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"Challenges", Moral Foundations Theory

Is “Groupthink” Evidence of Another Moral Foundation?

The Evils of Groupthink and Sound Bites, by Steve Tobak on FoxBusiness.com today resonates with Haidt’s idea of “groupishness.”

Interestingly (to me), our tendency toward the herd mentality of groupthink does not seem to be about morality, per se, or about the fact that “morality binds and blinds,” as Haidt’s third principle of moral psychology contends.  Rather, it seems to be about an innate desire we all have to be part of the “in” group, to be included, to be on the bandwagon that everyone else seems to be on. Or, maybe more importantly, not to be left out.  It seems that this desire comes naturally, separate and apart from morality or ideology, and in fact even to precede them, as if we’re born with it.  After all isn’t this desire one of the defining factors of everyone’s childhood, from elementary school through high school, before we really develop a true awareness of ideology?  

Of course, sometimes the Venn diagram of the “in” group and one’s own morality can be coincident, in which case they obviously reinforce each other, but they don’t necessarily have to be coincident. Or, maybe, the desire to be part of the “in” group can cause one to adapt one’s own morality to fit the herd. Maybe the desire is a factor that can help the elephant to “lean” in a certain direction.

I’m so steeped in Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) at this point that I may be guilty of the kind of thinking characterized by the saying, “Once you get a new hammer, every problem looks like a nail,” where MFT is my hammer. But when I see something like this I can’t help but wonder if it is evidence of another foundation. I’ve read Haidt’s paper, Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism, in which he identifies the criteria for foundationhood, and admonishes against being too quick to look toward “groupishness” as the basis for a new foundation: 

given the power of the human imagination and the epistemological predations of the confirmation bias, one could invent an evolutionary story for just about any candidate foundation, especially if one is allowed to appeal to the good of the group. But a good evolutionary theory will specify—often with rigorous mathematical models—exactly how a putative feature conferred an adaptive advantage upon individuals (or upon other bearers of the relevant genes), in comparison to members of the same group who lacked that feature. A good evolutionary theory will not casually attribute the adaptive advantage to the group (i.e., appeal to group selection) without a great deal of additional work, for example, showing that the feature confers a very strong advantage upon groups during intergroup competition while conferring only a small disadvantage upon the individual bearer of the trait (see Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s cathedral: Evolution, religion, and the nature of society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; and see The Righteous Mind, chapter 9, on group-selection for groupish virtues). If no clear adaptive advantage can be shown, then that is a mark against foundationhood.

Still, I wonder. Isn’t an individual’s desire to be part of the “in” group innate, especially when one considers that it seems to be part of the entire process of growing up? Doesn’t innateness point to foundationhood rather than to an intuition? I mean, Haidt says that intuitions are ideas that emerge into consciousness, but they’re not necessarily innate. Foundations, on the other hand, are innate and they help to shape the intuitions. Doesn’t the desire to be part of the “in” group qualify? Also, wouldn’t being part of the “in” group, as opposed to being a cast-out, ostracized, have helped individuals to survive? Isn’t that, too, one of the requirements for foundationhood; individual survival from the standpoint of natural selection? And finally, doesn’t it seem that the desire’s separateness from morality, yet a potential influence of it, such that it could be a factor in causing the elephant to lean one way or the other, also point to foundationhood? This desire is quite a different thing from in-group loyalty, by the way. It’s not that foundation.  I’m not sure what I’d call it, “inclusion/ostracism” maybe?

Hmm… I’ll have to think about this as I try to clarify my “challenges” to MFT. Maybe it helps with my ongoing conundrum of the seeming incompleteness of MFT; the strong feeling I have that there’s something else going on, that there’s some other factor, whether it’s a foundation or not, that influences morality. (e.g., maybe an “overlay,” or maybe foundations have “aspects,” like The Big Five personality traits do (referred to in the Haidt article linked above), such that MFT has increased “granularity” which helps to explain and to distinguish between “positive” and “negative” connotations of liberty, equality, justice, and fairness). I’m not sure this would completely fill the hole I see, but maybe partly?


5 thoughts on “Is “Groupthink” Evidence of Another Moral Foundation?

  1. TIW, this is a great post.
    I agree that the “need to belong” is clearly innate, and clearly adaptive. To the extent that it contributes in any way to human morality, you could say it is a foundation of human morality — as are 100 other things (theory of mind, fear, love….). I do think that the need to belong meets criteria 2-5 very well. My question is whether it meets criterion #1: A common concern in third-party normative judgments. If it seems that people are constantly judging each other on whether they excluded people or not, then perhaps it does. Also, is this phenomenon aleady accounted for by existing foundations, e.g., care. If the concern for others is just compassion for their pain, because it hurts to be excluded, then perhaps these concerns rest on the care/harm foundation, and there’s no need for an additional foundation. Can you show that inclusion/exclusion concerns are something else?

    This is very interesting, and, I think, promising!

    Jon Haidt


    Posted by Jon Haidt | January 1, 2014, 9:24 am
    • Thank you Dr. Haidt for your kind comment.

      Yes, I see how a rationale could be developed to explain how any of hundreds of things contribute to human morality.

      Your comment caused me to think this through again. I reread the section about Criterion 1 in “Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism” (link in my original post, above). I asked myself: If inclusion/exclusion really were a moral foundation, then what would third party normative judgments sound like? How would people gossip? What would they say?

      What came to mind was a dinner conversation I had recently with some new friends. We talked about the starkly varied cultures that exist in high schools that serve adjacent geographic areas in the suburbs around the major city we live close to. One of the other parents at dinner said “They’re not like us.”

      Isn’t that it? Isn’t that what the gossip would sound like? Isn’t simply being “not like us” a “third-party violation that people in a community react to”?

      It seems to me that “not like us” is distinct from other foundations, and cannot be explained by them. Rationalizations and gossip about how and why other people are “not like us” may center around other foundations, or around any number of other factors, but isn’t that after the fact? Isn’t “not like us” enough, by itself, often to be a violation and to generate gossip?

      Isn’t “not like us” the hurdle you are trying to help people get over when you suggest that a first step toward civil politics is to break bread, or play softball, with your opponents? You decry Newt Gingrich because he made it harder for congresspersons to do that.

      Aren’t hazings, initiations, and rites of passage such as Bar Mitzvahs just different ways a person becomes “like us”? And aren’t those activities just ways in which the group allows, or even welcomes, individuals into the group?

      You used the term inclusion/exclusion. I was thinking more along the lines of inclusion/ostracism because it seems more direct to me; it seems to more clearly characterize what people actually do. But I suppose exclusion could be construed the same way so OK, for the purposes of discussion I’ll go with that.

      You said that inclusion/exclusion might meet criterion 1 “if it seems that people are constantly judging each other on whether they excluded people or not.” Isn’t that what the “inclusiveness” mantra we hear so much in today’s culture is all about? (And isn’t it richly ironic that advocates of inclusiveness seem so often to ostracize and demonize individuals or groups they think are not inclusive? And isn’t that just further evidence of inclusiveness/ostracism?)

      The new friends I had dinner with, and I, live in two of Charles Murray’s “super zips.” Don’t people just naturally like to be around other people who are similar to themselves? Isn’t the existence of super zips evidence of inclusivity/exclusivity? Isn’t the human tendency toward inclusivity/exclusivity a reason we’re “Coming Apart”?

      Don’t people have an innate need to be part of a group; to belong? Aren’t people who feel that they “don’t belong” often miserable; don’t they often seek out and try to become a welcomed member of some group, any group, that will have them? (Except, of course, famously, Groucho Marx, who said he wouldn’t want to belong to any group that would have him as a member.)

      Don’t groups need to have a sense of homogeneity; of the feeling that the rest of the members are “like us”? Doesn’t that help groups compete with other groups by fostering trust, camaraderie, the “one for all and all for one” attitude that helps them achieve what individuals can’t achieve by themselves? Mind you, I think this is not the same thing as, nor can it be explained by, the loyalty/betrayal foundation.

      Don’t individuals benefit from the strength in numbers and the benefits of scale a group provides? Don’t individuals often adjust their attitudes and behavior so they’ll be more accepted and welcomed by the group? Isn’t that at least a partial cause of “groupthink”?


      Posted by The Independent Whig | January 2, 2014, 6:36 pm


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