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Moral Foundations Theory Helps To Explain Cognitive Complexity

Craig Joseph, Jesse Graham, and Jonathan Haidt say in a paper they jointly published entitled “The End of Equipotentiality: A Moral Foundations Approach to Ideology-Attitude Links and Cognitive Complexity,” that cognitive complexity “raises an interesting puzzle for MFT.”

I believe that Moral Foundations Theory might offer a rather simple, straighforward solution to the puzzle.  

First, here’s a passage from their paper which explains the nature of the puzzle:

“As Tetlock and his colleagues have noted, pluralistic value structures tend to be associated with more complex thinking, because many of the policy choices and social judgments involved in political life invoke conflicting values, which pull toward incompatible conclusions. Monistic ideologies have an easier time dealing with political issues, because they recognize only one value (or tightly integrated set of values), so trade-offs between values are rarely necessary (one trumps all).

Tetlock’s work raises an interesting puzzle for MFT. On one hand, we have demonstrated that liberals tend to rely primarily upon two sets of moral intuitions (Harm and Fairness), whereas social conservatives seem to rely more equally on all five foundations (Graham et al., 2009). This finding suggests that conservatives should more frequently face the sorts of conflicts among values that lead to higher integrative complexity, yet few studies have ever found greater integrative complexity to the right of the center than at an equivalent distance to the left. How can we explain this apparent contradiction?”

I propose that the following narrative might explain the contradiction and solve the puzzle:

When morality is based on fewer foundations there’s less reason for the elephant to prefer one path over another, which in turn places more onus on the rider to carry the decision making load. The automatic cognitive processes do less of the work, which means the controlled cognitive process must do more of it.  Thus greater cognitive complexity in liberals.  I think this narrative might also explain the three-foundation tendency to place its faith in reason as the arbiter of truth, as well as its tendency toward literal-minded analytical thinking (i.e., cognitive complexity) and even moral relativism.

Conversely, when morality is based on all of the foundations the elephant is better equipped and prepared to experience a “flash of affect” in a Malcolm Gladwell “Blink” sort of way, where “one possibility usually jumps out … as the obvious best one,” which in turn means that the rider has less to do.  The automatic cognitive processes do more of the work, leaving less for the controlled processes to handle.  Thus,  relatively speaking, less cognitive complexity in conservatives.  I think this may be behind the six-foundation tendency to place its faith in experience – as manifested, for example, in institutions, customs, and traditions – as the surest guide for decision making, as well as its tendency toward more conceptual, or intuitive-minded holistic thinking, and attention toward “moral capital” (as Haidt describes it.)

In other words, liberals test higher in cognitive complexity because their rider necessarily does more of the decision making work (i.e., analytical reason).  For conservatives, complexity rests more in the elephant (i.e., blink-like experience, or holistic intuitive “feel.”)  ( I might also suggest, therefore, that conservatives have every bit as much cognitive complexity as liberals do, they just carry it in a different part of the brain – this may not fit the scientific definition of cognitive complexity, but I think you know what I mean – but all that is beside the point of this post.)  

I got the idea for this narrative from the following passage on pages 12 and 13 of “The Happiness Hypothesis:”

“The neurologist Antonio Damasio has studied people who, because of a stroke, tumor, or blow to the head, have lost various parts of their frontal cortex. In the 1990s, Damasio found that when certain parts of the orbitofrontal cortex are damaged, patients lose most of their emotional lives. They report that when they ought to feel emotion, they feel nothing, and studies of their autonomic reactions (such as those used in lie detector tests) confirm that they lack the normal flashes of bodily reaction that the rest of us experience when observing scenes of horror or beauty. Yet their reasoning and logical abilities are intact. They perform normally on tests of intelligence and knowledge of social rules and moral principles.

So what happens when these people go out into the world? Now that they are free of the distractions of emotion, do they become hyperlogical, able to see through the haze of feelings that blinds the rest of us to the path of perfect rationality? Just the opposite. They find themselves unable to make simple decisions or to set goals, and their lives fall apart. When they look out at the world and think, “What should I do now?” they see dozens of choices but lack immediate internal feelings of like or dislike. They must examine the pros and cons of every choice with their reasoning, but in the absence of feeling they see little reason to pick one or the other. When the rest of us look out at the world, our emotional brains have instantly and automatically appraised the possibilities. One possibility usually jumps out at us as the obvious best one. We need only use reason to weigh the pros and cons when two or three possibilities seem equally good.

Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains work so well that our reasoning can work at all. Plato’s image of reason as charioteer controlling the dumb beasts of passion may overstate not only the wisdom but also the power of the charioteer. The metaphor of a rider on an elephant fits Damasio’s findings more closely: Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work. When the neocortex came along, it made the rider possible, but it made the elephant much smarter, too.”

Now, obviously I’m not suggesting that people with the three-foundation morality have somehow lost parts of their frontal cortex.   All I’m suggesting is that for liberals reason, the rider, does more of the work of decisions making, and for conservatives emotion, the elephant, does more of the work.  In other words, liberal thought is more analytical, and conservative thought is more holistic, as described in this passage from page 97 of The Righteous Mind:

“Most people think holistically (seeing the whole context and the relationships among parts), but WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object.)


7 thoughts on “Moral Foundations Theory Helps To Explain Cognitive Complexity

  1. Or ‘why Spock should never be captain’.
    Given that we make most of our decisions, even our very important decisions, by instinct based upon experience and vague moral principles, and given that these kind of decisions happen dramatically faster than those where we sit and weigh evidence etc., someone who was forced to make every single decision via logically weighing every factor would never be able to make the lightning fast decisions needed to, for example, captain a starship. The movie Sully, for example, showed such a case.


    Posted by Vaughn Ohlman | June 4, 2019, 2:36 pm
  2. What about differences in general inteligence and creativity? Are there some reliable studies on that topic?


    Posted by soulofman79 | February 2, 2017, 3:44 am


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A politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

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