The Confirmation Bias has its Woodstock

In the landslide of comment following the death of Margaret Thatcher one remark stood out for me from Dame Mary Archer in the Telegraph

 “Dame Mary, herself a scientist by training, describes how the former prime minister drew her convictions from a mastery of “the facts”. In an interview with The Telegraph, Dame Mary said: “She always exhibited the mindset of a scientist, by which I mean her approach was evidence-based, a wish to understand things thoroughly, never to skate over the surface.” “Many distinguished politicians would go on gut and instinct, which isn’t the scientific way. Baroness Thatcher was different.”

 Recall that Baroness Thatcher, despite her scientific training, failed to spot that she lived in a society, so I am uncertain about the scientific acuteness that she could have brought to any assessment of “the facts”.  Mrs Thatcher’s degree in chemistry may have taught her the scientific method as it applies to atoms and molecules but her spectacular failure to spot were she lived (in a society) suggests that Thatcher, like all other politicians couldn’t escape, what Mary Archer calls “gut and instinct” but which this blog is going to call Moral Intuitions.  The reason I suspect that Mary Archer thought Mrs T’s political analysis to be exceptionally scientific was that she broadly shares her own Moral Intuitions and therefore inherits a similar confirmation bias.

Warren Buffet gave a succinct description of the phenomenon:

What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact”.

Haidt (The Righteous Mind) is not the author of the Confirmation Bias by any means but he sets it in the context of his theory of moral intuitions, and it is his claim that these intuitions are spectacles from which we look out and see the world.   Haidt takes this old idea, but adds it into the coalitional psychology upon which politics is founded.  The interaction of this Binding (coalitional psychology) allows the confirmation bias, to apply as if it is hyper-charged with mass, simultaneous, coordinated “Blinding”.  So he has the notion that Politics can Bind and Blind us.

I prefer the description of motivated social cognition rather than the Confirmation Bias, with the social being the set of social facts that it is possible to see, the motivated being the subset of social facts that it anyone is motivated to process via our intuitions, and the cognition is that way that we process it.  If you fail to see that you are in a society then your Confirmation Bias is working just fine.

The obituaries and commentary around the death and legacy of Thatcher are the Woodstock moment of the Confirmation Bias with TV/Radio and newspapers, panelists and interviewees and interviewers able to dumbfound each other, the one capable of leaving the other open mouthed in disbelief that they could be discussing the same subject.  The other day on the BBC the Tory Cecil Parkinson winced in shock to be reminded that Mrs T was able to pay for mass unemployment with North Sea Oil money (he recalled a short temporary elevated level), and the Labour Peer Helena Kennedy was speechless to hear that tax had been reduced from 83% to 40% and that Price and Exchange controls had been abolished (the relevance exchange controls for goodness sake).

The violence in the differing perspectives: saviour of the Nation – The Prime Minister, an evil woman – Ann Scargill.  The Economist – Freedom Fighter, The Scottish Daily Record “£130bn of Scottish Wealth axed”.  There was a claim that she had saved £75bn in obtaining a rebate from the EU, who knew?  Well her acolyte William Hague knew alright and was able to recall this from memory.

A veritable Glastonbury then of Confirmation Bias with the Economist headlining on the main stage and left blogs playing to the more sophisticated types on the cooler but more obscure stages.  Something then about the Economist’s dedication to dispassionate rationality affords it this pride of place at the top of the bill.  Haidt’s intuitive model would assert that all this clever reasoning, all this rationalisation has a purpose: to disguise the fact that Thatcher and the Economist share the same Moral Intuitions.


What exactly were Thatcher’s Moral Intuitions?  I will blog about this shortly….

Afterthought in Response to Rentoul

I think Blair’s confusion on moving beyond left and right is his social relation of choice.  Blair is an MP sort of guy, valorising this type of Social Relations as a moral good,  remember him being mocked for suggesting “we do what works”.  That subset of the left and that subset of the right whose social reference point is MP may be able to work together and I think that is what he has in mind, but he should be aware that these are still minority political usages of a relational social model and even these do not converge at the level of moral intuitions.  Although a meeting across the “aisle” that acknowledged these constraints might be unusually productive.   To see how far away we are from unusually productive reference the current UK debate about welfare reform/cuts.

Published in the Independent Blog

When reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind I had the idea to create a blog which would promote his ideas and apply them to British, Scottish and European politics.  If he is correct about the moral intuitions which drive our politics then the most surely be a global phenomenon applicable everywhere and in every time in history.  It would be an interesting exercise to apply Haidt’s theory to an historical event such as the English Civil War, but as I was pulling together material for this blog, John Rentoul in the Independent asked two questions in his newspaper blog which go straight to the insight of Haidt.  Rentoul quotes Blair asking whether we can go beyond left and right to right and wrong and also wonders simultaneously asks why economist echo the left right split especially on the subject of austerity.

I replied to him and he was interested enough in my note to publish it as a guest blog on the Independent Blog site, here, and it is posted below.


Response to John Rentoul

Dear John Rentoul

Your Article (Left vs right vs or right vs wrong) in the Independent – Tue the 26th March

You ask at the end of the piece “what’s it all about”?

I think I know the answer to this as I have been thinking about and researching the issue for a little while now with the intention of blogging on the moral psychology which underpins all politics.  The answer to your questions is a little involved so I need a few words to make the explanation.  Interestingly Paul Krugman’s brilliant NYT blog asked the identical question the other day.

To answer we need pieces of insight from three thinkers: Haidt, Fiske and Lakoff

Blair is correct to say that politics is about what is right vs wrong but that is precisely why it is about left vs right: and the reason is that our individual politics are driven by our moral intuitions, a sense of right and wrong way way beyond the commonsense meaning of right and wrong which is don’t steal cheat or lie or physically harm others.

Harold Wilson referred to Labour as a “moral crusade or it is nothing” meaning that the Party’s concern with social justice was a moral matter.  Right there though you have the problem – one person’s moral crusade is another person’s imposition of punitive taxes, Thatcher thought Wilsonian social democracy plain immoral.

The brilliant 2012 book the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt “The Righteous Mind” transforms our insight into the moral structure of politics by basing his analysis on his research project.  He shows that we bring to politics a group six dominant frames of moral intuitions about the world which I paste at the foot of this note.

People on the left care strongly about three moral foundations: reducing harm (wear a seatbelt), social justice and anti-authoritarianism (negative liberty – freedom from oppression).   This is why Wilson made his famous comments about a moral crusade.  This what the left means by right and wrong.  The right mean something altogether different, for them moral worth is found in in-group authority, in-group loyalty, freedom and sacrality.  Left and right are never therefore going to agree upon what is moral behaviour when their conceptions of it are so profoundly different.  There cannot ever be a moving beyond left and right for this reason.

To answer your question about how austerity divides people politically needs a little more information. These “Haidtian” moral foundations operate against social models, and the social models in turn are moralised upon.  The anthropologist Fiske (Relational Models Theory book) has argued that there are four ways of interacting with other people and politics continually references and is informed from and by each of these models. I paste Fiske’s definitions below but here is a brief summary

Communal Sharing (CS) – we share resources with close kin and lovers

Authority Ranking (AR) – we do what our parents, elders and betters tell us, we do what the chief tells us to do, we respect charismatic authority – priests, gang bosses, Gods, etc….

Equality Matching (EM) – I scratch your back if you scratch mine

Market Pricing (MP) – contracts define who does what for what money – buying petrol, supplying consultancy services to HMRC, selling chocolate, going to work

The first two social relations were dominant in the 200,000 years since we have been human and that is also where our Haidtian moral intuitions were honed and shaped.  The social relation of EM gave us the Enlightenment and the Liberal Revolution of the last 200 years, and MP of course gave us capitalism.  CS and AR are richly salient and deeply embedded in our emotion whereas EM and MP are weakly salient, rooted somewhat in intellect.

Fascism for example, is indifferent to MP, contemptuous of EM, references the social relations of CS where everyone felt part of the “community nation” and everyone respected Authority.  Old Labour references CS “sharing and equality” and EM rights, liberty democracy, New Labour however references CS, EM and MP.  That MP reference by New Labour allows many on the left to accuse New Labour of being Tory as the sharing of the MP frame with Conservatives is seen as being just as bad.  Haidtian moral intuitions mixed with Fiskian Social Models give us the entire political landscape from Libertarian (Moral Intuition – Freedom, Fiske Social Model – MP) to Greens (Moral Intuition – Sacrality, Social Model – CS).  I can provide a more detailed analysis if you wish.

Next up George Lakoff the Author of Moral Politics.  Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and he claims we see politics in wholly moral, moralising terms based upon the metaphors we employ to discuss politics and these metaphors reside in a cognitive framework.  I don’t quite buy this myself but Lakoff convincingly shows that metaphors about morality as commonly conceived – be upright, act with integrity are salient in the right’s moral frame but weak on the left.  Lakoff shows how metaphors around prudence, thrift and good housekeeping are readily taken up the right but bewilder the left.

OK how know to go from these three moral viewpoints to austerity?  Conservatives are getting austerity wrong because they are referencing the wrong social model – they ought to be referencing MP as public debt is a brand new issue rooted in market relations, contracts and legal frameworks, however, when our moral psychologies evolved there was no Keynesianism, no liquidity trap, no money supply, no economic growth but there was debt in the form of obligation and obligations in communal sharing and too much of it was ruinous.  Conservatives should be using MP concepts to work the debt but debt is obligation, and obligations entered into excessively are a form of dissoluteness, they are a form of moral turpitude back in CS, across the 200,000 years were our moral intuitions evolved.

Haidt says that Conservatives believe in fairness as 1.  Following the rules  2.  Taking more out than you put in.  Large scale public debt looks and feels immoral to them with reference to these foundations, the Lakoffian metaphors which indicate moral behaviour and using the wrong Fiskian social relationship which CS instead of MP.

As for the left, their moral intuitions about the public space regarding obligation and dissolute behaviour are weaker (possibly worse) and in Haidtian terms nothing in their moral foundations prevents them applying the correct social model which is MP so they can think about the issue in proper MP terms – growth, demand deficiency, credit crunch, etc.

Your original question was why does economist’s attitude to austerity mirror those of politics?  Because economists share the same moral psychology as politicians, economists are people too.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Hutchison

P.S.  The same Haidtian foundations explain why your admiration for Blair causes so much hostility.  According to Haidt anti-authoritarianism, hating the boss, (technically called reverse dominance) is a moral foundation.  At birth, leftist believe with vary degrees of intensity that all in group authority is evil, corrupt and oppressive. Finding that corruption is their central motivation.  No wonder you have had such a tough time.  If you ask me why you don’t have reverse dominance as you are on the left my answer is that I think you do but weakly, reverse dominance strengthens as you track left until you come to the anarchists who only care about reverse dominance and abandon all interest in social justice

Jonathan Haidt’s claim about Moral Foundations is

1. Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).