Others: Heaven or Hell? With Dr. Daniel A. Yudkin

Dr. Daniel A. Yudkin is a Fellow in Social and Behavioural Science at the Wharton School and Director of Research at More in Common.

“Hell,” Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “is other people.” The psychology literature on relationships confirms they can make life miserable. Read the rest of this article on my Substack

CHAPTERS

00:00:00 In this episode…

00:00:42 Chapter 1: Exiting Academia

00:17:10 Chapter 2: Hidden Tribes

00:50:49 Chapter 3: Society and Morality

01:14:10 Chapter 4: Diversity and Shared Norms

01:23:32 Chapter 5: Future Projects

REFERENCES

The Hidden Tribes study: https://hiddentribes.us/

Daniel’s research: https://www.danielyudkin.com/research

    View Full Transcript

    Others: Heaven or Hell? With Dr. Daniel A. Yudkin

     

    CHAPTER 1  Exiting Academia

     

    Fred

    Doctor Daniel Yudkin. Welcome. And it’s a real honor and pleasure to have you here with me today.

     

    Daniel

    Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

     

    Fred

    Awesome. So maybe we can start by you telling us a little bit about yourself. When I signed up to your Substack, I saw that you recently decided to step away from academia. You wrote about how the modern university system has become almost Ponzi-like and its effects. They bring in tons of graduate students, have them do a bunch of teaching and research. Super cheap. They keep delaying their access to fewer and fewer jobs. Tuitions have gone up, but class size really hasn’t. What is going on with universities and why did you decide to finally step away?

     

    Daniel

    That’s a great question.  Well I appreciate you leading off of that. So let me go back, ten years ago, to, when I first started off at graduate school, I have always really been interested in deep questions related to the mind, related to morality, to the nature of reality and  the universe.  I was a philosophy major in undergrad, and I realized after a few years of being a philosophy major, I started to get frustrated because there was a lot of opportunity to speculate about different difficult questions. But there was not a lot of sort of answer finding because, philosophy is largely taken –  undertaken from the armchair.

     

    And so I realized that, that there was an opportunity to use scientific tools to start to try to understand some of these basic questions about consciousness and morality, things like that. And that’s why I decided to enter into social psychology as a field. Social psychology,to me, is  really the discipline of using scientific methods to answer some of these really fundamental questions about how we experience and understand the world, how we make decisions, how we interact in society. And it has a variety of different implications all the way from, you know, individual success and well-being to relationships to large scale social trends and movements. So that’s what I did for many years. I spent six years in graduate school and then spent several years as a – as a postdoctoral researcher, first at Yale University and then at, University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School. And, you know, I was I was basically, told by benevolent, advisors during that –  during that time that, you know, academia is very difficult. There’s a lot of things you have to do. But look, if you, you know, publish high-impact research, if you win grant money, if you are rigorous and you publish a lot, then you know, there will be a reward, what I call  the second marshmallow at the end of this, long weighted experiment. So just to fill you in on this, in this the story that I told, I gave me the analogy to, like, the longest marshmallow experiment of all time. You’re in the marshmallow experiment –  children are sitting there waiting for a first marshmallow, and the experimenter tells them, if you wait ten minutes, we’ll give you that second marshmallow. Well, this is not ten minutes, but this is ten years to get that second marshmallow.

     

    Fred

    This is by the time you receive the second marshmallow, you’re like, you’re like an old person.

     

    Daniel

    You don’t like marsh-

     

     

    Fred

    Long white beard. Ready to retire.

     

    Daniel

    You can’t even eat marshmallows anymore, they get stuck in your dentures. But –  So, and so this was sort of the, you know, implicit promises that I was operating under. And so ultimately, there, you know, I can finally finish that trajectory. And, and what I found is that through partly reasons that are inherent and endemic to academia and partly reasons that are outside of academia’s control, there was just an absolute – the bottleneck that is typically expected at the end, where, you know, there’s a large number of postdocs that are trying to get jobs and very few actual faculty positions – this bottleneck was even more constricted than it normally is. Why was that? Well, number one, Covid  had a number of really, you know, adverse consequences on the university system. There were – there are political considerations. Academia is trying to diversify its ranks. There’s quite a lot of, you know, political and, and, efforts around Dei that are that are sort of relevant and salient, especially in hiring decisions that certainly are sort of, whispered about in the hallways of academia, but not necessarily spoken out loud. in terms of the kinds of preferences and priorities that are given to, to different candidates, which is largely, you know, in many ways, a needed corrective I would say. I’m certainly not someone who would say, you know, this is entirely about, you know, bias and that sort of thing. But for for a white guy like me, it’s not, you know, it’s not the best set of circumstances.

     

    Fred

    Just on this one point of of the DEI. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately because I have a lot of friends in academia and who apply for research and so forth. And I think one of the things that brings all of us together is how, I don’t even want to say non-racist, but, I mean, we grew up in a very diverse city, with a lot of friends from all kinds of different backgrounds. So there’s a, a kind of a default acceptance and tolerance of everybody. And wherever they come from, that’s like a given. We never have to really emphasize that point. But I’ve always found – and I’m interested to see what you think about this –  that the fundamental premise of DEI is problematic from my perspective from a –  from a racism perspective, in that it assumes that if decisions were made purely meritocratictly, that the resulting selection would be culturally homogenous or racially homogenous, which is not my experience. My experience as a business owner when, when when organizations focus on merit, they tend to become diverse almost automatically. I mean, it’s just very hard to find talent and originality. And you kind of want to give everybody an open, open shot at that. And when you do now, the resulting diversity may not be the image of diversity that you have coming in but every organization will be diverse in different ways, and so you can achieve the outcome through meritocracy. That’s that’s kind of what I’ve always felt. How do you sort of receive that from, the academic – from like, more like in terms of, like what you’ve lived inside of academia?

     

    Daniel

    Yeah. That’s interesting. I mean, look, there’s a there’s a lot of scholarship, a lot of research suggesting and outlining the various ways in which systems and structures are working actively to make it more difficult to achieve success for certain groups and people in the, in the population. So that’s a that’s a lot of research. I am – I am certainly convinced by that, that that is that that research is, that there’s merit to that research. There was just actually a study that came out a few days, a few days ago suggesting that showing like, you know, this was again, sort of, confirming actually research that’s already been shown, but maybe in a more robust and large scale way that, you know, same applicant, same exact resume. One was a white coded name, one was a black coded name. The black coded name was 8 to 10% less likely to get a call back from a large number of  companies. That that, you know, which which suggests that there is a degree of, of, of discrimination that’s going on on the basis of race. So.

     

    Fred

    Right.

     

    Daniel

    So my, my sense is that, you know, when people are arguing, essentially, it seems to me that the argument is, look, we have these meritocratic things where we would just do completely race blind, you know, selection process. And then there are calls for consideration of race as a, as a factor. So here here are two comments that I would make about this. Number one, I would say to a certain extent, I would agree that a certain amount of putting your thumb on the scale in order to counteract some existing tendencies in society that have been historically conspiring to deprive certain groups of people from opportunity, I think that’s a that’s a good thing. Now, the question is, how much are we putting our thumb on the scale? Are we –

     

    Fred

    That’s right.

     

    Daniel

    Are we excluding. Are we are we now –  And I, I got the sense when I was going through the academic process that they were playing a little bit of catch up because essentially there was a – after the George Floyd, there was a bit of an awakening in academia. And they were just like oh shoot look, we don’t have any people of color in our departments. We’ve got to just totally correct in the other direction. And so and so what I, what I experienced was what I perceived to be slight, maybe a little bit of an overcorrection, putting that thumb a little bit too hard on the scale where, excuse me, suddenly it wasn’t even about, it was it was very much less about performance and much more about identity. So there was, there was  there was a need as essentially almost in certain cases, a quota needed for these people that there needed to be an effort to promote diversity, to the exclusion of, of someone who identifies as a member of a majority group. And so – so I think that there is a… it’s a very difficult problem. How much do we put our thumb on the scale in favor of, of certain groups?

     

    Fred

    I was just going to comment on that particular point. Isn’t it  interesting that in that in that situation when you can really kind of, bring it down to like one event like the George Floyd or if there’s a turning point, right? That you can kind of put your finger on. That it would have been the same people who made decisions that were, let’s call it, disadvantages that people from certain groups that would now also be doing the overcorrection. It’s almost like, they are the sort of, they’re divvying up privilege there, like from a top down perspective, because, you know, a lot of my experiences are more, bottom up in terms of, like, the free market, small business. And I find that small businesses is so hungry for talent that people almost can’t afford to have this kind of a cultural or a gender, based, decision making process because,

     

    Daniel

    Yeah.

     

     

     

    Fred

    Then you might be, you might be losing your only access to available talent, which is more scarce.

     

    Daniel

    That’s interesting.

     

    Fred

    When you got these big institutions that are kind of very, very, how can, how shall I say, very abundant financially and have a lot of power and a lot of prestige. Right? They can sort of decide. And so, I find that interesting that there’s, there might be a difference there. And if you can point to an actual turning point, it would almost be interesting that it’s the same people that were formerly, formerly kind of making those, let’s call it, you know, less than representative decisions that are now the virtuous, virtuous correctors  of the system. I don’t know what you think about that.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah, I mean, a lot of people, they benefited from the sort of the way that it was before. And now in a way, they’re sort of  course correcting in a way that potentially could deny people who are, who are, who’ve made their way through the process in this –  who are trying to make their way through the process in the same way that these people who have already gotten in those positions, you’re trying to pursue the same path, and then suddenly the doors closed because it’s a it’s a different set of standards. Yeah.

     

    The other thing I would say about this is, is that my my view – so again, very, very complicated set of issues. I, I and we’re going to talk about political polarization later in the show, I would expect and I, and I do think then that people often tend to fall on one side or the other, that, you know, that it’s either meritocracy or it’s race-based prioritization or whatever you want to call it. And, and I think that oftentimes, you know, what’s called for is a much more nuanced consideration of the various… factors that are at play in a given situation. So, so this comes this actually relates to the other point I was going to make, which is that I think that right now this the idea of, you know, selecting certain candidates based on, on race, I, I think that one thing that it’s missing is, is an emphasis –  It’s overemphasizing the role of group identities, particularly you’re a member of this group, you’re a member of that group. It’s overemphasizing that and it’s underestimating the the role of particular individual features of a given person. People are too often considered as members of this or that group and and not often enough… Race is one aspect of a whole variety of features that make a person who they are, and, and that can include what neighborhood you grew up in, what your family circumstances were, how much you got to travel as a child, whether you were in a foster care system, you know, what experiences you had as a teenager. There’s a whole life story that people have that makes them a unique individual, and that individual can be evaluated when when we’re talking about hiring decisions, we should be thinking about that particular individual and what contribution they can make to the to the team, not seeing them necessarily as, as a quota to be filled that allows me to then say that we have, you know, have a prospectus  on the academic, on the academic, like, you know, public facing thing that says, oh, we have, you know, a very diverse group. Well  in what ways? If it’s just racially diverse, that’s not diverse. Racial diversity is only one form of diversity. There’s so many forms of diversity and, and and so my, my –

     

    Fred

    There’s also viewpoint diversity. There is viewpoint diversity which a lot of people are  – well, not a lot. I mean, if you look at it statistically in terms of actual political views in academia, particularly in the social sciences, the realm that you, you operate in, many people would claim that the viewpoint diversity, and it’s almost like, as viewpoint diversity went down in academia, the emphasis on, group diversity, became almost like manic. Right? So it’s like, let’s prove that we’re diverse. So, like, we all look different, but we all think the same. Like that kind of phenomenon.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. And and I think viewpoint diversity is really important, especially in a, in an academic or scientific place where we’re talking about the pursuit of knowledge and the building of truth. I mean, how can you possibly build, build truth if everyone is seeing the world in the exact same way? That makes no sense to me. So, so viewpoint diversity in, you know, racial diversity, all of these. But then but then individual individuality. Right. And seeing people as individuals rather than as members of groups, I think is the only possible way that you can go about building a diverse team and in the context of an organization and a diverse society as well.

     

    Fred

    Absolutely. I’ve always said, one of the reasons why I think, you know, making decisions based on race is, is really a very dumb way to make decisions is not because there’s no information contained in that, but because there is too little information contained in that. Right? It tells me nothing about all these other factors that you talked about.  How your parents raised you… A lot of times there’s no emphasis on diversity within the group. So what we perceive as a group is actually multiple subgroups with different values, different needs, different histories, different socioeconomic characteristics and so on and so forth. So there’s so little information in a group identity that you can’t base a decision too strongly on it just because, you can’t address all of the sort of depth of, of, of, of, of, of individual of, of sort of individual characteristics that, that you’re looking at in terms of an actual individual.

     

     

    CHAPTER 2  Hidden Tribes

     

    Fred

    So, maybe connected to this point, and then we’ll move on to talking a little bit about the Hidden Tribe study, which, I know you worked on very significantly. Just in the social sciences, and this maybe kind of closes the loop on, on academia and the sort of, pipes  of biases that exist. I know there are different streams of research in the social sciences. So you operate in a very quantitative, evidence-based manner. But you’re probably also familiar with, the infamous, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian  experiment and the Sokal experiment, where it seems like  peer reviewed social science journals were looking for, I guess, a combination of certain buzzwords or ideas that sounded like something that their ideological agenda was in line with and they ended up publishing these articles, even though they were self-admitted nonsense by by the authors. You publish in very reputable journals like Nature and others. How clear is the line among serious social scientists between the, let’s say, more scientific, more quantitative style research, and the more I don’t know what you would call it, maybe more activist research?

     

    Daniel

    Yeah, that’s a great question. So from my perspective, it’s extremely clear. There I mean, there are scientific journals and then there are, you know, what you might call critical or theoretical journals that are really, you know,  my understanding of the of the references or the instances that you’re talking about. They don’t involve, for example, data collection. They don’t involve data analysis. They don’t involve any sort of scientific endeavor whatsoever. And so I think, you know, scientists would, would, would probably venture to say that one of the reasons in which these types of things are able to flourish outside of science is because of the sort of lack of, of potential rigor. And that’s, I think, from a scientific perspective, one of the reasons we prioritize these methods, because it acts as a bulwark against the type of kind of linguistic obfuscation that might happen in these, in these journals that could then lead for total BS to get published , in a journal. So, so the line is very clear from a scientific perspective.I can’t comment on, you know, within, my understanding, again, these are in the sort of like the critical theory world. I actually don’t know in in the world of philosophy and critical theory, whether there are journals that would be considered, I’m sure there’s the journals that are considered very reputable and less so, but exactly how bright that line is is not something I’m familiar with, because it’s it’s just the side of another, another solar system away from – from me.

     

    Fred

    Right. Okay. So bring it to, the social sciences. And I really appreciate when social scientists at least try to bring the data, have that rigor, have, you know, definitional clarity and when you can sort of really follow the results and the results kind of mean something. And of course, you can always poke holes in the methodology, but at least there’s a transparency as to what the methodology was. And so you can kind of look at the whole, you look at, look at a study as a whole and be a little bit more intellectually engaged with it. And that was definitely the case with the Hidden Tribe study that you worked with, with More in Common. Absolutely fantastic study that I always talk about and think about in the context of the culture war and political polarization.

     

    So just very quickly, for people who don’t know, so, so there’s kind of the extremes, right? Which the study calls the wings. Right? You’ve got, around 8% on the left are considered a wing, and about 25% on the right. And then two thirds of people are part of, what the study calls an exhausted majority in the middle. And they tend to hold views that are less extreme, less in stark black and white opposition with one another. They tend to be, interestingly, more ethnically diverse also than the wings. The wings tend to be more Caucasian.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah.

     

    Fred

    And also more open to compromise and nuance and so on and so forth. And it casts a very interesting lens on the culture war and how common ground is obscured by politicians and pundits who play this kind of like selective game designed to produce outrage and clicks, but but end up kind of feeding the polarization, and we end up going in circles in these discussions as opposed to kind of solving something. So when you get really down to the specifics, one aspect of the study that I loved is when it broke down, how much common ground there is in America around very, very pragmatic issues that are supposed to be contentious. So I’ve just a few examples here.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah.

     

    Fred

    81% of Americans believe that racism is at least a somewhat serious problem. So 81% this is not something that only people on the left believe, 75% think that there should be a pathway for the children of illegal immigrants to gain citizenship through, for instance, serving in the military or attending college. So again, this is not something that everybody on the right is against. Not true. 80% believe that political correctness has gone too far. So presumably would include a lot of people on the left, and 85% think that race should not be a factor in college admissions. So whenever I cite these statistics to people, they end up being really shocked. Are you sure? And I’m like yeah I’m pretty sure, their methodology was pretty rigorous and pretty well well done. You’ll never hear anything about this in the media and on like the culture war channels. And this in many ways points to the hidden consensus, in this kind of the, the political Zeit Geist, which is divisiveness and conflict are almost ends in themselves. They’re kind of engineered to be part of the public discourse. So I know you were a senior director of research for More in Common as part of this study. You’ve got kind of an insider’s view of all of this. What are some of the key things that you’ve learned from the study and what it tells us about the culture war that we’re living in?

     

    Daniel

    Yeah. Well, great, great questions, and I appreciate you bringing those those key points up. So so I have a couple things that I wanted to point out here. One thing –  so in reference to this idea that there is an incentive to, to create a sense of polarization, the journalist, Amanda Ripley, came up with this, term that she calls conflict entrepreneurs which I think is such an apt idea. You know, it’s this idea that we have many people in our society, politicians, certain people on social media, on other forms of media, certain business leaders and others have an incentive to both create the appearance of polarization and to actually foment greater polarization. This can be because, you know, when you rile people up and you get them angry, when you get them outraged, when you get them feeling as though there are some there’s this other enemy within the country that’s trying to to take down or is representing a threat to your way of life, and you get people to really engage. You get more clicks, you get more attention, you get people sharing. We’ve we’ve found there’s tons of studies on social media that shows that that, that, negative tweets, tweets that, foster a sense of outrage and, and in particular moral what my colleague Billy Brady calls moral emotional words, things that have an emotional component to them and a moral component to them. Those are the things those are the concepts and ideas that are most likely to get amplified in the social media context. And there’s a there’s a whole set of incentives that is that’s sort of embedded in our societyright now that’s actually serving to further propagate these, these kinds of behaviors, because it ends up being to people’s actual benefit to, to to do them. So that’s one sort of, key takeaway that I, that I’ve come, come away with.

     

    And then there’s the, then there’s the, the brighter side of the story, the brighter side of the story is that we do have this exhausted majority. We do have a group of people that represents two thirds of the American population that’s really just exhausted with the constant fighting, the constant lack of ability to make progress on shared concerns and challenges. And in addition, these people are… tend to be less active on, political and social channels. They’re not they’re less likely to share political content on social media. They’re less necessarily informed about-  they’re not glued to the TV screen trying to figure out what’s going on – they’ve kind of tuned it out because it’s just so overwhelming and so exhausting for them. And so this is the group of, and, you know,  although I don’t – I’m not super familiar with the situation in Canada I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar dynamic is taking place there as well. So this is the group of people that we this is a group of people that that I think we need to be paying more attention to. This is a group of people we need to be listening to. And, and that’s part of part of the work, part of my work, in other contexts, partly in my, in the academic sphere, has been to start to better, to listen better to these types of people and to try to understand what their concerns are, what are the kinds of issues that they’re dealing with in their daily lives? What are the things that they are concerned with? Where do  they where do they want to see the country going? And so those types of questions are, I think, the most important for you know, eventually moving to a place where we can heal our, our divides and actually make progress on some of the most important issues that are we’re facing right now.

     

     

     

     

    Fred

    Yeah, really good points. You also wrote about how there’s a perception gap. So at the extremes, people on the right, will have certain caricatures of, of the left, and people on the left will have caricatures of people on the right. It’s almost like, those distorted mirrors at the circus. And so you’re addressing the caricature. But then when you read a study like The Hidden Tribes and you see the diversity of views that exists within the left and within the right, and I think if people became aware of this, there would be a little bit more optimism. Just because, the extremes are not quite as… they’re overrepresented in social media and even even mainstream media, and more and more in the political, regime, they’re overrepresented. They’re extremely loud, they’re very organized. But the reality is quite different. So what do you think of this kind of, perception gap? And we almost, if you self-identify as more friendly to the right, you have a very, very, predictable caricature of the left. And if you’re on the left, you have this very predictable caricature on the right. And so more and more discourse is, aimed at these caricatures as opposed to, the actual population and what most people actually believe.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah, it is exactly right. So just to kind of, fill in some of the details there. So after we conducted Hidden Tribes. So one of the things I actually wanted to point out about- circle back and just point about Hidden Tribes, one of the key characteristics of the Hidden Tribes that I think makes it different from, other studies that have been done on the political landscape is we were really focusing on on what we call core beliefs. So these are the underlying psychological worldviews that sort of define people’s core values. So these are things like their, their views about agency and personal responsibility, their views about their moral values, how much they value things like loyalty and fairness, how much they,  their sense of threat, their parenting style, and their group identities. So these are the kinds of core beliefs that we used when we created this, what we call the segmentation process, which essentially is, is aimed at taking what is perceived to be a very binary system. You have red, you have blue, you have Liberals versus Democrats,right? And  what we’re doing is we actually through the segmentation process, we’re identifying groups of people who are similar in their core, in their core beliefs. And and then those are what we call the hidden tribes. And they’re hidden, of course, because it’s not necessarily the, the that demographic factors like age or race or even geography are the things that are separating and defining these groups. It’s actually their underlying approach and understanding of the world around them that are defined by these, these, these core beliefs. So, so that is that is sort of like part of the process that we we undertook there and identified these seven different tribes, ranging from progressive activists on the left all the way to devoted conservatives on the right and then, a variety of different groups in the middle. Now, after we did that study, we started getting this sense that… Not only are the wing, these wing groups, the very small percentage of people on the on the sides of the political spectrum, not only are they animated by a deep conviction in the rightness of their own worldviews, they’re also animated by a deep seated sense that they are fighting an existential battle against their political opponents on the other side. And, and, and so we started wondering, like, what is contributing to this dynamic? Where where’s this coming from? So we ran this study, that we ended up calling the perception gap study. And it was actually very simple. We simply asked people, we asked Democrats a variety of questions, about what they thought … we asked them to make a prediction about what Republicans believed on a variety of issues ranging to from, immigration to, to racism, to our beliefs about how we teach our history and the history of the country, and  the Constitution.

     

    So Democrats guess what Republicans thought and how they answered these questions. And then Republicans actually answered the questions. Similarly, we asked a bunch of Republicans to guess how Democrats would respond to a variety of questions. And then we asked the Democrats to actually respond to them. And so what this allowed us to do was to create a score that represented the difference between what I actually think the other side believes and what they actually believe. And this is what we call the perception gap. And it turns out that a number of kind of really interesting things come from this, from the study, first of all, people are wildly off base in terms of how they think their political –  what they think their opponents actually believe. Democrats think that most Republicans deny that racism still exists as a problem in America. For example, Republicans think that Democrats want America to be a socialist country. They think that Republicans think that most Democrats think that, that most police are bad people. They think that we that that Democrats want to, deny the teaching of history and that they think that the Founding Fathers are all bad people and these kinds of things. And so and so, first of all, we just find that there’s just wild inaccuracies across from both parties about what the other side actually believes. Not only that, but we find that a number of counterintuitive findings with regard to what leads people to be or what is associated with greater inaccuracy or accuracy in these kinds of contexts. So, for example, the more you watch the news, the more inaccurate you are about what your political opponents believe. The more educated you…

     

    Fred

    Wow. Predictable, but wow, predictable, but wow

     

    Daniel

    Predictable but wow, right? Yeah, that was the same reaction we had. We were like, yeah, okay. But also damn. Yeah. The more educated – so this is an interesting one –  speaking, going back to this question about universities, we find that the higher, degrees of education lead to more inaccuracy, but only for Democrats.

     

     

    Fred

    Wow. Of course.

     

    Daniel

    So so Republicans, there’s no there’s no relationship between education and inaccuracy. Highly educated Republicans are just as inaccurate as Democrats. But Democrats, the more years of education and the more time they’ve had in, in, in the American universities, the more inaccurate they are about their political opponents. We speculate this is because, you know, universities are, of course, notoriously left leaning. And so you’re actually spending less and less time with people that you disagree with. And we actually find that this is the case that that that people’s friend groups, for example, as they as they spend more and more time in universities, people on the left, their friend groups become less and less, less and less politically diverse, more and more homogenous from a viewpoint perspective.

     

    Fred

    That’s very interesting, Daniel, on this particular point, so I have a lot of friends in academia, a lot of friends like senior academics. And, you know, we all started off like more or less, similar in terms of political views, but as they’ve kind of crafted a career in academia, I’ve noticed the kind of thought police that they’re… and, you know, I think they’re aware of it too, like when they talk to me, there’s the kind of like the little confessions. It’s almost like confession time. They can tell me because I’m I’m a business owner, so  it doesn’t really matter, right? What I think. But, but, definitely their views have become more rigid and more… And I’m not surprised that that doesn’t apply to, right wing students, because I think pretty early on in their college career, they just get used to tuning out their professors and they’re like, yeah, yeah, whatever. Like this is like, I’m just going to believe what I believe. But I also wanted to ask you, statistically, who was more inaccurate about the other side? Was the right more inaccurate about the left or the left more inaccurate about the right?

     

    Daniel

    Right. That’s a great question. So I’m going to give you an unsatisfying answer to that. And that is that we actually we actually don’t know. And the reason is that, that the questions that we asked each side were different. So we asked Republicans a certain set of questions about what they thought Democrats believed. But and we asked Democrats a different set of questions about what Republicans believed. And the reason we chose different questions is that we wanted to, tap into certain into sort of the most, salient types of issues that, that, that each side was sort of dealing with at the time. And so while this allowed us to get a really good sense of the inaccuracies about both sides, it it prohibited us from making a direct comparison because any differences you, any comparison you make could easily be because of the different nature of the questions, as opposed to something inherent about the political party that we’re talking.

     

    Fred

    Got it. So so if you took a if you took a mere quantitative approach to it, like how many questions you got wrong, you’d be you’d be losing too much information and you can’t really make a comparison that way.

     

    Daniel

    Right. And it wasn’t about right or wrong because it was. We were actually, you know, it was a 100 point scale. So we said sort of, you know, what percent of Democrats do you think, believe that America should be a socialist country? And so Republicans slide the scale, and they say 90% of Americans think that. We actually ask Democrats, we get an average of 50%. And so what we end up having is sort of a continuous – it’s a continuous measure of how accurate or inaccurate they are. And so but, but but this, this, this measure is not comparable from the other side because we didn’t ask the same question.

     

    Fred

    Got it, got it. It’s a really tough. So so what you see in the perception gap study, again, is a muting and obscuring of the exhausted middle and a kind of a reification of the wings, right, as each wing kind of addresses the other. But it’s really just 33% of America talking to each other, most of them white. They’re the two most, ethnically homogenous groups. So the actual, exhausted majority tends to be much more ethnically diverse, which I found was extremely interesting. But it’s really tough because I find this is – and  I want to hear what you think about this because now it’s like, okay, like, number one, how do we explain, the emergence of this phenomenon? Number two, is there anything to be done? And so I have a theory on the emergence of the phenomenon. I have no idea what could be done. I think it’s too big. I think it’s, a legitimate, cultural phenomenon. In other words, it’s like multigenerational. It’s not something that just popped up recently. It’s something that’s got deep roots. And so this isn’t like a law that you could pass or, I think it’s like a social movement or kind of a, you know, I think it’s going to take a long time to fix these particular issues. They’re they’re very profound cultural issues. But I almost see as the way we are today. So but let’s take social media as the dominant, public forum where political discussions are occurring and where people are agreeing, disagreeing, becoming famous, becoming influential, so on and so forth, more and more. And then you’ve got government, the world of government, right? In the world of social media, as you’ve rightly said, there is almost no upside to being the sort of a centrist pragmatist and try to kind of propose concrete solutions. There is no upside whatsoever. It is outrage  driven. It is moral panic driven. It is look at what the other side is doing. Oh my God, existential crises. Boom. You get, you get likes, you get clicks, you get, you get sort of rewarded for that. So  the incentives and the rewards are extremely powerful towards, polarization and moral panic and so on and so forth. In the world of government, I would also claim that there is no upside to pragmatism. None. Let’s say you and I are, running for a seat. The seat is actually scarce. One of us is going to get it. One of us is not. It’s a zero sum game. Okay, what benefit is there in me saying, well, you know, Daniel actually has a couple of, of interesting ideas here and there. Hey, what can we do to actually solve the problem? No, I’m going to magnify your flaws. You’re going to magnify my flaws. And as I think another factor that’s fed into this is the growth of government and how absolutely, massive government is today compared to just a couple of generations ago. And so there is so much power available inside of government, and it affects power in the market that whatever benefit there could have been to kind of a centrist, pragmatic approach has completely vanished. Now it’s really about just getting that seat, getting that power. And you are now  talking about a whole other scale of power. So both the public side and the… it’s almost like, funny how it’s almost like a prophetic if you look at Plato’s prediction of what would happen to democracies, almost prophetic when you look at it. Right? The population is too  fickle.

     

    Daniel

    So yeah.I was just going to say you’ll have to refresh my Plato. It’s been a few years since I checked that out. So, I’m curious, remind me..

     

    Fred

    Very simple. To simplify. his argument in the Republic is that he goes the people? the will of the people? He goes, the people are fickle! He goes one day they’re dieting when they they’re not one day they’re doing this. One day they think they’re a philosopher. One day… because they’re too fickle. They’re essentially they’re they’re not educated enough to really be the driving force for decisions. And then the leaders are just the people that can convince, the people. So the very famous, analogy, he says they’re not the best ship builders. They’re just the people who can best convince non shipbuilders that they are. So you get kind of like these, the salesmany politician and the uneducated people. And that’s what you get with democracy. That’s Plato’s argument.

     

    Daniel

    Ahh The people can’t be trusted. Yes. That’s why you  need. the philosopher king, right?

     

    Fred

    That’s why you need a philosopher king. That’s right. Which which raises a whole bunch of other problems. But but when you look at his kind of breakdown of where democracy could go, if, if a people stops, being accountable to their reality, to the truth, if they stop, actually getting educated about the issues, if they start, being too fickle in their opinions, then then in a sense, that is the deepest corruption of democracy because you can have a perfect procedural, electoral system. Right? With perfect, no election fraud, nothing at all. But the system is corrupted from within, right? The will of the people is only as good as the quality of the decisions that the people are making.

     

     

    Daniel

    Right, right, right, right. Well, so, so fascinating. I mean, I’m, I’m also reminded of a lot of the writings of the Founding Fathers, which were they were also obsessed with these kinds of questions about, you know, the, the perils and opportunities of self-government. Right? Because that is the American experiment. Right? The American experiment is an exercise in self-government. Can the citizens be entrusted with the power to make their own decisions about who should lead them, who what types of laws should be passed, who their representatives are? That is the essence of the American experiment. And  the Founding Fathers, you know, it remains to be seen how how, long this type of experiment can last. The Founding Fathers thought about this constantly. Madison was writing about the tyranny of the majority and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. We’re talking about civic virtues and and, you know, and this and this. I think it connects, actually, to a lot of the thinking that I’ve been doing more recently. You know, you begin your, your comment by, by kind of thinking about solutions, you know, what do we do? Where do we go from here, given given the state of affairs that we’re in, we appear to have had this seemingly impossible situation where both in the public sphere, on social media and in the political sphere, we have it a set of incentives that is exacerbated polarization. And, and sort of just kind of collapsing in on itself and getting into knots, just getting tighter and tighter and tighter. How do we untangle that knot? And I’d love to hear it. It sounded like you’re about to propose some some ideas you had as a solution.

     

    Fred

    Yeah. No. I mean personally, I find the kind of research that you’re doing that,  More in Common is doing, so really, a data driven, evidence based social science, I think is, one of the, one of the vectors of, of improvement and change. Because if people can just become – develop a more realistic theory of who the people are, right? You’ll get away with a lot of this… these caricatures, this, turning the other side into vilifying the other side, we could more, more accurately, define and see sort of very extreme activist groups on both the right and the left. And in my sense, they are the ones who should be muted, not the pragmatic majority. Right, right. So it’s not the will of the people now, it’s that the entire public space is being dominated by extreme groups, and that’s what polarization is bringing. So it’s a true problem that like, again, the solution is not democracy. The solution for me is, is, I mean, broadly speaking, like better forms of education. So less ideological, more, data driven, more rational, more pragmatic, more positive in the sense that we’re more focused on actual concrete solutions to concrete problems than we are, sort of, fitting within a preexisting, preexisting ideological framework. So, so, so that’s why I’m so, passionate about the study, about the work that More in Common do, but about some of your work. I’m going to talk about some of your studies as well.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah.

     

    Fred

    And that’s what I want to kind of I wanted to really, identify this branch of social science more particularly and really bring it into sharp distinction with the more ideological, the word salad version of, social sciences, because I do feel that this, this could be –  spreading this work and people becoming more aware of this work could be part of the solution. At least that’s the hope.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah. Absolutely. I think social science has many tools at its disposal to to sort of start, make progress on this. I think the first thing is just a commitment to truth and, and objectivity, which is already, you know, more than you can say for, for a lot of people and a lot of, you know, sort of, groups out there that are, that are that where, where truth is sort of secondary. Science is truly committed to the, to the pursuit of knowledge and that sort of pursuit of truth. We have to maintain a… we have to put that on a pedestal. We have to put truth on a pedestal and science I think, really is  an important, effort to, to do that. Another thing I think that you touched on, but I’ll kind of expand on, is what social science can do and what I think that we need to do is to continue better understanding the under the,  the core values and the and the, priorities of the people in this exhausted majority that we’ve identified, because the people on the, on the wings are taking up so much space, they’re taking up so much of the oxygen in the room. It is an opportunity for social scientists to sort of raise up these middle voices and to say, look, actually, you  guys don’t represent the, the views of, of the people in a way that you’re drowning out the voices of this reasonable, this reasonable middle. And so by, by doing through surveys, through focus groups, through other methods of data collection, we can start to really hear in their own words from these people who are not necessarily so active in the political conversation, to start there to raise their voices up and, and hopefully amplify them in such a way that people start to understand that these this is this is the true the true battle. The true battle is not between the left and the right, but the two battle between the, the center and and these and these wing groups that are trying to keep people divided. Yeah. Yeah.

     

    Fred

    Totally agree. Totally agree. And I think one of the challenges is that the exhausted majority has been so turned off that they’ve almost like, tuned out completely. And I just I get, you know, this whole political there’s just cognitive overwhelm. Like, you know, I just can’t deal with it. I don’t want to talk about political issues. I don’t want to talk about political issues on X on  online and on Instagram whatever even LinkedIn has become now a hotbed for  polarization. And it’s just become a tuning out. And so hopefully starting conversations around the sensibilities of the exhausted majority and making those conversations compelling and making them about, you know, universal things like, like truth and like, progress and how to sort of, achieve more a moral consensus in a diverse society. hopefully. I mean, that’s I think it would it that needs to be done at a very profound level and for a very long period of time for us to start seeing an improvement and kind of, a marginalization of these marginalized extremes. They need to be marginalized. The problem is they are extremely passionate. They spend a tremendous amount of time. They are putting their careers, their names on the line, for their issue that they believe in. So they take up a lot more room than, that then probably they should.

     

    CHAPTER 3  Society and Morality

     

     

    FRED

    So kind of shifting gears to your, your other research, which I find really, really interesting and it’s got kind of, a lot of the running thread is kind of like trying to define how morality plays out in our society.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah.

     

    Fred

    So start with one of your studies, Pro-Social Correlates of Transformative Experiences at Secular, Multi-Day Mass Gatherings. So first of all, just a methodological question.

     

     

    Daniel

    Sure

     

    Fred

    How do you go about collecting quality data at mass gatherings with people on psychedelics and all sorts of other substances? Like methodologically, how do you go about getting quality data in that setting? And then and then what’s your key finding in the study?

     

     

    Daniel

    Wow, I’m glad you’re bringing up this study! This is my favorite study that I’ve ever run so far in my career. And it was it was it was a nightmare, a logistical nightmare to run this study that it was also…combined, combined some of some of my favorite things in life, which are, science and a little bit of fun involved as well. So, my collaborators and I, had we were interested in- there’s been a new line of research in philosophy that’s looking at  what are called transformative experiences, experiences that people undergo that leave them feeling as though they’re a completely different person with different values and preferences and beliefs than they were before. And an example of this is sort of becoming a parent for example, when you become a parent –  you can’t really ever know what it’s like to be a parent until you actually are one.

     

    And so what we wanted to look at was, you know, these kind of transformative experiences, and we were looking to try to identify a naturalistic place where these types of experiences are prevalent. Where do people – , you know, where are places i in normal life, aside from potentially the, the, ObGyn when people are coming out and becoming a parent. But then by the time – you’re not that – then you’re just exhausted and you’re, you know, that’s really not necessarily the time to be asking, asking people questions after they just gave birth.

     

    Fred

    Right.

     

    Daniel

    So we were looking for another place to do this. And what we identified were these as, as it said in the title, these secular, multi-day mass gatherings, right, for example, with Burning Man being one of the key examples there – where people who go to these festivals, these gatherings, often do have a high frequency of feeling as though they had a transformative experience afterwards. And so what we wanted to do was to survey these people, and, and really kind of see if we could get to the bottom of this. You know, people say that going to Burning Man changed their life. Does it really change their lives? If so, what are the kinds of changes that they experience? What are the predictors or what are the sort of features of their experience or their activities that might lead them to be more or less likely to feel that sort of sense of transformation? And then also, what are the consequences of these types of transformative experiences down the road? So, and so, so what we did was we identified, six different of these kind of secular gatherings, and we sent a team of researchers out to  each of these placesindividually, and we, we we walked around with, with white, lab coats to show that people that we are reputable scientists. I don’t know how well that worked, but that is what we did. And we carried around clipboards and we asked people to participate in in this type of survey, this experiment that we were running, we collected, over 1000, responses at these different contexts. And then we started to use, we collected we also then, did several follow up investigations. We contacted people a week and a month and three months and six months after they attended these different gatherings. And we – our main aim here, which is kind of just better understand these experiences and, and talk to the people who underwent them.

     

    And so sort of you know, there were a lot of questions that we asked, a lot of analysis that we did. But the upshot here is that, number one, you know, these types of, transformative experiences are highly, prevalent at these gatherings. They are more likely if you are under the influence of psychedelics or other types of substances. But psychedelics and other types of substances are not a necessary condition for experiencing these types of, having these types of experiences. People who go there completely sober are also very, very likely in certain contexts to to experience these types of events. And they’re more likely to do so in, in contexts where… So one of the things the interesting features of Burning Man, is that it is involved –  it , embodies what is known as a gift economy. So at Burning Man –  I don’t know how familiar Fred you are with Burning Man or your listeners are, but just to to fill them in, a gift economy is a place where – so so at Burning Man, people are there for 4 or 5, 6 or 7 days, and it takes place, in the, the Black Rock desert in Central Nevada. It’s a very barren area. People come and they set up a temporary, almost like a temporary city that’s called Black Rock City. And they –  for these seven days, there is no money exchanged whatsoever. Instead, what people do is, they give each other gifts. So it’s a gift economy. In other words, everybody comes to this event, with something to offer the community, whether it is an experience or,  a snack or a foot massage or, you know, anything like that. And, and so, you know, it’s a fascinating place because it is… it embodies such a different way of interacting and, and, and being in relationship to, to one another, than what we typically experience in, sort of default western Western culture. And so we find that in, in contexts like this, there’s  high prevalence of people feeling as though they have sense of transformation. Not only that, but we actually find that they, they become more generous. We, we ran what’s known as, a kind of an economic game where people have an opportunity to, give a certain limited number of resources, to a complete stranger. We find that people are more generous, the longer that they’ve been at this festival. And that generosity is caused in part by a greater sense of connection to people who are who are more and more distant from them, what we call an expansion of the moral circle. In other words, this idea that we have a moral circle of people who we think are relevant and worthy of our moral concern and, and, and what we find is that with every passing day that people spend on these in these events, they actually their their sense of the, the radiance of this moral circle gets larger and larger and larger so that people feel a greater and greater sense of connection and, and obligation to, to more and more dissimilar others from them. And then this causes and leads to, a greater level of generosity that they show. And finally that this, these kinds of, these types of, behaviors are, and associations are prevalent and observable even as far as three and six months after people actually attend these events. So so that was the – that was the study.

     

    Fred

    So a lasting effect. Interesting. Because, modern life, is more and more, I don’t know if you want to say maybe fragmented. I mean, we don’t have this kind of, mass gathering phenomenon. I mean, you you probably do now in a city like New Orleans compared to a larger city like New York, but, kind of meeting in a spontaneous way in the public square or in the center of the village, that’s not an experience that we have anymore. And so, do you think that as part of maybe I mean, I kind of just looking at the broader consequences of the study,

     

    Daniel

    Yeah.

     

    Fred

    It would almost, almost imply that, when you’re not at a kind of mass gathering, when you’re more kind of, I don’t know, just going to work, going home, cooking dinner, organized leisure. does it maybe, limit or constrict your moral circle? I mean, certainly when you look at all kinds of studies on isolation, atomization, you see people, folks who live in big cities, it’s kind of, being, being alone in the crowd, that phenomenon. Right? It’s almost like the opposite. And it’s kind of your moral circle kind of shrinks, shrink, shrinks until for some people, unfortunately, there’s only themselves inside the circle. Right. So you kind of go there.

     

     

     

    Daniel

    Yeah, that’s really well put. I think that’s exactly right. I think there’s, you know, there’s been a lot of research that is looking at, the decay of our communities, of our, of, you know, this is exemplified in, in that very well known book, by Robert Putnam called Bowling Alone. This idea that we, we are lacking the opportunities to engage in community activities that cut potentially across different identities that put us in contact with people who are different from us and that give us a stronger sense of moral fabric, that, that give us a sense of, of, of obligation and almost give that, that almost fulfill that need that we have to belong to something that’s larger than ourselves. When when people are when I see the very strong, sort of enthusiasm about places like Burning Man as, as, as in a way, fulfilling a kind of a spiritual knee that people are, that people have that isn’t that is… that is currently lacking in, in our secular, modern society. These are, you know, these are the types of needs that that used to historically be filled by, by church and religion. And, you know, there’s plenty of data showing that there’s there’s a plummeting of attendance in these types of religious institutions. And so but, but, but, you know, work by sociologists like Emile Durkheim,for example, are – show that people have a need for what he called this collective effervescence. And what collective effervescence is, is, is a sense of, as I said, belonging to something larger than yourself. And, and I think that there’s something, you know, really interconnected about these, these ideas, the sort of decline of religious attendance, the decline of communal activities like bowling leagues and reading clubs and things like that, a deep, unfilled spiritual and connective need that people have to, to belong to something larger than themselves and, and then, you know, and these all together, you know, seems to me that it makes more sense so we can better understand sort of… going back to this idea of polarization, what might be going on because, there’s, there’s not that sort of third layer that binds people together. It’s just the individual and it’s the government and sort of, you know, I’m saying, you know, I’m looking at the government and saying things are unfair, alright the government should fix things, or that’s where I’m going to put my energy and attention. That’s what I’m looking at. The only other thing that I can focus on, because there’s nothing else! And so…

     

    Fred

    And so and it’s available, it’s online. It’s on social media. I can take my phone. I’m now part of this group, fighting a heroic struggle against a group that really wants to destroy Western civilization. So it gives you a sense of meaning. It gives you a sense of coherence. It gives you a sense of tribe. And and in a sense, it’s a, a reflection of of the emptiness that we get at this kind of, communal level in, a society where we are bowling alone and, that, that, that phrase that kind of says it all.  Right? And I’m, I’m very happy that you, you connected the dots there because that was going to be my next question. How this kind of… what this says about polarization

     

    Daniel

    Yeah.

     

    Fred

    And, and and how it maybe steps in to fill that gap, but it’s kind of ill-suited to fill that gap because it doesn’t give all the things that a human community will give to one another.

     

    Daniel

    That’s right. And we have these – we have this, this sense that we want to put our energy towards something. We want to make things better. Everybody wants to do something  to make the world a better place. I think – I believe that about, you know, human beings. And so… but if if there’s no, sort of this local fabric, if that doesn’t exist, then all of my energy and attention is going to be devoted towards these large scale, these, you know, towards the national government and you know, how it’s unfair or fair or all of these things and, and it and it creates this, this polarization when instead what we ought to be doing and is, is sort of putting our attention to more local community level – level issues, which could then both improve our own lives by improving our neighborhoods, and also put us into contact with people that we wouldn’t otherwise… with our neighbors who wemight be ignoring. You know, I spent ten years in New York. I didn’t you know-  I never, never once spoke to the person who lived right in the door, you know, in the house next door. Why is that? Well, I don’t know. But here in New Orleans, I’m already best friends with five of my neighbors. So what’s the difference there? And how are these cultural factors kind of, making people feel together or alone and difference in different situations?

     

    Fred

    Yeah, that that’s a great access point because sometimes you can start very close to home in your actual neighborhood with your actual neighbors. And we want to solve these distant issues and these big, complex social dynamics. But it’s like, hey, you know, do you know your neighbors? you know? How’s your family doing? You know, a lot of times it’s at the close level that we see that there’s, there’s that, that, that, that emptiness. And, and I think you see it in so many, so many different contexts.

     

    Daniel

    Right. Right. .

     

    Fred.

    You know, a lot of times it’s at the close level that we see that there’s, there’s that, that, that, that emptiness. And, and I think you see it in so many, so many different contexts. Some of your other studies also seem…I’m going to maybe take like 3 or 4 of them, lump them together, maybe you can comment them. The theme seems to be that we exhibit different moral behavior under different conditions. So sometimes it’s about how close we are to people or like literally how physically present they are to us or not. So that will change our moral behavior or even something like cognitive load. How much cognitive load we’re under. So just very quickly I’m going to rattle off like maybe maybe 3 or 4 of them and then maybe you could comment on that.

     

    Daniel

    Oh you’ve done your research! I am impressed.

     

    Fred

    Done the research! Done the research. One of them is: binding moral values gain importance in the presence of close others. Okay? And what you write here is because binding values help regulate communal behavior. People may afford these values more important when in the presence of close others. That’s really interesting. Another one, another one of your studies is reflexive intergroup bias in third party punishment, where you write people demonstrate intergroup bias, but only under cognitive load. I was bery  interested in that, because I think cognitive overload is the background to absolutely everything in modern life. We’re all just bombarded with an amount of information that we’re not designed for. So there’s that kind of, I don’t know, stimulate our survival brain, change the way we think morally. And another one I find super interesting is that young children police group members at a personal cost. So this is what you  write here: In this research, I investigated altruistic punishment in young children. I find that children as young as three years of age will make a personal sacrifice to punish someone who has broken the rules. Moreover, young children placed in a position of responsibility tend to punish in-group members more than outgroup members, suggesting there something about feeling a sense of authority that leads people to police the members of their own group. So a lot of different, findings, with  I think some clear patterns there. Why don’t you give us your, your perspective on them?

     

    Daniel

    Sure. Yeah. Great. Well, that’s –  this is a fun exercise because I don’t think I’ve ever tried to summarize all three, all three of these studies at exactly the same time and sort of pull out the, the, the thread that connects them all but one. One thing that I think that you can say… Also, the image that I have in my mind right now is, is that image of I actually have an image of a solar system. So, so, you know, some of those explanations of, Einstein’s theory of relativity show sort of like there’s a sort of a, a basically like a net. And then you imagine, like the sun sort of like on this net. And it demonstrates the way that, that the forces of gravity bend space time. Right. So it’s sort of like the sun is sitting there on this net and it sort of pulls the net down, and then you have the earth. And so and these sorts of and what it’s used to illustrate is the ways in which objects can, can shape and warp the fabric of space time  and because of the gravitational pull… And, and I think of and I think that the way the best way to summarize all of these studies is to think about our… the way that we…our own, ways of thinking about morality, which we think of is usually very objective and rule based and based on principles, is also in the same way, stretched and bent and pulled out of shape by the various relationships that we have with the people around us. and so when I have, when I, when I share group membership with, with somebody, then what our data shows is that, I’m more likely to forgive them for various transgressions relative to someone that I don’t share that group membership with. And that’s particularly, exacerbated when I’m under cognitive load, when I’m, when I’m acting quickly.

     

    The first study that you mentioned, we actually find that when people – the mere presence –  merely being in the presence of someone that I feel close to is enough to change my moral priorities. We actually ask people, how important is it to you to to be loyal right now, in this moment? And I just need to be sitting in the same room as someone that I, that I like, and I feel close to you to amplify the importance of, of, of the, of the value of loyalty. And so that shows again how these seemingly immutable principles, like  the importance of loyalty, can be bent and and and can be made flexible by the mere presence of the people around me, the relationships that I have with others. And so I think that the overall takeaway here is just to show how morality, which is typically considered to be this sort of very Newtonian, idea of a very sort of, you know, you have these laws, you have these principles, and this is how it is. It’s actually we should think of morality in the way that we think about. And we we apply moral, moral rules and principles more like in an Einstein in way which is, which is very flexible and very relative in, in, in this social kind of, fabric that we’re, that we’re involved in. So I don’t know if that analogy was clearifying or not..

     

    Fred

    Yeah, No that’s good.

     

    Daniel

    That was–

     

    Fred

    Yeah. Yeah definitely. So, so so two things that would affect the morality. Number one is the cognitive load.

     

    Daniel

    Yup.

     

    Fred

    I guess how much information you’re processing. And the other one is actual proximity. So closest is not and, and and to me, the, the, the study with the three year old almost suggests that, we would be more punitive to remember members of our in-group when they violate a moral norm.

     

    Daniel

    Right.

     

     

    Fred

    Which can make sense. In a sense. I mean –  we’re more reliant and dependent on the people closest to us. So when they violate a rule, in a sense, it’s more problematic to us because we’re more dependent on that. Right?

     

    Daniel

    Sure.

    Fred

    And so we’re more, or maybe, as you say, as you mentioned in the study, the sense of authority that you can feel inside your group, which you don’t necessarily feel with a member of your outgroup. So there’s, a very different morality depending on, so, so, you know, whether we, you know, are  members of an actual group or not,

     

    Daniel

    Yup.

     

    Fred

    Or whether we perceive each other to be part of a common group or not. And then the kind of the background of cognitive load I find very interesting as well. So it’s these different factors that affect. Yeah.

     

    Daniel

    Absolutely. Yeah. And with that third study, the child study, I also think it’s just so interesting that, you know, we we typically think of when we think about altruism, human altruism, what we tend to think about is sort of the willingness to be generous, to cooperate. And that’s certainly a big part of it. But  altruism is not just the willingness to cooperate, it’s also the willingness to punish. And the reason for this is that that that in order to sustain a cooperative community, you need not just to have people who are willing to trust the other people around them and to engage in that cooperation. You also need enforcers. You need people who are going to police the behavior of of defectors or wrongdoers, and make sure that they’re toeing the line. And that’s how you can sustain these cooperative arrangements and so that they don’t end up decaying and falling apart.

     

    And so what we find is that even as early as three and four years old, we see a… a willingness of certain children to engage in this type of behavior. And I always  say, you know, we might conjure up that idea of a sort of a policeman or some sort of authority figure in our mind, and that’s certainly part of it. There is some maybe a degree of authoritarian-ness or whatever the word is there. But  also there, I think is, a deep moral concern because  we presented children with a, with someone who, who hurt someone else, who tore up  their drawing. The way that the experiment plays out is that we actually show them a video of a child who tore up someone else’s drawing. And so the children who are engaged in this behavior, who are actually depriving themselves of an opportunity to go down a really fun looking slide in order to prevent the the transgressor from going down the slide. They’re doing this partly because they want to make sure that people who are violating the rules are… are getting punished for it and getting their just desserts. And that’s a really important – from an evolutionary perspective – it’s a really important feature of our ability to cooperate.

     

     

    CHAPTER 4 Diversity and Shared Norms

     

     

    Fred

    Very interesting. So as, democracies have grown in size and have become more diverse. I mean, there’s I know there’s the whole politicization around the issue of diversity, but diversity is also just a fact of modern democracies. Most of them are extremely ethnically diverse. To me, it seems like our core challenge, if we’re going to sort of find, productive and healthy ways to coexist. And this is a question I have for you. What’s your view on this –  is how do we articulate and promote shared moral norms when we can’t necessarily default to in-group, homogenous in-group identities? And when values between these different groups may clash at multiple levels? What’s the best or what are some of the ways? I mean, you’ve got the mass gatherings as an example. You’ve got, playing up the exhausted, majority that’s implied by, the, Hidden Tribes study. I wonder what you, what your view is on this challenge that we have in modern democracies? And how do we articulate and find and promote shared moral norms in an extremely diverse, technologically rapid, fragmented, high cognitive load society? Because, I mean, these are the features of our societies, and it doesn’t seem likely that it’s going to – that it’s going to change anytime soon. It might even, get even, these, these characteristics may even accentuate – and will likely accentuate –  in the coming years and decades.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah. I love this question. And it’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, actually. So here’s what I would say. I think that what we need to do is we need to recover a better language and a better way of talking about some of these moral norms that you’re, that you’re referencing here. What we need to do is we need to reinvigorate the conversation about what the social contract actually looks like. And what is the social contract? The social contract is an agreement among citizens to accept certain responsibilities in exchange for certain rights. So I agree to abide by certain principles and obligations in in, in, return for, for certain, privileges and opportunities that I’m given by, by the government. And I think right now our conversation about the nature of the social contract is, is really impoverished. You know, we’re so focused on these hot button political controversy, polarizing issues that we’re really neglecting the opportunity to have a deeper conversation about what our  responsibilities and moral obligations are to each other in the 21st century. And, and I’ll linger for just an additional, moment on this idea of responsibility. So personal responsibility is, you know, when we think about it, it’s it’s well known to be sort of a very controversial and and polarizing idea. We talk about personal responsibility. We often talk about it in the context of lifting yourself up by the bootstraps and, sort of taking control of your situation. And that is often equated with a sort of a victim blaming or problematic view from people on the political left, because it it sounds as though and it has historically been used to say to, to blame people for their- for their situations.

     

    But the reality is that when you look at the data, social science shows us that having a sense of agency and responsibility is crucial for living a meaningful and purposeful life. People need to feel some sort of sense of responsibility or agency in order to –  in order to do that. So we can’t fully, fully reject this idea of responsibility. The question can’t just be, is there responsibility or is there not? It needs to be what are our responsibilities? And and I think that too much of the time we focus so much on, you know, this idea of, certain types of responsibilities to the exclusion of others, our responsibilities come from our different roles, the relationships and roles that we occupy in society. So I have responsibilities as a parent. I have responsibilities as a romantic partner. I have responsibilities as a friend. I have responsibilities as a neighbor, as a citizen, as, as a member of a community. I even maybe even have certain responsibilities as a consumer of information or as a user of technology or as a human being. And so we-  we occupy I think-  human beings occupy these this very kind of interconnected set of, of roles and, and relationships that define the lives that we have and, and our responsibilities come from the, those particular roles that we embody. And so by, by by acknowledging that fact, I think that what we have an opportunity to do is to invigorate and spark a healthier conversation about what our responsibilities actually are and once we acknowledge the importance of responsibility in this much more sort of apolitical way and in a more sort of moral way, in the sense of a moral fabric, not even a political fabric, but like, how do we build a flourishing society and a flourishing community? When we talk about it that way, we extricate this idea of responsibility from these very, this very polarizing political environment and we talk about it in the sense of in a, in a deeper way about how do we live meaningful and, and, contributing lives to society. I think that when we when we recapture that way of approaching the notion of responsibility, then I think it opens the door to a healthier, public discourse about these, these deep issues that we’re facing in society and could potentially help to create a platform that will allow us to relate to each other in a healthier and more productive way.

     

    Fred

    That’s a really powerful message, because something that does bring together both, both extreme groups in the polarization discussion that we have today is, this idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with society or with a process inside of society. And now we need to come in and rectify it, or we need to come in and fix the injustice or fix this, or start demanding things, demanding change as opposed to the emphasis on what our responsibilities to our collectives should be. And like like you very, very rightly said, our responsibilities are kind of commensurate with our own individual situations. So you have a responsibility towards your family, towards your friends, towards your community, towards your your nation, towards… I mean, you could kind of look at the concentric circles outward.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah.

     

    Fred

    And it’s almost like, I almost feel like, you’ve probably heard of this, this, this expression in social sciences, the tragedy of the commons. Right? Where, you’ve got the limited number of fish in a, in a pond, let’s say. And so for every individual, fisherman, it makes more sense for them to sort of take more fish, but for the collective as a wholeit’ll leave it’ll leave the livestock depleted. So there’s a tragedy of the commons when everybody follows their self-interest. I feel like if we emphasize responsibility, it’s almost the opposite of that. It would be a I don’t know how we could put it. A benefit to the commons in that if we all contributed just whatever we could, and from a, from a spirit of responsibility and contribution, it may feel individually like I’m sacrificing a little bit of my self-interest right now, but overall, over lengthier periods of time, we’re likely to everybody, all of us, benefit. And there could be kind of like a renewal of the commons

     

    Daniel

    Yeah

     

    Fred

    As opposed to I feel like what we’re doing now is just pulling and pulling and pulling and demanding and taking and trying to hijack the other group and trying to take power and trying to… Right?And and the more we’re engaged in that dynamic, the more we kind of construe the goal as absolute, total, utter victory over the other group. And like eradication of the other group and stripping away all of their power and privileges and it just doesn’t, I think part of that game is going to be obviously there in a democratic society, in a free market society, you’re going to have competition. But if we can sort of marry competition with, a broader sense of responsibility, I think we’d have, we’d have, some reason to be more optimistic than, than a lot of us are today.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah, I love that. I like I love the renewal of the commons. I think that’s great.

     

    Fred

    Renewal of the commons.

     

    Daniel

    Yeah. Yeah, that was nice. Nicely put. and I couldn’t agree more.

     

     

    CHAPTER 5  Future Projects

     

    Fred

    Cool. So any any interesting research that you’re engaged in right now? Being a self-employed scholar, being, outside the whale in the, analogy of George Orwell. what are you working on these days that you’re excited about?

     

    Daniel

    Well, I would say that so I will name two things. One is I am working with the organization More in Common, –  I am currently employed by more in Common as a senior advisor there. and we are working on, on a project related to some of the things that I just referenced. Which is essentially, developing a more nuanced language around conceptions of everyday responsibility. How do people think about responsibility in their own lives, and how and can we once we sort of… you know, going back to this idea of listening to the exhausted majority, let’s listen to the exhausted majority. Think about the way –   hear from them, about the way that they talk about these moral issues. And then can we then amplify those… that language to, serve as a basis of a more shared and productive moral fabric that ties us all together? So that that is a project that I’m really excited about. It’s called the Beacon Project, and it’s hopefully going to be launching, in the second half of 2024 this year. So that’s one project. And then I also have, a paper coming out, hopefully also this year that I’ve been working on for the past three years, that’s looking at every day moral dilemma. So there is a fascinating, repository of moral dilemmas. Some of your listeners may have heard of it. It’s on Reddit and it’s called am I? Excuse my language? I don’t know if I’m, I assume that this is.

     

    Fred

    Yeah, all good.

     

    Daniel

    So I could say what I want

     

    Fred

    Yes, yes.

     

    Daniel

    It’s called Am I The Asshole? And…

     

    Fred

    Okay.

     

    Daniel

    And it’s on Reddit, and what it is is it consists of hundreds of thousands of stories that people write in on Reddit explaining a personal moral quality that they experienced, and then asking the community of whether or not they’re the asshole.

    Fred

    Interesting.

     

    Daniel

    And then the community writes in with comments that says, yes, you’re the asshole, or no, you’re not. And what’s interesting about this is that by convention, the, the, the thread, the subreddit, asks people to, to use the letters  YTA  for you’re the asshole or NTA for not the asshole. And the beautiful thing about this is that you can easily extract this information. So we have about 400,000 posts stories, and then about 11 million comments r responses to these posts. And and what we can do is we can use some simple string matching algorithms to extract an estimate of whether or not people, thought the writer was or was not the asshole, and then use that information to start making predictions about when people will be considered the asshole, when they won’t be. What types of moral dilemmas people are encountering in their daily lives. and then can we use those insights to generate a better and richer understanding of how people think about and encounter moral experiences day to day? And so that –

     

    Fred

    Really Cool

     

    Daniel

    And so that is a really fascinating project. It’s the – the pre-print for the for the paper is currently available. I’m happy to, you know, share it with you. And if you want to share with your readers, that’s that’s totally fine. It  will be published, later, hopefully, hopefully later this this year. It’s currently going it’s winding its way through the, the long and circuitous process of peer review, which always takes much, much longer than you want it to. So those are the two things I’m thinking about, right now.

     

     

    Fred

    Sounds really, really awesome. your work is super, super interesting. you’re doing way more interesting work than a lot of academics I know. So I think the decision, may have been a very productive and very good for you. I wish you the best. Let’s stay in touch.  And I’d love to revisit these issues, you know, at some point in the future as kind of things shake out and, and as we get more data and as we kind of see how, you know, the cultural landscape takes shape, how the, the political landscape evolves. And, do you know, if more More in Common is looking at a kind of an updated version of the Hidden Tribes study? Or have they kind of moved on?

     

    Daniel

    Yeah. That’s that is, a topic of considerable conversation at More in Common right now. Whether or not we’re going to do a second Hidden Tribes, or whether we’re going to update it and how exactly you might do that. So I would, I would expect that I wouldn’t be surprised if in 20 –  later this year or in next year, we have a sort of a newer version of that same kind of approach.

     

    Fred

    Very cool. Daniel, thank you so much. It was fascinating. I really appreciate it.

     

     

    Daniel

    Likewise. I really enjoyed it. Fred, thanks so much for having me. It’s fun.

     

    Fred

    Awesome.