Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

One question that  is pertinent to politics as well as psychology is the nature of moral progress. When I say moral progress, I mean the process by which individuals end up updating or modifying their basic moral beliefs (or priors). This process usually is a slow one, and at the micro level involves one’s reaction to evidences or thought processes.

This typically happens when Person A comes across some data/evidence that is in tension with his moral system. For example, A may value a certain principle and then realize one day that some regular action of his violates this principle. Or maybe A values several principles, and new data (or just new reasoning) seems to suggest that in at least some instance these principles are in conflict.

To give a couple of examples:

Time: 1790. Place: America. A values both individual liberty and a harmonious, prosperous society. The issue at hand is slave ownership. A reluctantly accepts slave ownership for the time being because he believes that Blacks are intellectually inferior and would not be able to live in the same land as the Whites. Perhaps A supports emancipation in principle but thinks an actual implementation would result in tremendous disorder, huge decrease in prosperity and would also require eventual deportation of all the Blacks back to Africa in a painful, costly and disrupting process. But one day his scientist friend shows him evidence that seems to strongly suggest that the inferiority of Blacks is a myth, and given proper education they would be as likely as Whites to succeed in intellectual endeavors.

Or to give a second example, A is a young European, living currently, who has a strong moral opposition to hunting for pleasure. He thinks it is wrong and rights-violating. Yet he eats meat. He justifies this by saying that killing for food or to achieve some other basic necessity is ok, but killing for pleasure is morally wrong. But one day, after a conversation with a friend he starts to wonder if his position is morally sound. He realizes  that he can get by  without eating animals (gaining the needed protein from other sources, such as lentils, milk and soy, as many Asians do) so the main reason behind eating meat is the pleasure he gains from it. So how is eating meat different form hunting then?

And so on…

The interesting question to me, is what A does in such a situation.  He has several choices:

1. Simple minded denial: He can just deny that the evidence exists. For instance the 18th century American could refuse to believe his scientist friend. He could claim that the facts and the research are false and move on. We seem to see something similar with some (not all) global warming sceptics today.

2. Tweaking:  He can decide that despite the new evidence/argument, he can resolve the tension with minor tweaks. For instance, he comes up with other evidence or arguments to counter the tension. Or he  makes minor changes to his priors that make this tension go away or at least become less pronounced. There are many ways to tweak one’s beliefs, some simple, some highly complex; some honest, some not, some based on reason, some based on emotion.

3. Biting the bullet: He can decide that his values are truly in conflict and modify them significantly. The 18th century American could either give up his belief  in liberty, or abandon his support for slave-ownership. The 2oth century European could decide that animals don’t have rights (and end his moral opposition to hunting) or decide to become a vegetarian. Any of these outcomes are what I’d call significant moral progress. At the individual level, they can be life-changing.

It seems to me that personality plays a complex role in deciding which of the above outcomes occur. As a rule, people have a strong emotional resistance to any sort of change in their moral priors. For that would mean acknowledging to themselves, and perhaps to others, that they have engaged in beliefs/actions that are false/evil. Some make a conscious attempt to avoid letting emotions take precedence over reason in deciding how one deals with such conflicts, while others go with the flow.

Age probably plays an important role in all this; younger people are more likely to change their belief systems. As Fitzgerald once wrote, “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

In any case, I don’t have any deep insights to offer, but I think these are interesting questions, and being able to deal with moral dilemmas in an efficient, unbiased and rational manner would certainly improve political outcomes.

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A new French law criminalizes “psychological violence” against a spouse or cohabiting partner.

Pretty great I say. The French are geniuses. They have already outlawed pesky things like free speech, unsexy clothes and hard work. Now all those domestic arguments must stay within strict rules laid down by the government. Think about all the hours saved. No endless bickering, no name-calling, no emotional blackmails. Ah, what a life. Relaxed, stress-free and productive. A nice, fat, motherly government to keep deviants in line and make sure no one ever hurts another’s feelings. What’s there to worry? Big momma will always watch out for you.

“Why can’t you be caring and romantic again, like when we were seventeen? I wonder why I still stick with you!

“No one’s forcing you to stay honey. Feel free to move your fat ass and leave me for good. Just stop subjecting me to your endless blabbering.”

“Sob! Police!! I have been PSYCHOLOGICALLY abused!!”

On the French agenda for next month: rules forbidding laziness, rudeness and jealousy.

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Many of those who believe Polanski forcibly raped Geimer rely on the Grand Jury testimony as their primary piece of supporting evidence. So I think it would be nice to also take a look at the actual probation report, made at the time of the incident, by Santa Monica deputy Irwin Gold. The whole report — which recommended no jail time — is here. I would like to quote a couple of relevant portions:

Neither the mother nor the doctor are in any vindictive. They have asked for a demonstration of remorse and have requested the defendant not to be incarcerated.

[…] Neither doctor has found the defendant to be a mentally disordered sex offender. Dr. Markman has indicated that the present offense was neither a forceful nor an aggressive sexual act.

[…] There was some indication that circumstances were provocative, that there was some permissiveness by the mother, that the victim was not only physically mature but willing; as one doctor has additionally suggested there was the lack of coercion by the defendant, who was additionally, solicitous regarding the possibility of pregnancy. It is believed that incalculable emotional damage could result from incarcerating the defendant whose own life has been a seemingly unending series of punishments.

Not that this report should be viewed as necessarily the whole truth; I just ask those who condemn him that they take into account all the pieces of evidence available  from the time before reaching a conclusion.


I would also like to say a few words about  how I generally form credibility notions about people I have not met or do not know personally. This is less of an explanation and more of a personal note.

A commenter to my previous post on the Polanski arrest implies that it is hasty and unwise to make conclusions about personal credibility from other areas. I agree, generally. There are a lot of people whose work I admire. I love every movie made by Quentin Tarantino. Would I make any claim to knowing him? No. Ditto for Kubrick, Copolla or any of those many other people who I have immense regard for.

But there’s high admiration and there’s feeling that a certain piece of work speaks to you in that indefinable way– where the boundaries between art and life get blurry, where you think you could have made this piece of work, had you enough talent.

Let me put down a few pieces of work that belong to this rare category, which I will refer to as identification. Ayn Rand’s “Fountainhead”. Hardy’s “A Mathematician’s apology”. Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gastby.” And yes,  most of Polanski’s movies, most notably “Bitter Moon”, “Knife in the water” and “Rosemary’s baby.”

But even that does not necessarily translate into my apportioning credibility into other areas.

I identify with Hardy’s view of mathematics. But I would never claim to know him on the personal, sexual or political plane. I would never claim to speak for Rand’s view of mathematical logic, even though I know a great deal about her thoughts on those matters, or about her sexual integrity, even though the sex/SM description in “The Fountainhead” (Dominique wants Howard, yet purposely resists with all her strength and makes him conquer her) is one of my favourite passages. Nor would I claim to speak for Fitzgerald’s integrity on anything except dreams.

And it would be foolish if I did. Even with identification acquired from creations, this identification should be restricted to only those aspects of the creator which those creations tell you significantly about.

But I say that I trust Polanski when he says he didn’t coerce sex on that girl. Why do I make such a claim?

First of all, as I have already mentioned, it isn’t just that I deeply admire his work. It’s that I see things in them that I think most do not. For I identify. And that allows me to get a glimpse of some aspects of his psyche in a peculiarly strong way.

But it is not just his work. It is also his autobiography, which, whatever else one can say about it, is one of the most harrowingly honest things ever written. It also sheds an immense amount of further light on his thinking on many of these subjects.

Even with all this, I would not claim to know Polanski completely. I just claim to know some things about him that are related to sexual matters, to his vision of evil and innocence and domination, and to his personal integrity. As I mentioned, this is a composite of both knowing and identifying with his work, and to reading his memoir.

So yes, credibility in work does not necessarily translate to credibility in other arenas. But in Polanski’s case, and restricted to this particular incident, it does for me.

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An interesting post from Robin Hanson on the stimulus bill. Here’s an excerpt (emphasis mine):

Wise taxpayers who get stimuli tax rebate checks should mostly save them, realizing that future taxes must rise to pay for those checks.  For similar reasons, wise taxpayers should also spend less upon hearing about government spending increases.  So with wise taxpayers it is not obvious that tax rebates or government spending increases would help much with the downturn. 

The consensus among macro-economists seems to be that people can in fact be fooled by such stimuli, but as Tyler indicates, it is not clear which policies most fool us.  In particular, the more public attention we give to the stimuli, the less they might work.  We might make people realize that they need to compensate via saving, and the more we scare folks into thinking we need huge stimuli, the more we might scare them away from normal economic activity levels.

So should we stop explaining macro-economics during this crisis, and stop saying how desperately we need stimuli?

Read the whole thing. Also, if you are really into it, head over to Marginal Revolution to follow the ongoing Cowen-Krugman argument on stimulus and spending.

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The New York Times has a nice article on “Blasted”, the extremely violent play that has been shocking — and wowing — audiences and disturbing the actors themselves.

The Soho Rep production has been unnerving theatergoers since its first preview, which sold out like every subsequent performance, and it has earned strong notices that have led to two extensions, now through Dec. 21.

No one was more disturbed by “Blasted” than its director, Sarah Benson, and the three cast members, yet they have found inventive ways to cope with the nightly torture sessions. (For one thing, no matinees. Double duty would be too much.)

[…] “It messed with my head, in preparations for the play; it was very disturbing,” Ms. Benson said. “I was actually depressed.” Mr. Cancelmi, who commits the most violent acts against Mr. Birney’s character, said the first reading of the play was “enormously upsetting,” but he and the other actors settled on what he called a “very workmanlike approach” that settled their emotions as rehearsals began.

“In a play like this,” Mr. Birney added, “if you had to live through this that way, you’d blow your brains out.”

Hmm… I would love to see the play if I ever get the chance!

And hats off to the actors. I have a deep admiration for artists who love their work deeply and are prepared to suffer any degree of distress — Heath Ledger being a tragic example — in their quest for perfection.

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What happens when you post ads on Craigslist in order to return money that you found dropped somewhere?

The obvious.

(Hat Tip: Boing Boing)

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