographs, Heteronyms, and Homonyms.  And probably Homophones, too.

A homograph is a word that shares the same written form as another word, but has a different meaning.

Heteronyms, while written the same, when spoken can be distinguished by different pronunciations.

A homonym has both the same written form and pronunciation.  (Due to this unique combination, someone decided that they didn’t need a unique designation, but could also be referred to as homographs and homophones.  Thanks.)

A recent email came across my desk that gave me some fun, and enlightening, reading (even though it could still have used some additional proofing).  The email had not really gone viral but appeared to move more like a herd of grazing cattle. Here, for entertainment or confusion, are some examples we can take for granted everyday.  (Ok, some of them were a bit contrived).

  • The bandage was wound around his wound.
  • The farm was used to produce produce.
  • The town dump was so full it had to refuse more refuse.
  • They had to polish their new Polish furniture.
  • He could lead if he got the lead out.
  • The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
  • Since there is no time like the present, she thought it was time to present her present.
  • The bass painted a bass on the head of the bass drum.
  • The dove dove into the bushes.
  • I did not object to the object in question.
  • The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
  • There was a row on the boat about how to row.
  • The chair was too close to the door to close it.
  • A buck does funny things when does are near.
  • To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
  • How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
  • He couldn’t bear to bear the bear back into the woods.
  • After the row, she moped around on her moped.
  • She shed a tear upon seeing a tear in the painting.

Consider further,

  • There is no egg in eggplant,
  • No ham in hamburger, and
  • Neither apple nor pine in pineapple.
  • English muffins were not invented in England,
  • Nor French fries in France.
  • Sweetmeats are candies, while sweetbreads are meats that aren’t sweet.
  • Quicksand works slowly.
  • Boxing rings are square, and
  • A guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And really ponder these, because eventually you will have to explain it to your kids,

  • Writers write, but fingers do not fing.
  • Grocers do not groce, and hammers do not ham.
  • You can made amends, but not one amend…
  • If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth?
  • If one goose, two geese, why not one moose, two meese?
  • If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?
  • If teachers taught, why don’t preachers praught?
  • If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
  • We ship by truck, but send cargo by ship.
  • Our noses run, and our feet smell.
  • Why is a slim chance and a fat chance the same?
  • But a wise man and a wise guy are the opposite?
  • We recite at a play, and play at a recital.
  • Our houses burn up when they burn down.
  • We fill in a form by filling it out.
  • Our alarms go off when they go on.
  • When the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are not.

And, to keep you awake at night,

  • Why doesn’t Buick rhyme with quick?
Posted in 16: Culture | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Way We Think (3): The Conservative Disadvantage

One of the most interesting insights from diving into Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) (1) was reading about the reactions of the research team while they were dealing with the results from their research and viewing these results in light of the mounds of research results from other studies.

The five academic people on the team were all politically liberal psychologists and social scientists, and yet they corporately discovered they all shared a similar concern about the way that their liberal academic field approached the study of political psychology.

It strongly appeared that the goal of so much previously published research was to explain what was wrong with conservatives! (2)

What apparently helped stir up their concerns was graphically summarizing their new results,

Figure 8.2, The Righteous Mind: Importance of each (original) MFT Foundation versus political philosophy

The conclusion was that conservatives possess Moral Matrices (Values) that display concerns more evenly balanced among the original five foundations studied (see note below), while liberals based their Moral Matrices (and thus their subsequent attitudes and behaviors) on just two, the Care and Fairness foundations.  Conservatives trigger and respond to the full range of intuitions described by Moral Foundations Theory, including appeals to Loyalty (patriotism), Authority (respect for persons in positions of authority as well as traditions), and to the Sanctity foundation (holding some things sacred; primarily but not limited to religion).  The results do not significantly vary over time or in different cultures studied.

Interestingly, when the subjects in the research chose the labels “liberal” or “conservative” they were not just choosing to endorse different values on questionnaires.  Their reaction times were also studied, and within the first half-second after hearing a statement, their partisan brains were already reacting differently.  Their intuitive reactions caused them to lean one way or the other before they began to reason and to search for different (blog: i.e., confirming) kinds of evidence and reach different conclusions.  Their intuitions came first; their strategic reasoning came second. (3)

Further research was done into political and religious speeches (where one would expect to find verbal evidence of underlying MFT foundations) and the texts evaluated.  Liberal political speeches made almost exclusive use of Care and Fairness terminology while conservative speeches were more balanced across all five foundations.  In a 2008 speech, President Obama used only Care and Fairness terminology, and Fairness here most often meant equality of outcomes. (4)  On the religious side, Unitarian sermons made greater use of Care and Fairness terminology, while Southern Baptist sermons made greater use of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity terminology. (5)

Distressingly, when the study’s overall results were presented to numerous liberal political groups in an attempt to provide an understanding why liberals fail to connect with social conservatives and the religious right, the responses were wholly negative.  In fact, many liberals could not see any set of values not solely based on the Care and Fairness foundations as anything other than a “moral abomination,” and a society built on such values was something to be combatted, not respected. (6)

It is easy to see the roots of societal polarization here, but there is something else going on, something that has been going on for generations and of which the development of MFT has only recently provided a clearer picture.

First, let’s be clear, much of what liberal progressives wish to accomplish are reasonable ideas and attempts for solutions to very real issues and problems.  There is, as we’ve already seen above, real concern to provide care for individuals and prevent further harm, and to spread these solutions as broadly as possible (equality of outcomes).

One such program is No Child Left Behind (since replaced).  The program has not accomplished what it was theoretically conceived to do and its failures in various areas are blamed on President Bush since the program was enacted during his administration.  Few people, and nearly no liberals, know or are willing to admit that the program was a liberal idea conceived and developed by Senator Ted Kennedy, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, and enacted almost wholly intact based upon his proposals.

The subsequent problems that arise are most often not with the proposed solutions, but with incomplete implementation and follow up due to a myopic ‘let’s get it done now and move onto something else’ practice.  This is a ‘let’s concentrate on solving a problem with a ‘solution’ and not worry about if the solution is structurally sound enough to work and last’ mentality (discussion about legislative feedback to address this appears here, towards the end).

I remember participating in this mode of thinking, as I was very liberal when I was much younger.  It was very easy to identify a problem and demand it be solved as if this were as easy as sending a wrongly prepared dish back to the chef or replacing a board in a computer.  However, as with any problem solver, wisdom and broader understanding comes with age; with politicians, apparently not so much.

This mindset is one of a Visionary, a dreamer of better times, and is not wrong.  Organizations and societies need them.  But this is not the mindset of a Doer, one who focuses at least as much on getting the problem solved so that it lasts and doesn’t adversely affect the health of other vital parts of the organization, culture, or nation.  It has been said that “Dreamers need Doers, but Doers don’t need Dreamers.”  First part is right, the second isn’t.

One good example of this is Brexit (a vision), the disjointed attempt (full of unanticipated consequences) by Britain to leave the European Union (also a vision), which is viewed by Britain as being loaded with unanticipated and unintended consequences,

In the Brexit referendum, 17.4 million people, or fifty-two per cent of voters, chose to take the country out of the E.U., a vast supranational project that had become a metaphor for a remote and unfair system for organizing people’s lives. (7)

Since the referendum, the central task in British politics has been to try to square two conflicting demands: to respect the democratic impulse of Brexit while limiting the economic consequences.  It is a version of the challenge posed by populist anger everywhere.  How far should governments go in tearing up systems that people say they dislike—the alienating structures of global capitalism and multilateral government—when the alternatives risk making populations poorer, and therefore presumably more furious than before? (7)

Second, there is no issue about the Care and Fairness foundations not being important. They are; one just can’t build a healthy society on these two alone. (8)  It’s more about all the MFT foundations that are structurally important to a healthy society, and not just American society (see above).

All of this leads us to a Repugnant Conclusion**, one of the something else’s going on and one that most everyone would rather choose to pretend doesn’t exist,

Progressive liberals are not wrong; they are not incorrect; but

They are simply incomplete and don’t recognize it.

The same must be said for fringe conservatives. For both extremes, it’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood of Fundamental Principle 7c:

They don’t know that they don’t know what they don’t know.  But think they do.

This becomes clearer when comparing the Moral Matrices for Liberals and Social Conservatives, as presented in The Righteous Mind (the comparison below now includes the subsequently identified sixth foundation, Liberty/Oppression),

(Also presented is a Moral Matrix for Libertarians, Figure 12.3, which is even more one-legged and foundationally challenged.)

It’s an uphill battle to overcome Gap Theory, search out and verify the usable Missing Information, and work towards a viable solution, all while politely acknowledging the rabid fringes’ right to be rabid.

The Conservative Disadvantage?  They have to juggle a bunch of Foundations all at the same time with a view to the best overall outcome.  This is like a doctor weighing the benefits and side effects of a new medication, taking into account possible contraindications with other existing medications.

It takes courage to cull the best from each side, to be a Conserviberal.  Or a Liberative.

*Note: the six ultimately identified foundations are: Care/Harm; Liberty/Oppression; Fairness/Cheating; Loyalty/Betrayal; Authority/subversion; and Sanctity/Degradation.  The Righteous Mind, p 357

**Note: The Repugnant Question is, “Have I done/not done something that’s contributed to the current situation?”
The Repugnant Conclusion is, “Yes, I have indeed done/not done something that’s contributed to the current situation!”

1The Righteous Mind, p 184-187
2The Righteous Mind, p 187
3The Righteous Mind, p 189
4The Righteous Mind, p 190
5The Righteous Mind, p 188
6The Righteous Mind, p 193
7Teresa May’s Impossible Choice, The New Yorker, (July 30, 2018)
8The Righteous Mind, p 193


Posted in 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, Bubbles, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Way We Think (2): Authority versus Power

“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence” – Leonardo da Vinci

An earlier post presented an overview of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and a description of the development of Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), which seems to be a fairly reasonable attempt to describe the basis upon which many of our cultural Value systems are built.

With so many nations of the world, to say nothing of individuals, descending deeper into polarization and paralysis, Moral Foundations Theory leads to a better understanding of the types of bedrock upon which Values (Moral Matrices) are built, which can then lead to a better understanding of the Attitudes that lead to Behaviors and subsequently to more even responses to them.

In particular, MFT helps explain how different individuals in different cultures can build conflicting Moral Matrices on the same small set of bedrock foundations.  It also leads to a potential understanding of how these selfsame forms of bedrock (the Foundations) can also constrain the ranges of Choices individuals are able to make that lead to their Behaviors.

Of the six foundations*, the one that captured my attention most was the Authority/Subversion foundation, not the least because of differing cultural interpretations of authority, nor just because of our interpretation of authority and its expression in organizational culture as well as in the home, community, and government. No, it is of interest because of how it helps us further interpret and explain individual behaviors in group and organizational environments.

Overall, cultures vary enormously in the degree to which they expect respect to be shown for authority and the ways that parents, teachers, leaders, and others in positions of authority are treated.  (Many languages code respect directly into their grammar.  In French, vous is respectful; tu is familiar.  German, Romanian, and Dutch also code respect into formal and familiar speech.)

But, and this is a big but, Authority should not be confused with Power.

Unfortunately, this is a common and culturally widespread misunderstanding.

While we can readily identify someone operating in a “control rolein our lives, whether in families or organizations, the appearance of this role is not a recent development.  Anthropologists can identify this same role in human tribes and early civilizations.  The first sentence in The Code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) states,

“Hammurabi, … , who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, … , so that the strong should not harm the weak.”

Human authority is not just raw power backed by the threat of force; we can see indications of this elsewhere in The Code of Hammurabi where authority and power are distinguished from one another.

People we place in positions of authority take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice.  In essence we bestow this authority upon them and include the means to accomplish these responsibilities, and then hold them accountable for achieving them.

Where we go wrong is assuming that Power is the only means of exercising Authority.  As an unfortunate and unintended consequence, the people we call Authorities often overuse Power to exploit their subordinates for their own benefit while believing they are just.

This exploitation is in reality the “control role,” where having Authority is also presumed to mean the execution of direct Power to control what happens, to determine the outcome.  By controlling what subordinates do to achieve a desired outcome, authorities are actually employing a transactional form of leadership, a quid pro quo, so to speak.  “If you do this, then I will do that,” or occasionally, “If you do this, then I won’t do that,” depending upon the desire for reward or fear of punishment.

It can be helpful to look at relationships between employers and employees in organizations.  Research data indicate that only about 32% of employees are “engaged” in their work environment, that ~50% of employees are not happy in their work or workplace, and the main reason (~60%) that employees leave their jobs is because of their poor relationship with (or leadership style of) their manager.  All of this is consistent with the predominant assumption that the objective of Authority is to execute Power, with a resulting outcome that more resembles oppression rather than “prevention of harm to the weak” in order to accomplish goals.

We can easily rationalize this viewpoint if the desired outcome of exercising Authority is a tangible, quantifiable objective (a product, service, civil order, and/or justice) that requires Power to achieve, while at the same time ignoring (or not being held accountable for) any intangible, hard to quantify outcomes such as the subordinate’s mental state, attitude, self-esteem, happiness, or the organization’s (or nation’s) culture.

Looking closely, ignoring these intangibles seems to look a lot like subordinates are being pushed more to the Oppression side of the Liberty/Oppression foundation of Moral Foundations Theory.  This does not seem desirable (Note: tongue in cheek).

Another aspect affecting how Authority is executed and experienced is what is recognized as our asymmetry of competence, which applies equally to a subordinate (you and me) as well as to a person in Authority.  In other words, everyone has strengths and weaknesses (you’ve no doubt heard about these in performance reviews).  If a person promoted to a position of Authority presumes that this authority also bestows power into areas of their weakness, then they are more prone to assume a control role to achieve the outcomes for which they have been made responsible.  To boot, since subordinates are neither blind nor stupid, they become acutely aware of the (excessive) use of power by bosses to control areas of weak competence or complete incompetence.

What appointees to Authority often miss is, first, that subordinates (still neither blind nor stupid) are not only able to perceive when legitimate asymmetries exist, but second, when power is actually asymmetrically employed to achieve outcomes (that is, not used coercively and uniformly but exercised proportional with competence), that this is not inherently exploitative.

In other words, there is another, less recognized “role” available to people in Authority.  This alternative is what I would call the “influence role.”  This accepts asymmetrical employment of power depending upon a situation, and also responsibly seeks to work cooperatively to leverage other’s skills for the benefit of the entire, cohesive group.

Where the control role often leans to oppression (or Taking) to achieve a goal by the coercive, exploitative use of power, the influence role delegates and motivates subordinates to engage in a project, applying and developing their strengths, and thus not only contributing to the tangible outcomes but to intangible ones as well: self-esteem and group cohesion.  It’s a Making role.

The primary impact of the influence role, however, is that it readily extends beyond hierarchical relationships.  We have all been vicariously influenced in life by people we deem to have credibility in certain areas, and we choose not to be influenced by people whose credibility we suspect.

Ironically, one arena where this role is widely used is in celebrity testimonials for products and services.  In this case marketers are trusting that the public will not recognize any asymmetries of competence (or relevance), for instance, between an Olympic champion and a disposable razor.  Another related phenomenon is known as the Nobel Syndrome, where the media pesters a newly crowned Nobel Prize winner with questions in an unrelated area where they have no demonstrated expertise (maybe opinions, though).

Is there something that affects whether a person will gravitate to either the control role or the influence role?  I believe there is, and it lies in their own values and what motivates them to fill their needs.

Look at the control role in various contexts.  It is practiced in a transactional manner; you control the outcomes either by a carrot or a goad: a true a zero-sum game. People often try to practice controlling behavior because they recognize they are weak in a skill and need to overcome that impression and/or cover it up.  Abusive behaviors, refusal to recognize and correct poor decisions, etc., are indicators. The human need for respect runs quite high, especially in the male gender, particularly if one’s environment (nature and nurture) has been deficient.  From these and many other behaviors, it is easy to deduce that valuing or protecting self is a significant if not dominant element (remember, “self happens,” it’s unavoidable).

The influence role, on the other hand, is decidedly more transformational in nature.  When practiced intentionally, it seeks to mentor, coach, and/or motivate people to take initiative and responsibility to apply and develop their skills in a manner that not only produces a tangible outcome, but also contributes to intangible growth in skills, self-esteem, respect, and group cohesion. It is a positive-sum game where everyone gains.  In these cases, self, while always still present, takes a backseat role in a Moral Matrix or Values set that is more focused on others and the greater good.

With those observations in mind, it is easy to ponder if an “Authority Curve” relating both the control and influence roles might exist based upon a Moral Matrix or set of Values that encompasses the self versus the greater good Values we see in the Behavior Curve.

It turns out the “curves” are identical:


The Behavior Curve

The curve results from some reasonable assumptions (the complete development is here).

First, a set of Values (or any personal Moral Matrix) is made up of both internal values (self) and external values (group oriented or utilitarian values):
Selfinternal Valuesexternal = 1Self never disappears completely from our Values set, and the more self there is, the less room there is for external, greater good values.

Second, we can only exhibit one behavior at a time; we have to drop one behavior in order to switch to another.  This is a form of the Conservation of Behavior:
Sum of all Behaviors  = 1.

Third, there is a distinction between Integrity and Ethics.  Integrity is the characteristic of sticking to a set of Values (Moral Matrix) regardless of external circumstances (V. Putin’s values are totally different than ours, but he has high integrity in sticking to them). Ethics has developed to reflect what is “morally right,” and more often reflects a utilitarian view for the greater good.  In this case, a measure of one’s Ethics can be considered as the ratio of external Values to Self: Valuesexternal / Selfinternal

Fourth, a change in behavior should be related to our most preferred behavioral reaction in a given situation.  If it were perceived as a threatening situation, self-preservation would be most highly valued; otherwise a more utilitarian reaction would prevail.  Thus, a change (δ) in behavior would be inversely related to our Ethics: δ Behavior = 1 / Ethics, or

δ Behavior = Selfinternal / Valuesexternal

Gathering all of these together, we end up with a person’s Behavior, in this case a range of behaviors between a Control Role and an Influence Role, depending upon the ratio of Self to Values in his/her set of Values (Moral Matrix) in that situation:

Behavior (Controller or Influencer) = 1 – Selfinternal / Valuesexternal`

This is the curve in the graph above, and it leads to a number of conclusions.

First, as mentioned, Self never completely disappears.  But as one can see to the right in the graph, this is not completely bad.

Second, the more people are concerned about putting themselves first in a given situation the more controlling their behavior will end up being, to the left in the graph, and the more negative will be the behavior and results.  This is permitting hidden or sleeper values (self) to percolate up in priority depending upon the situation.  This behavior can have an overall negative influence on others’ contributions, undermining or actually subverting the group’s ability to perform.  Moreover, it vicariously teaches others that this is an expected and acceptable use of Power, thus reinforcing a bad practice.

Third, the conscious effort needed to move into and remain in the influencing role, to the right, is significant and seemingly delivers less positive impact than an equal ‘effort’ shifting to the left in a controlling role.  This is no doubt related to the saying: It only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch.  However, since the influence role is targeted at motivating others to contribute and has a transforming influence, it also has an amplifying effect as others make their positive contributions and have a similar influence on others.

The overall constructive, amplifying affects of the influence role are more than worth the conscious effort expended.  An influencer impacts people both directly and over a distance.  It also impacts them in a transformative way.  It exhibits Integrity (steadfastness to Values regardless of circumstances).  It also exhibits strong Ethics as it needs a well developed, understood, and broad based Moral Matrix built on all six foundations.

The control role impacts people close at hand, primarily transactionally.  It, too, exhibits Integrity, but to a Moral Matrix that can bend to the situation.  There are hidden sleeper values (they are a hidden part of the whole Matrix) but when circumstances arise their priorities change.  This is more properly referred to as Situational Ethics.  Rather than Ethics, it should be called Flexics.

All in all, not only is it a noble cause to aspire to the influence role, it adds a cascade of value to others, to groups and organizations, whole societies, and even to nations.

It’s a veritable rising tide.

*Note: the six identified foundations are: Care/Harm; Liberty/Oppression; Fairness/Cheating; Loyalty/Betrayal; Authority/subversion; and Sanctity/Degradation.  The Righteous Mind, p 357

Authority/Subversion foundation: The Righteous Mind, p 166-168
Control role: The Righteous Mind, p 165

Posted in 04: Games People Play, 10: Integrity, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

There Is No Gravity. Things Fall.

I really didn’t know where to begin on this one. Well, actually, how to continue because I had already begun laughing hysterically.

The post title derives from a comment by a person who recently attended a Flat Earth Conference in North Carolina last year.  One of quite a number of attendees, apparently. It is to one of them that I owe the inspiration for what follows.  So, after beginning with hearty laughter, let me continue by giving credit where credit is due.

Here’s to Alan Burdick (@alanburdick), a The New Yorker staff writer who followed his muse (or his editors) to attend, reflect, and write about his Conference experience here (this is a must read, even better than another article on Quartz about a recent similar conference in Birmingham, UK).

Beyond learning about Mike Hughes, who attempted to launch himself into space on a homebuilt steam powered “rocket ship” last March (he reached an altitude of nearly 1900 feet), we also learn about the Infinite Plane Society (a live-stream YouTube channel that discusses Earth’s flatness amongst other things; just Google this), The Daily Plane (a flat-earth information site), another site called Enclosed World, and that there is quite a bit of serious participation on them.  Including ~500 people who paid $249 to attend the conference, not including travel.

Of course, the conference was not just focused on Flat Earth discussions, it made ample time for other ‘known conspiracies’: the moon-landing hoax, the International Fake Station, and so-called satellites.  The various flavors of attendees (but ‘not a single tinfoil hat’) were attention getting, but so were some of the ‘real truth’ beliefs they shared.

You see, they found that the truth shared in the news media was too unnerving, too terrifying.  There was only one conclusion:

“If we can agree on anything anymore, it’s that we live in a post-truth era (1).  Facts are no longer correct or incorrect; everything is potentially true unless it’s disagreeable, in which case it’s fake.”

Ok … ??

Burdick notes: The Flat Earth is the post-truth landscape.  As a group, its residents view themselves as staunch empiricists, their eyes wide open.  The plane truth, they say, can be grasped in experiments that anyone can do at home. (“Hold a ruler up to the horizon at the ocean or a lake.  It’s flat. What pond, lake, or sea have you ever seen where the surface of its waters curves?”)’

Let’s hear it for ‘scientific observation’ – performed by non-scientists who don’t understand testing or confirmation.  Their solid justification: “If you believe it, it’s not a lie.”

However, supposedly reaffirming that we are not actually dealing with wackos is a statement by the Flat Earth Conference organizer, Robbie Davidson, reported by Burdick:

Davidson was careful to note that the Conferences are unaffiliated with the Flat Earth Society, which, he said, promotes a model in which Earth is not a stationary plane, with the sun, moon, and stars inside a dome, but a disk flying through space.  “They make it look incredibly ridiculous,” he told me recently.  “A flying pancake in space is preposterous.”

Thank heavens for a touch of down-to-earth, post-truth rationality…

Fortunately, proofs abound.  One YouTube video is ‘200 Proofs that Earth is Not a Spinning Ball.’  “If Earth were spinning at 1000 miles per hour at the equator (true), why isn’t there a powerful wind blowing?”  (The video author also offers: “The proof that the Earth is at rest is proved by kite flying.”)

Another proof is a more general plea to the ‘obvious’ – trust your own senses:

“Ninety-nine per cent of received wisdom is questionable; if you can’t observe it for yourself, it can’t be trusted.  “It simply comes down to, Have you been there? Have you been to Saturn?  Have you been to Jupiter?” “

Hmmm….  So how are we able to ‘see’ streaming video and live television?  There are no wires!!

Burdick also observes,

One attractive aspect of the Flat-Earth theory, it seemed, was that it served nicely as an umbrella (collection site) for all the other cover-ups.  “It’s the mother of all conspiracies,” more than one person told me, and further, “Believing in a Flat Earth is hard work; there is so much to relearn.  The price of open-mindedness is isolation.”

Not laughing.  Now I have a headache.  Moving on …

I realize and now appreciate that it is really nice to have so many other talented researchers and journalists (good ones) travel the world and document their observations and experiences, to say nothing of their data, that consistently reinforce so many of the Fundamental Principles I’ve discussed in these posts.  At my age, going out and collecting all that data would be rather time consuming, costly and difficult.  And now with the Internet, one doesn’t even have to dig, although you do have to have a good bulls*it filter.

All this Flat Earth stuff simply reinforces the fact that we all live in our own little bubbles, each well stocked with its own limited supply of ‘consistent information.’  These bubbles also come with a living ‘skin’ (filter) that grows thicker with age and experience (and ever more impervious to incompatible or ‘disagreeable’ information).  And while we all don’t ‘get’ everything, most of us ‘get’ that this is the case. However, there will always be an ample supply of people who don’t ‘get’ that they don’t ‘get’ some things, but think they do.  (Inadvertently, this serves to protect their bubble).  This is Fundamental Principle 7c.  At times, this can be entertaining.  At other times, it can be downright frightening.  This is what Stan Freberg meant when he asked, “Funny Ha-Ha, or Funny Peculiar?

As if Flat-Earthing itself wasn’t enough, I noticed that the words “cover-ups” and “conspiracies” flowed through their conversations almost like water.  It seems concluding that a “spherical Earth” was a huge conspiracy opened the floodgates to all sorts of other conspiracies, and that ‘crowdsourcing’ them together under one circus tent somehow lent credibility to all of them.

We’ve dealt with various conspiracy theories since history began and there can be a reasonable explanation that these are initially triggered by Gap Theory, where the immediate need to understand a situation results in creating a narrative out of thin air (or in some cases, whole cloth) to fill the immediate vacuum of Missing Information (Fundamental Principle 6) or the inability (or unwillingness) to understand the information that isavailable.

One expects, or hopes, that the eventual availability of reliable information would lead to clarity and understanding.  One would hope.

But what motivates people to continue to pursue off-the-wall explanations when reliable, reproducible, verifiable information exists?

Serendipitously (really fortunate), an article by the researcher Roland Imhoff, ‘Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?’ addressing this question appeared on Quartz at the same time as the reports on the Flat Earth Conferences.

One standard explanation about why people pursue and believe in conspiracy theories is that this is an attempt to regain control in their lives.  From the Quartz article,

The rationale behind this is that lacking control increases the need to engage in the compensatory illusion of control—that is, in conspiracy theories.

While there’s something to this, it isn’t the full story.  This Compensatory Theory portrays conspiracy theorists as nothing but the poor victims of control deprivation, clinging to conspiracy as the last defense against a chaotic world.  This almost stereotypical image, though, is contradicted by the often vocal, evangelizing conduct of actual conspiracy theorists, their claims to superior insight, and their degradation of non-believers as ignorant sheep.  (What’s also been apparent in the above articles).

What this observation (the stereotypical image above) suggests is that adopting a conspiracy belief doesn’t always have to be mere compensation for a lack of control but can be instrumental in its own way.  Belief in conspiracies can serve to set oneself apart from the ignorant masses—a self-serving boast about one’s exclusive knowledge.  Adherence to conspiracy theory might not always be the result of some perceived lack of control, but rather a deep-seated need for uniqueness.

One can follow their confirming experiments in the article. They conclude,

Seeing evil plots at play behind virtually any world event is not only an effort to make sense of the world.  It can also be gratifying in and of itself: It grants one the allure of exclusive knowledge that sets one apart from the sleeping sheep.

In our first article, Burdick boldly concludes, “Solipsism is the new empiricism.”  Solipsism is the belief that only the self can be known, but it has more generally become applied to the worldview (bubble) that “I’m unique! It’s All About Me!”

The unfortunate bottom line is that as the post-truth era brings everything into question, rather than test, validate, learn and grow, an increasing number of people just throw out anything inconsistent with their worldview.

It’s far easier.

It thickens the bubble’s skin.

And becomes all about Me.

For the Flat-Earthers, it’s a return to the geocentric theory with Earth at the center of the universe.

For everyone else, it’s the creation of a Me-o-centric universe.

Do we need less entertaining evidence that our education system is not performing to expectations?


1  Post-truth era: facts are considered subjective and any information that conflicts with one’s personal opinion is justifiably questionable.

Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, Bubbles, Gap Theory, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Would You Like One Space or Two with Your Essay?

Much Ado about Nothing – Shakespeare

Science can be wonderful, especially when it reveals something definitive and really irrelevant in everyday life, such as E=mc2.  Science can also be frustrating, especially if its revelation is “Meh,” particularly to the scientists doing the science and even more when it involves something we are unaware of encountering on a daily basis, such as,

How many spaces should follow a period at the end of a sentence?

A new (scientific) study on exactly this issue was just published in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics and resulted, once again, in significant discussions in the media, most likely missed by almost everyone.  One such immediate response was Please don’t use this study to justify your horrible habit of using two spaces after periods, by Angela Chen in The Verge.  However, an alternative view struck me as having a proper balance between history of the issue and being seasoned with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek.  This was by Avi Selk in The Washington Post, and what follows is most of his perceptive narrative, especially some of the visually instructive and dazzling font-work:

One space between each sentence, they said. Science just proved them wrong.


(blog: Eye-catching.  The use of Courier font, harkening back to the days when my wife typed my thesis on an IBM Selectric© typewriter.  (These were the marvelous typewriters with the spinning, replaceable font-ball elements.  You could even do equations, albeit very, very carefully, swapping font elements character by character.  It still meant you had to have a constant supply of type-out tape handy, or use sticky erasable bond paper.  And yes, we’re still married).)

Some insisted on keeping the two-space rule.  They couldn’t get used to seeing just one space after a period.  It simply looked wrong.

Some said this was blasphemy. The designers of modern fonts had built the perfect amount of spacing, they said. Anything more than a single space between sentences was too much.

And so the rules of typography fell into chaos. “Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong,” Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate in 2011.  “You can have my double space when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” Megan McArdle wrote in The Atlantic the same year.  (And yes, she double-spaced it.)

(blog: And so it began again, the interminable discussions and differing publication standards for different publishers.  But there’s still a missing element here in all of the discussions. Watch for it.)

This schism has actually existed throughout most of typed history.  The rules of spacing have been wildly inconsistent going back to the invention of the printing press. The original printing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence used extra long spaces between sentences. John Baskerville’s 1763 Bible used a single space.  WhoevenknowswhateffectPietroBembowasgoingforhere. Single spaces.  Double spaces.  Em spaces.   Trends went back and forth between continents and eras for hundreds of years, Felici wrote. It’s not a good look.

And that’s just English. Somewrittenlanguageshavenospacesatall and o thers re quire a space be tween ev e ry syl la ble.

Ob viously, thereneed to be standards. Unless    you’re doing avant – garde po e try, or    something , you  can’tjustspacew ords ho w e v   e    r   y      o        u            want.     That would be insanity. Or at least,


(blog: The author trusts you are a visual learner.)

Enter three psychology researchers from Skidmore College, who decided it’s time for modern science to sort this out once and for all.

“Professionals and amateurs in a variety of fields have passionately argued for either one or two spaces following this punctuation mark,” they wrote in a paper published … in the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.

They cite dozens of theories and previous research, arguing for one space or two.  A 2005 study that found two spaces reduced lateral interference in the eye and helped reading.  A 2015 study that found the opposite.  A 1998 experiment that suggested it didn’t matter.


(blog: At this point there follows a lot of discussion of study methods and who did what to whom when, which basically involved monitoring the eye movements of 60 volunteer(?) students as they read various materials of different fonts and spacing, sometimes with their heads clamped(!))

And the verdict was: two spaces after the period is better.  It makes reading slightly easier.  Congratulations, Yale University professor Nicholas A. Christakis.  Sorry, Lifehacker.

Actually, Lifehacker’s one-space purist Nick Douglas pointed out some important caveats to the study’s conclusion.

Johnson, one of the authors, told Douglas that the fixed-width font was standard for eye-tracking tests, and the benefits of two-spacing should carry over to any modern font.

(blog: This should be a red flag, I think.  Given the chaos over one piece of nothing versus two pieces of nothing, it would seem wise to validate that assumption, given the resulting “minor benefits” described below.)

Douglas found more solace in the fact that the benefits of two-spacing, as described in the study, appear to be very minor.

Reading speed only improved marginally, the paper found, and only for the 21 (of the 60) “two-spacers,” who naturally typed with two spaces between sentences.  The majority of one-spacers, on the other hand, read at pretty much the same speed either way.  And reading comprehension was unaffected for everyone, regardless of how many spaces followed a period.

The major reason to use two spaces, the researchers wrote, was to make the reading process smoother, not faster.  Everyone tended to spend fewer milliseconds staring at periods when a little extra blank space followed it.

(blog: “staring at periods… “  Hmm.)

The study’s authors concluded that two-spacers in the digital age actually have science on their side, and more research should be done to “investigate why reading is facilitated when periods are followed by two spaces.”

But no sooner did the paper publish than the researchers discovered that science doesn’t necessarily govern matters of the space bar.

Johnson told Lifehacker that she and her co-authors submitted the paper with two spaces after each period — as was proper. And the journal deleted all the extra spaces anyway.

(Author’s Note: An earlier version of this story published incorrectly because, seriously, putting two spaces in the headline broke the web code.)

By now you should have caught one interesting red flag in this current research and discussion, the assumption that conclusions from fixed-width font eye tracking should carry over to variable-width fonts (which are generally available on the computer, :-D; hmm, yet another idea for further research).

But there is another very important element that, to my knowledge, hasn’t appeared in any discussions, ever.  It’s not that it might be nothing.  I mean, it is literally nothing; literally nothing:

The space itself.  In a fixed-width font, a space is the same width as any of the letters: i, I, w, W, and a space, ” , are all the same width.  They must be because the typewriter carriage movement was controlled by fixed gear teeth, not by the letter on the struck key.  Thus, the visual lesson hidden in the use of ‘antique’ Courier font at the beginning of the article.

In a variable-width font, each letter’s width is different and designed for smoother reading and less eye fatigue.  And so is the width of a ‘space.’  It is narrow, typically narrower than any character. You can test this by using spaces to try to indent and exactly align the text of sentences rather than using a tab (but of course, who does this…).  Pick a font; then pick a wide letter, type 5 of them, and then immediately follow with some text.  On the next line, pick a smaller letter and do the same, on a third line use periods, and on the fourth line simply use five spaces, like this (in Cambria font):


So, while I was taught on a very antique typewriter, BC (Before Courier), to use two spaces after a period, I am still doing that.  I did it in this document, knowing full well that WordPress will systematically remove them when I upload the document and I will have to go put them back in again.

Why?  Because of an unintended consequence: font-width depreciation has set in.  All my modern font “spaces” are no longer what they used to be.  Their width has been designed to facilitate reading words within sentences (i.e., one thought).  They are now significantly smaller than the space that used to appear between sentences (i.e., different thoughts).  I have to use at least two new-spaces to achieve a similar visual effect of one old-space.   Sometimes I might even use three spaces.

You see, it’s not about the number of spaces; it’s about the amount of visual space between the period and the next sentence.  This helps smooth the brain’s transition to the next thought.

And besides smoother reading, consider the unanticipated benefit of keeping you from “staring at periods…”

Posted in 16: Culture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Way We Think: Culture, Values, and a Righteous Mind

“Attitudes become Behaviors by Choice”

While it may seem reasonable to attribute our (or other’s) behaviors to our (or their) attitudes and to assume that these attitudes are simply conscious expressions of subconscious values, a harder question is, “Where do our values come from?”

This question is more difficult than it seems because the simple answer, “From my family and friends” still leaves open the same question about the source of their values.  The question could go on ad infinitum, or ad nauseam, take your pick.

It was therefore refreshing (and challenging, enlightening, and, ultimately, an “Ah-Ha” experience) to come across Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion (2012), a journey through the development of Moral Foundations Theory.  The theory provides the strong foundations upon which multicultural Value systems are based.

(Granted, it is now 2018 so I came late to discovering and reading it, especially since reviews described it as, “An eye-opening and deceptively ambitious bestseller … undoubtedly one of the most talked-about books of the year” (WSJ), and “A landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself” (NYT Book Review).  So, I asked, if it is that impactful, why I had I not come across it earlier?  And that led me to think, if a best seller averages between 5,000 and 10,000 copies sold per week and lasts rarely more than 52 weeks on a best seller list, that amounts to about 400,000 copies sold with maybe 25% of those readers passing the book on, resulting in about half a million people who have read this “landmark contribution.”  So, what are the rest of the 330 million people in the US reading?  Don’t answer that question; just watch their behavior.)

Based on the title, right off the bat I figured it was sort of a polemic against a conservative mindset.  Not true at all.  The reviewers (and others) are correct not only about the thrust and impact of Haidt’s message, but in the approachability and readability of how he has written it.  The message is not only how different cultural “Moral Matrices” (what I have referred to as Values) develop, but the very real journey that Haidt, a self-proclaimed liberal atheist of Jewish descent, made by living in different cultures doing research and reached a broader and deeper understanding of the culturally universal foundations upon which various Moral Matrices (Values) are built.

With so many nations of the world descending deeper into polarization and paralysis, the Moral Foundations Theory that Haidt presents leads to a better understanding of the different forms of bedrock upon which Values (Moral Matrices) are built, which can then lead to a better understanding of the Attitudes that lead to Behaviors.

In particular, it helps explain how different cultures can build conflicting Moral Matrices on the same small set of bedrock foundations.  It also leads to a potential understanding of how these selfsame forms of bedrock (the Foundations) can also constrain the ranges of Choices people are willing to make that lead to their Behaviors.

Enough of a broad overview; here is the distilled meat of Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), sandwiched with connections I see to my previous thoughts.

At the heart of most attempts to understand human behavior is the question of the influence of Nature (inherited genes) versus Nurture (our environments).  In a past post I have supported that it is not Either One/Or the Other, but a reality that both play significant roles which are not always completely complementary or additive (an And/And situation).

MFT builds upon the concept that our genes and our environment (Nature and Nurture) lead to ‘switches’ developing in our brains which are then turned ‘on’ or ‘off’ by various patterns and experiences that are important for survival in a particular environment, and that these ‘on’/’off’ switches then change or affect our behaviors.  Switches develop through cultural learning and variations in experiences as cultures can shrink or expand the ‘triggers’ (events, words, pictures, etc.) that turn them on or off (blog:think of this as a form of Regression to the Cultural Mean).

Research by Haidt and his colleagues initially led to proposing five foundational and universal cognitive areas (they called them ‘modules’) upon which different cultures construct their Moral Matrices in order to respond to adaptive challenges in their environments (blog: ‘adapt or die’ circumstances).  These are: 2

-Care versus Harm
-Fairness versus Cheating
-Loyalty versus Betrayal
-Authority versus Submission
-Sanctity versus Degradation

(blog: note that each module has two extremes, a positive, value-adding (giving) concern first, followed by a negative or value-subtracting (taking) concern. These correlate with positions along the Behavior Curve.)

Here are simple summaries, with some thoughts, of each Foundation as described in The Righteous Mind.

Care/Harm 3

This foundation is based on the module that is primarily responsible for meeting the adaptive challenge of protecting and caring for children and others.  This one concerns survival and seems fairly straightforward.

The triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation can include seeing a cute, healthy baby (Care) or a child or animal threatened with violence (Harm).

Fairness/Cheating 4

The Theory of Reciprocal Altruism says that we evolved a set of moral emotions that lead us to play “tit-for-tat.”  We’re usually nice to people when we first meet them (blog: ye olde “Trust but Confirm” philosophy), but after that we’re selective: we cooperate with those who have been nice to us, and we shun those who took advantage of us (blog: that is, we recognize Givers versus Takers).  A major point is that human life is a series of opportunities (adaptive challenges) for mutually beneficial cooperation (blog: in other words, opportunities as potential Positive Sum Games or value added transactions).

Current triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation include things that are now strongly culturally and politically linked to the dynamics of reciprocity and cheating.

On the political Left, concerns about equality and social justice are based in part on the Fairness foundation: in the extreme, wealthy and powerful groups are accused of gaining by exploiting those at the bottom of the social ladder by not paying their “fair share” of the tax burden (blog: they are accused of being Takers, all the while ignoring the fact that the top 1% of income earners pay 27% of federal taxes, and the top 20% pay 87% of taxes (WSJ)).  For the Left, Fairness often implies equality of outcomes.

On the political Right, there are equal concerns about Fairness: in the extreme, Democrats are seen as “socialists” who take away money from hardworking Americans and give it to lazy people (including those who receive welfare or unemployment benefits) and to illegal immigrants (in the form of free health care and education).   For the Right, Fairness often implies proportionality of outcomes.

(That the responses to these first two foundations are so strongly different eventually led, with further research, for Haidt and his colleagues to propose an additional foundation, which we will return to later).

Loyalty/Betrayal 5

The male mind appears to be innately tribal, enjoying things that lead to the adaptive challenge of group cohesion and success in conflicts between groups (yes, including warfare).  While the virtue of loyalty matters a great deal to both sexes, the objects are quite different:

-Teams and coalitions for boys; and

-Two-person relationships for girls.

Warfare has been around since before agriculture and private property were developed, and we are the descendants of successful tribalists (blog: now we primarily organize this, more or less acceptably, into sporting competitions).

The triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation are recognizing teammates, matched by a corresponding hatred of traitors.

Clearly Loyalty/Betrayal plays a strong role in politics: while the Right tends towards nationalism and patriotism (group cohesion), the Left tends towards universalism (individualism) and away from nationalism and consequently the Left has trouble connecting to voters who rely on the Loyalty foundation.  And because of its strong reliance upon the Care foundation, American liberals are often hostile to American foreign policy (i.e., care for our own first).

Authority/Subversion 6

The adaptive challenge basis for this foundation is negotiating status hierarchies, which typically followed the development of cohesive social groups such as clans and tribes.

Cultures vary enormously in the degree to which they demand that respect be shown to parents, teachers, and others in positions of authority.  This can also be seen (and heard) in various languages that code respect directly into pronoun forms, i.e., French has vous, plural and respectful, and tu, singular and familiar.  Similar coding occurs in other Germanic and Romantic languages.

It is important, however, to not confuse Authority with Power.

There is a “control role” readily observable in human tribes and early civilizations to say nothing about today.  Human authority is not just raw power backed by the threat of force.  Human authorities take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice (although the people we call Authorities often exploit their subordinates for their own benefit while believing they are just).  (blog: under Authority, this exploitation is a “control role,” while the alternative, what I would call a true “influence role,” responsibly seeks to elevate other’s skills for the benefit of the cohesive group).

Haidt acknowledges that early in his graduate school career he subscribed to the common liberal belief that Hierarchy=Power=Exploitation=Evil.  He subsequently discovered (and accepted and admits) that he was wrong when he came to understand the concept of Authority Ranking.

Authority Ranking is where people have asymmetric (i.e., unequal) positions in a linear hierarchy, in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and pastoral responsibility for subordinates.  Relationships are based upon perceptions of legitimate, not inherently exploitative asymmetries and not on coercive power (blog: interpreting this in my words and perhaps splitting concepts, these relationships recognize a legitimate “influence role,” which is based upon the idea of “authority by influence” in areas of strength while simultaneously behaving with “authority with deference or delegation” in areas of relative weaknesses (in other words, a smart boss who delegates).   The hair splitting perhaps comes in bundling the “inherently exploitative asymmetries” above into a “control role,” which presumes using only strengths and coercive power. Sometimes I wonder if this should also be called a “God role”).

We are the descendants of those who could play the “game,” to rise in status while cultivating the protection of superiors and the allegiance of subordinates (blog: this can be perceived as a Positive Sum Game where all benefit, eventually).  If authority is, in part, about protecting order and fending off chaos, then everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station (blog: this is also a form of Regression to the Cultural Mean, however that Mean was formed.  It is also a form of equality of opportunity, or proportionality of outcomes).

Current triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation include anything construed as an act of obedience or disobedience, respect or disrespect, submission or rebellion, all with respect to authorities perceived to be legitimate.  Current triggers also include acts that are seen to subvert the traditions, institutions, or values that are perceived to provide stability.

As with the Loyalty foundation, it is much easier for conservatives, the political Right, to build on this foundation than it is for the Left, which often defines itself in part by its opposition to hierarchy, inequality, and power (blog: recall the common liberal belief that Hierarchy=Power= Exploitation=Evil).

Sanctity/Degradation 7

The adaptive challenge for this foundation originated in a practical need to keep people and the group free from parasites and diseases, especially from pathogens that could spread quickly when people live together in large groups. It eventually evolved to focus on taboo ideas and behaviors.

Feelings of stain, pollution, and purification are irrational from a utilitarian point of view (Value system), but they make perfect sense if/when one recognizes a spiritual component to mankind.  Recognition of this component no doubt contributed to the evolution of and focus on taboo ideas and behaviors and contributed to the development of an Ethic of Divinity.  The Ethic of Divinity can be viewed as a vertical axis, with good increasing upwards with divinity at the top, and bad increasing downwards towards evil at the bottom.

Haidt also relates this, in a way, to food. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, omnivores must seek out and explore new potential foods while remaining wary of them until they are proven safe (blog: recall the history of the tomato).  Omnivores go through life with two competing behavior motives:

Neophilia (an attraction to new things), and

Neophobia (a fear of new things).

The liberal Left scores much higher on measures of neophilia (openness to experience), while the conservative Right is higher on neophobia, to stick with what’s tried and true.  And therefore the Right cares a lot more about guarding borders, boundaries, and traditions.

While current triggers for this foundation include taboo ideas and behaviors, according to Haidt’s research these triggers are extraordinarily variable and expandable across cultures and eras.  There appears to be a strong psychology of sacredness that binds individuals into moral communities, coupled with an emotional response of disgust for things and people outside of the community. When someone in a moral community desecrates one of the sacred pillars supporting the community, the reaction is sure to be swift, emotional, collective, and punitive (blog: these are prime examples of the Regression to the Cultural Mean as well as Exclusion from the Cultural Mean).  Haidt feels that if we had no sense of disgust, we would also have no sense of the sacred.

Haiti also notes that there is a vast difference between Left and Right over the use of concepts such as sanctity and purity. American conservatives are more likely to talk about “the sanctity of life” and “the sanctity of marriage.” And this idea is not just ancient history.  It inspired a virginity pledge movement in the U.S. that is still current.  On the Left, however, the virtue of chastity is usually dismissed as outdated and sexist.  If your morality focuses on individuals and their conscious experiences, then why on earth should anyone not use their body as a playground?

The Sanctity foundation is used most heavily by the religious right, but it is also used on the spiritual left.  In New Age grocery stores one can find a variety of products that promise to cleanse you of “toxins.”  It can also be found underlying some of the moral passions of the environmental movement concerning physical pollution as well as the degradation of nature. The Sanctity foundation is also crucial for understanding the American culture wars, particularly over biomedical issues including abortion.

The philosopher Leon Kass in 1997 lamented that technology often erases moral boundaries and brings people ever closer to the dangerous belief that they can do anything they want to do.  In his essay, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” he argued that our feelings of disgust can sometimes provide us with a valuable warning sign that we are going too far, even when we are morally dumbfounded and can’t justify those feelings by pointing to victims.  He notes, with some aplomb, “Repugnance, here as elsewhere, revolts against the excesses of human willfulness…” (blog: remarkably in alignment with our avoidance of the Repugnant Conclusion, especially if/when the “excesses of human willfulness” are our own, individually or as a group).

Now What?

In testing the validity of these foundations, data in the form of survey responses and reflections were collected from 132,000 people. 8  The results are rather striking, as exhibited in the following chart:

Figure 8.2 Scores on the MFQ, from 132,000 subjects, in 2011.  (The Righteous Mind, p 187)

The conclusions are stunning. 9  Not surprisingly, the Care and Fairness foundations show the least variation between Very Liberal and the Very Conservative, while the Sanctity foundation shows the greatest variation.

(The same pattern is found in responses from countries outside the U.S.  In addition, all five of Haidt’s research colleagues, who are politically liberal, all shared the same concern about the way their liberal field approached political psychology.  They observed that the goal of so much research was to explain what was wrong with conservatives!  The standard explanations psychologists offered for decades to explain why conservatives are conservative include,

  • They were raised by overly strict parents, and/or
  • They are inordinately afraid of change, complexity, and novelty (blog: recall Neophilia and Neophobia, above) and/or
  • They suffer from existential fears, and therefore cling to a simple worldview with no shades of grey.

These approaches all had one feature in common: they used psychology to explain away conservatism (blog: in other words, they were “Lib-splaining”).  This makes it unnecessary for liberals to take conservative ideas seriously.)

One conclusion from the research is that Republicans (more or less conservative) understand moral psychology; Democrats (liberals) don’t.  Republicans do not aim to cause fear as some Democrats charge.  They trigger the full range of intuitions described by Moral Foundations Theory.

A second conclusion is that Liberals value Care and Fairness far more than the other 3 foundations (those are almost irrelevant), while Conservatives endorse all five foundations more or less equally.  The consequence of this is that the American Left fails to understand social conservatives and the religious right because it cannot see their world other than a “moral abomination” (blog: note the low Liberal endorsement values for the foundations of Loyalty (e.g., too “groupish” and not individualistic enough), Authority (e.g., “hierarchy = evil”), and Sanctity (e.g., “enlightened intellectuals don’t need magic”)).  For liberals, such a vision must be combated, not respected or engaged with.

(To this point I’ve followed Haidt’s approach in introducing the five foundations.  However, continued research, as well as response to the publication of MFTled to the realization that the Fairness foundation was still inadequate to account for the range of responses.  Subsequently, and for brevity here, the Fairness foundation was split into two: a Fairness/Cheating foundation to accommodate the equality of outcomes, and a Liberty/Oppression foundation to accommodate the proportionality of outcomes. In revision, MFT now has six foundations and Liberals have a three foundation morality (Care, Fairness, and Liberty), while Conservatives have a six foundation morality.  Expanding on these two would take a future post by itself.)


This is an impressive book and many things about it resonated with me. First of all were the components of Moral Foundation Theory which opened the door to a better understanding of how such divergent Moral Matrices could develop in different “cultures” (including Liberal and Conservative “cultures” in the U.S.).  Second, it expanded the concept of “Values,” which I had expressed very simply in the Behavior Curve (now I just need to wrestle with six variables instead of one).  And finally, I not only appreciated Haidt’s transparency in describing his journey from, my words, blinkered liberal to liberal with a broader, more open perspective, but also his testimony about how it came about – by living and studying in other cultures, by immersion.  It is close to my own journey, although I went from blinkered liberal through a domestic moderate phase before choosing also to go immerse myself and live in other cultures, learn their languages, and end up a Conserviberal, or possibly a Liberative.

So, now what does your Moral Matrix, your set of Values look like?  And how balanced is it?


1The Righteous Mind, p 144-145
2The Righteous Mind, p 146
3The Righteous Mind, p 155-158

4The Righteous Mind, p 158-161
5The Righteous Mind, p 162-164
6The Righteous Mind, p 166-168
7The Righteous Mind, p 172-174
8The Righteous Mind, Fig. 8.6, p 187, Survey results from 2011,
9The Righteous Mind, p 184-187


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