Doing uncomfortable things: Two approaches

Back when I was about to have my first baby, the hospital educator taught us about two philosophies of natural childbirth.  In the Lamaze method, the mother-to-be focuses her attention on specific breathing patterns, along with pleasant memories or her ideal relaxing environment – basically, putting your mind elsewhere so you don’t notice the pain.  In the Bradley method, by contrast, she “tunes in” to her body, calmly noticing the way each contraction builds and then diminishes, so that (at least in the early stage of labor) you get to feel completely normal again for a few minutes, each time, and the pain of labor becomes less daunting and more tolerable.

I’m wondering to what extent the two approaches to discomfort that people use to get through labor pains might be more generally useful. Childbirth is inevitable, once you get sufficiently far along in pregnancy, but discomfort is relevant to our lives much more broadly because it can affect our decision-making.  Feeling uncomfortable – or expecting to feel uncomfortable – is one of the biggest barriers to doing what we want to do.  Whether it’s exercising regularly, changing careers or going back to school, modifying our relationships, or quitting an addiction, many people often find it easier just to avoid making the change.  Depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems are often only problems because they lead us to misinterpret the world around us and encourage us to stay within our comfort zones.  My professional expertise is in tobacco cessation, and we know that many people find it hard to quit and stay quit simply because quitting can be so uncomfortable.

I don’t know if these two approaches to coping with discomfort have ever been compared – and as far as the “put your mind elsewhere” method goes, I don’t even know the degree to which it’s been developed and tested yet.  For that matter, maybe some hybrid method could let people learn to use them both in some particularly effective combination.  It’s worth thinking about, though, so, here we go!

The “mindfulness” method is already being tested in numerous mental health care fields, so I’ll talk about it first.

ACT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

The founders of ACT believe that ingrained habits of interpreting discomfort in problematic ways can be overcome by attending to two main issues: commitment and acceptance.  Commitment refers to identifying your values and goals, and determining the degree to which you’re willing to put up with uncomfortable sensations in order to act consistently with those values.  Acceptance means accepting that those uncomfortable sensations can’t be prevented and cultivating willingness to act anyway.  Once you accept that those sensations might happen, you stop fighting them or trying to avoid them – and, paradoxically, because you’re not getting caught up in them, they generally become much weaker.  Borrowing from Buddhist meditation practices, the ACT model encourages people to practice just observing those unpleasant sensations, not identifying with them.  Watch them appear, see just what they’re like (as if you’re observing from outside), and watch them go away again.  They do go away!

This practice has several benefits.  It teaches you that your feelings of discomfort are not as overpowering as they may seem to be – they are finite.  They neither take over your entire mind nor last forever.  You learn not to interpret the sensations as having a deeper, possibly alarming meaning, and you learn that they aren’t shameful or strange.  With practice, you also get to strengthen your identification with the observing part of your mind rather than the transient thoughts and feelings that come and go, which lets you make more informed and less reactive choices.

ACT has now been used successfully in numerous contexts, especially for anxiety, but also for depression, weight management and eating disorders, chronic pain, and even schizophrenia.  Recently, researchers have begun using ACT with people trying to quit tobacco.  The two biggest hurdles in tobacco cessation are withdrawal symptoms and cravings.  If someone’s been smoking for years, they have a lot of experience with knowing that going without a cigarette can be very uncomfortable.  They learn to interpret withdrawal as something quite daunting, best addressed by resuming their intake of nicotine.  With ACT, they can learn not to be overwhelmed by those symptoms and even to reinterpret them as signals that their bodies are getting healthier and their brains are learning how to live without tobacco.  Likewise, cravings can creep up months and even years after quitting, but if the former smoker learns to watch the craving from outside and not take it seriously, they become manageable, especially as they actually turn out to be relatively brief (a few seconds or minutes).

But mindfulness can be hard, especially if you’re in so much pain, or so busy, tired, or stressed, that you don’t have the mental resources for this kind of caring self-attention.  That’s where the other approach might come in handy.

Distracting Immersion

In the movie French Kiss, the Meg Ryan character is terrified of flying, especially the airplane ascent, but she is determined to get to France.  The Kevin Kline character sits down next to her on the plane, sees how petrified she is, and proceeds to act so boorishly (probably on purpose) that she ends up chewing him out for so long that she doesn’t notice the plane taking off.  Eventually he points out that they’re in flight, and she relaxes again.  Phobia gone.

In this case, the Meg Ryan character was so involved in the argument that she lost track of her surroundings, in very much the same way that people can stop noticing the world around them when they’re really involved in reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a video game.  This is called “narrative transportation” (because you’re “transported”), absorption, or immersion.  When you’re doing something like this, you can ignore both your body and what’s going on around you, and the usual parade of thoughts in your mind is relatively quiet.

Researchers in Seattle have been studying whether this type of distracting immersion in an alternate “world” can have therapeutic effects.  The pain suffered by burn victims is said to be excruciating, especially when their bandages are changed.  These scientists have been experimenting with having young burn patients explore an ice-themed virtual reality world during their bandage changes, and this technique seems to be effective in lowering the amount of pain the children experience.  The power of suggestion for the very cold environment is considered to be a key element in this effect, but the imaginative act of putting their minds into a different world is probably also important.  For a brief time, their identity is not fused so tightly to their bodies – the pain is there, but it’s more in the background and less urgent.

This approach probably has a place in dealing with discomfort more generally.  During exercise, for example, many people like to watch videos, listen to music, or even read, as it helps you pass the time much more nicely than just focusing on your body’s growing fatigue.  Back to my tobacco example, some people schedule their quitting (and withdrawal) for a time that they’re working so hard that they can’t pay attention to their bodies.  People can also deal with cravings by putting their focus into a different mental “world” than the one where they’re focused on tobacco, with a walk around the block or through the woods, a relaxing back rub from a romantic partner, or even just getting up to brush their teeth.  Distracting immersion seems especially suitable for big, one-time stressful things, or when you don’t have the personal resources to focus mindfully – you’re too busy or tired or freaked out to stop and pay watchful attention to your experiences.  (Regular distraction itself isn’t enough, for why shouldn’t the mind’s attention bounce right back to whatever’s stressful?  It would need to be engaged and interested elsewhere for the effect to be reliable.)

The Need for Meaning

The two approaches interact very differently with the natural human drive to find meaning in experiences.  Even the most difficult situations can be endured if there’s a point, and meaningful suffering is far less distressing than suffering that is random and senseless.  Much of the unhappiness associated with anxiety and depression can be thought of in terms of the need for meaning:  People have an experience that has some negative aspects, and then they interpret the negativity to have deeper significance.  For example, depression is often accompanied by overgeneralizing thoughts – if we have a negative interaction with someone, we can leap to the conclusion that we’re bad or unworthy, whereas it may easily be that the other person is having a bad day.

ACT has the more proactive approach to meaning.  The values and goals to which one is committed provide a focus, such that when one experiences unpleasant sensations, it becomes more possible to keep one’s attention on the meaning of one’s intended actions, and less attention is available for any mental efforts to ascribe potentially disruptive meanings to the sensations (like “I’m bad” or “I can’t do this”).

Immersion sidesteps the meaning issue by declaring that the most relevant meaning is, temporarily, to be found in whatever other world one is immersed in, such as the goals and values of the point-of-view character if we’re reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a game.  Our attention is so caught up in the other world (or, like in the case of the French Kiss example, in some other context like an argument or an idea) that the actual sensations we’re experiencing can receive much less notice from us and should in theory have less of an impact on our memories and our identity.

When it’s the case of helping children avoid the pain from a serious burn, this makes a lot of sense – we don’t need to have children find meaning in pain; they shouldn’t have to.  Or if we just need to get through some really daunting thing once and know we’ll never have to face it again, putting your mind elsewhere can be the easiest way to get through it.

Some times, however, it may be more worthwhile to cope with recurring problems by learning new things.  For example, the French Kiss method of resolving phobias doesn’t normally quite work. Maybe if the Meg Ryan character took lots of plane trips and distracted herself each time, this could function like a form of desensitization training, but it seems more likely that both some reflection about what happened and some expectations of lingering stress would be an important part of integrating this one experience into her life.  For example, creating a new meaning for future anxiety about plane travel (it’s just something her body habitually does but it’s brief and then she gets to be somewhere else she wants to be, for example) would be better than interpreting it as meaning that plane travel is actually very dangerous and she ought to avoid it.

Research questions!

Researchers are already studying the mindfulness approach, with ACT, but I think the distracting immersion approach might also be worth developing.  In general, I’m wondering – while distracting immersion in a book (or an argument) may be a useful trick to get through something stressful, could it also be a skill that one can learn to use thereafter?  And when and how might it complement the valuable experience of finding that you really can get through the discomfort if you’re fully aware of it as it happens?

(While writing this, I didn’t notice how hungry I was getting, but now that I’m no longer “immersed”… where’s my dinner?)

Also – neither approach seems practical when you’re in the middle of something that also needs attention, like driving, having a conversation, or getting ready to perform.  If your “something that also needs attention” is itself immersive, then, great, but what if it’s the thing that’s got you stressed?  Mindfulness may not work either, if you’re too busy doing that stressful thing to be able to pay careful attention to your thoughts and feelings.  What would work best in this circumstance?

Anyway, these are ideas in progress.  Discussion is welcome!

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What Moral Foundation Theory gets wrong

Moral Foundations Theory is very popular with the media. Its creator, Jonathan Haidt, speaks to standing-room-only crowds around the nation. Our local, modest-sized public library owns ten (ten!) hardcover copies of his book, The Righteous Mind. In social psychology, it’s a Big Deal.

In a nutshell, Moral Foundations Theory says there are basic foundations that underlie people’s moral beliefs and values. The five foundations that Haidt and his colleagues have written about most often are:
Harm/Care (don’t harm people, take care of people, relieve suffering)
Fairness/Justice (treat people fairly)
In-Group Loyalty (support the value of the group you identify with, such as your nation)
Authority (respect traditional authority)
Purity/Sanctity (don’t do disgusting or unnatural things)

Interesting, huh? There’s a reason people are so excited about Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). It’s really appealing to be able to think and talk about the basic building blocks of morality, and Haidt’s book intriguingly relates his “foundations” to key aspects of human evolution. He also stands firmly in the camp of “moral intuitionism,” believing that people’s moral responses tend to be automatic, gut-level reactions. These reactions can contribute to more effortful moral reasoning, but they also shape our beliefs and behavior just on their own. I agree.

My problem with MFT is in how Haidt and his colleagues interpret their data – which, coincidentally, is what’s brought them so much publicity. The very first big finding from the MFT team is that conservatives make use of all five of the moral foundations, but liberals – supposedly – only care about two. Example: “…justice and related virtues (based on the fairness foundation) make up half of the moral world for liberals, while justice-related concerns make up only one fifth of the moral world for conservatives.” Basically, they’re saying that all five foundations are of equal weight, and conservatives are more morally complex than liberals.

In essence, the MFT team identified five basic building blocks for morality, but then, based on their survey data, they conclude that some of these building blocks don’t matter to a large group of people. And that’s just not so. Everyone who cares about right and wrong uses these building blocks, but many of them use them differently than the MFT researchers have studied with their research program. Let’s look at MFT more closely.

The “Moral Foundations” are biased
First, let’s start with the first two foundations, the ones pretty much everyone values: Harm/Care and Fairness/Justice. When designing their MFQ survey (the source of most of their data), the MFT researchers asked about these two foundations in a biased way. Nearly everyone, conservative or liberal, values not harming people and taking care of those we’re personally responsible for, but the MFQ focuses more on taking care of people more generally and animal welfare (two issues more associated with liberals than conservatives), and the MFQ leaves out protection entirely (which usually matters more to conservatives than liberals). In other words, the MFQ is asking people how much they agree with a liberal version of Harm/Care, rather than how much they care about Harm/Care in general.

Turning to Fairness/Justice, the same kind of bias appears again. Conservatives and liberals both care about treating people fairly, of course, but they tend to mean different things by it. Conservatives usually care more strongly about making sure people are repaid for their actions (especially their misdeeds), and liberals care more about equal opportunity and level playing fields. The MFQ focuses more on the latter and, again, is biased more towards the liberal end of the U.S. political spectrum.

And three of the “foundations” are actually about something else
The real problem with MFT, though, is the way they talk about the other three foundations, which they describe as the “binding foundations” that keep groups working together. When they ask their MFQ survey questions about loyalty, authority, and purity, they’re mostly looking only at one specific domain of behavior that matters primarily to social conservatives. The gist of their Loyalty and Authority questions is: Should we put our group ahead of both individuals and humanity at large (Loyalty), and rely on our group traditions when deciding what to do (Authority)?

The Purity questions also tie into this general theme of valuing the group. They ask how important it is to do things that are pure and decent, to avoid things that are disgusting or unnatural, and to practice chastity. They leave it to the reader to imagine the types of activities that might be impure, indecent, disgusting, or unnatural, but – at least for conservatives – the popular associations of these terms are readily evident. The MFQ Purity questions may not have been intended this way, but many survey respondents are likely interpreting them as asking about sexuality, that is, Reproductive Purity. This is primarily a concern for those who care about regulating both the conformity and (since sex can lead to babies) the membership of a group.

Essentially, the MFT “binding foundations” are really looking at whether or not people have moralized the idea of in-group integrity: putting the group first, relying on traditions, and worrying about unregulated sexuality like sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, and (especially in earlier generations) marriage outside the group.

In general, U.S. conservatives think that in-group integrity is a moral issue and U.S. liberals do not (although it turns out that liberals who attend church are more likely to agree with conservatives that this is important). That means the Moral Foundations people have done something specific with three-fifths of the MFQ questions: They’ve basically rigged their survey into an either/or test of whether you’re a conservative (or at least, whether you have “traditional” values). For the first two foundations, they ask how much you agree with liberal ideas, and for the other three, they ask how much you agree with conservative/traditional ideas.

As a test of conservatism, it’s a useful thing to have, and the MFQ is more friendly (less hostile or condescending) towards conservatives than some of the other surveys psychologists have used. But it’s simply not correct to claim that these three ideas (valuing in-group loyalty, respect for traditional authority, and promoting reproductive purity) are “foundations” on the same level with concepts like harm prevention and justice, when they’re really just asking people whether or not they’ve moralized one domain, in-group integrity.

Fortunately, the ideas underlying their Loyalty, Authority, and Purity can be salvaged. Not only can these three concepts be used to assess social conservatism, but when they’re reinterpreted more broadly, they can help us identify and understand a wide variety of moralized domains.

A more comprehensive approach
As I’ve shown here and here, the types of questions the MFQ asks about loyalty, authority, and purity can be used for numerous domains, not just in-group integrity. Here’s an illustration of how the “moral foundations” can be mapped onto my “moralization steps.”

Image

MFT’s Loyalty becomes just one domain of moral concern, something people might care about and want to moralize. Harm/Care and Justice/Fairness are examples of wrongs that might befall a domain (though in the MFQ, remember, they’re asking about these as they apply to individuals, not a domain – it’s part of their liberal bias for these two foundations). Traditional Authority is just one instance of where one might go for moral knowledge, and Purity/Sanctity can appear in many, many contexts beyond chastity, indecency, and “unnatural” acts.

I’m basically reinterpreting the ideas underlying MFT in a way that’s much broader and much more useful. With my model, you can study any moralized topic, see how its proponents have used the steps, and consider whether they’re oversimplifying things when appealing to “purity” and whether a more complex take on the topic would be more reflective of reality.

Or, if you really wanted a thorough model of people’s moral intuitions, you could create a survey that asked about dozens of “foundations” in sets of three: one to establish a domain as important and threatened, one to show what types of authority people tend to respect where this domain is concerned, and one to bring in the “purity” motivator. I don’t think this would be all that practical, but it would help overcome the biases in Moral Foundations Theory.

If you want to take the current version of the MFQ yourself, you can do it at the Moral Foundations Theory website, yourmorals.org.

Next time: How several generations of admired writers set out to deliberately moralize a new domain – humanity’s relationship with nature. Muir! Leopold! Carson! Stay tuned.

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The four elements of moralization: How things become “right” and “wrong”

Last time, I described my model of the cultural process that leads people to adopt new ideas about right and wrong. Before I can really tell the story properly, though, I need to invest a few paragraphs in the nitty-gritty details. Here we go!

To review, the model has four parts:
1. Identify a valued domain.
2. Show that the domain is threatened.
3. Establish a source of moral knowledge.
4. Appeal to the emotionally powerful concept of purity.

Okay.

Threats to Something Valued

Parts 1 and 2 go together. They’re answering the question, “What should we do, and why?” But there’s actually two ways this can work. One way is to focus on some entity that we care about, and a threat to that entity, like “We should protect wilderness because otherwise it will vanish to development and industry.” Another way, though, is to focus on some sort of behavior or activity that we think is desirable (or undesirable), and this behavior might be relevant to multiple domains. A good example is, “We should be vegetarians, because (a) we don’t want to hurt animals, and also we think eating plant-based foods is better for (b) the environment and (c) our own health.” (In fact, when people are vegetarians for moral reasons, research shows that they do tend to “recruit” more and more moral reasons that also matter to them, beyond whatever their initial reasons were.) However complex a moral argument becomes, though, the two basic parts always appear in moralization – something important, and a potential harm to it.

Authority: What’s Right?

Then comes 3: How do we know what to do, and whether we’re doing it right? One answer, of course, is to rely on whatever one’s traditions (religious, legal, community elders) say. Another answer is to defer to science, which makes sense when there’s hard evidence about causation, or at least about risk. When it comes to interpersonal matters, a good source of knowledge is empathic perspective-taking, trying to imagine the relevant thoughts and feelings either of the other people involved or of some credible role-model. What would Jesus, or the Dalai Lama, do? Sometimes direct personal experience is considered a good source of moral knowledge – when John Muir wanted to save Yosemite, he convinced Teddy Roosevelt to go camping there with him, and it worked. And of course, one’s own conscience can be a trusted guide to moral matters.

The Power of Purity

And now for 4, purity. There are several emotionally powerful ideas wrapped up in the concept of purity. Something that’s pure is in an ideal form, especially associated with origins – that is, sometimes it’s the way things are imagined to be before they became diluted or degraded or contaminated with other things (for example, the pure heart of a child, or the pure teachings passed along by the founder of a religious movement). It’s often seen as something’s true or best form (pure water, pure reason). The distance from a pure ideal can be experienced as a lack or need that motivates people to act. Purity is closely associated with the sacred, the transcendent, original conditions, and ultimates. Purity is also closely associated with the opposites of these things: things that are disgusting, reviled, demonic. Each of these ideas can be powerfully motivating, either as things to avoid or things to desire or protect.

Sacredness, in particular, is worth a bit more discussion, because the idea is much more broad than religion. A nation’s flag and historic monuments have a kind of “secular sacred” status, and deliberately damage to them can be seriously upsetting, as can deliberate or careless damage to a wilderness area or a coral reef. Even scientific discovery can be considered a sacred calling that shouldn’t be corrupted by the desire for fame or wealth. People are drawn to what they personally consider sacred and react poorly to its desecration, and people’s ideas of the sacred are strongly influenced by whichever authorities they most respect.

So when people are trying to inspire others to agree with them about the importance of a moral cause, purity has its own emotional impact, and it also reinforces the other three elements. A cause associated with purity is especially important – a threat to small children is perceived much more negatively than the same threat to adults. Purity-related language can highlight the nature of a threat (contamination, for example) – the pollution of pure spring water seems a greater loss than the pollution of everyday, ordinary water. Purity can function as an idealized standard, which becomes part of one’s moral knowledge, telling one how to act and when one is doing things right (coming closer to that standard). And finally, appealing to purity makes any issue simpler and easier to communicate – it becomes more of an either/or, black-and-white issue. It’s hard to argue with someone who believes that life (or anything else) is sacred, except to ask them to be consistent about it.

There’s another way that purity affects motivation, too, and that has to do with fitting things into categories. The anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote extensively about this aspect of purity. In many societies, sometimes including our own, there’s a drive towards creating systems of categories, where everything’s supposed to fit into a category so it can be understood and sometimes managed. We might think of this as a form of “conceptual purity.” Of course, there are always going to be exceptions, and the key issue is how people feel about these exceptions. Sometimes it can be really important to keep things distinct. An observant Jew might feel disgusted by the idea of a cheeseburger, which violates the dietary laws about the importance of keeping two things separate (meat and dairy) that are both fine on their own. Category “violations” can lead some people to feel uneasy and uncomfortable, whereas others might find the same things to be energizing and creative – think of examples in art, for example. Or drag queens.

For people who value having things in their proper categories, there can be a strong motivation to try to stifle and repress (or at a minimum, ignore) things that don’t fit. Those who actively prefer unconventionality, on the other hand, believe that strangeness and mixing things up can be important for societal flexibility and adaptation. And of course nobody’s going to be consistent about this all the time; someone in a “mixed” marriage, or someone who loves “fusion” cuisine, might prefer conventional art and music genres or want men and women to conform to traditional gender roles.

In sum, there are many to appeal to purity when trying to moralize a topic, but as the examples show, there’s a lot of variation in whether any given mention of purity will affect a particular person. It’s likely to depend on the issues the person already cares about, and the types of authority the person already respects, as well as personality differences in terms of comfort with categories vs. ambiguity. Being susceptible to the emotional power of purity seems to be a deep-seated and widespread phenomenon, though, and worthy of further research.

Next time, I’m planning to write about the much-publicized Moral Foundations Theory, and I’ll explain how it fits into my model. In other words: sex and politics. Stay tuned!

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Moralization: How we, as a society, decide what’s right and what’s wrong

Q: What do marine biologist Rachel Carson, civil rights activist Malcolm X, evangelist Jerry Falwell, and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler all have in common?
A. Each of them is, or was, an expert in moralization, the cultural process of changing people’s beliefs about right and wrong.

It seems to me that few topics are more essential to understanding how the world works than figuring out the processes underlying the great social movements of our time, whether we endorse the causes they’re promoting or abhor them. One of these processes is moralization. I’ve recently written a paper on the topic, and while it goes off to the journals for peer review, I’m planning to share the gist of it here.

How does moralization work? My model has four elements:
1. Identify a valued domain. This could be the integrity and well-being of our country, or human health, or wilderness protection – anything one might identify with, care about, and want to take action to protect.
2. Show that the domain is threatened and vulnerable to some form of harm or wrong.
3. Establish a source of moral knowledge that can tell us how to act in this context – how to do the right thing.
4. Appeal to the emotionally powerful concept of purity, both as a motivation to act and a standard to try to meet.

Let’s take a classic example: cigarette smoking.

For the past 20 years, I’ve been working on projects to improve the methods available to people who want to quit tobacco, and I’m fairly well acquainted with both the scientific literature and the ways people talk about their experiences with tobacco. One psychologist, Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, has done a lot of research on food and morality, and he’s also written a bit about the moralization of smoking, which is how I first learned about the concept.

Fifty years or so ago, smoking was considered a reasonable lifestyle choice – watch the old black-and-white classic films, and it’s pretty much taken for granted that cigarettes and glamour go hand in hand. About half of all American men, and a third of the women, were smokers. Then, of course, people started noticing the relationship between smoking and lung disease, and many people began trying to quit smoking, although the personal freedom of others not to quit was generally respected too. It wasn’t until second-hand smoke became a public health issue that moralization became commonplace. Now, practically everyone knows “you shouldn’t smoke,” or at least, “you shouldn’t smoke around others.”

Which domain is valued here? Human health.
What kind of harm or wrong is threatened? Death or major loss in quality of life, mostly; also people’s right to enjoy clean air.
How do we know what to do? Medical science is the primary authority referred to, but aesthetic factors (our immediate sensory reaction to being around tobacco) also play a part.

When purity comes into the picture, this is where it gets interesting. You can easily make a case that smoking is “wrong” or “bad” without ever talking about purity, but because the ideas associated with purity are so powerful, they inevitably get brought in anyway whenever people are trying to convince others to change their values.

One of the main ways to evoke purity in an argument is by setting it up as a standard and showing that conditions are actually the opposite: contaminated, dirty, disgusting. Smoking is now often described as a “filthy habit,” and indeed, the idea that innocent, helpless children were being exposed to carcinogens and other toxins was probably what most clinched the case against second-hand smoke. Then, as public policies expanded to forbid smoking in workplaces, restaurants, and even many outdoor locations, the moral associations of smoking have spread from the behavior itself to the people involved. A recent Canadian study interviewing current and ex-smokers described the way that smokers have become stigmatized, with such disapproval that a smoker can be shamed and made to feel like a “bad person,” and this experience is probably widespread throughout North America at a minimum.

Sometimes when purity appears in moral discussions it refers to the sacred. Since the authority behind arguments for tobacco control is the medical profession rather than religion, sacredness is unlikely to appear in anti-smoking campaigns. Its opposite, however, does make an appearance. On the home page of the QuitNet website, one of the most popular online quitting programs, visitors are invited to “Beat the Nicodemon at his own game.” Participants on our own ChewFree.com website, for smokeless tobacco users, described nicotine as a demon, a devil, and even a vampire. This kind of metaphor is essentially an “anti-sacredness,” with the same emotional punch as the sacred but in the opposite direction.

Yet another way that purity features in public discussions of smoking and tobacco use is in debates among health care professionals. One camp insists that the goal for every tobacco user should be complete abstinence, and that for doctors to accept any less is a betrayal of their responsibilities; the other camp contends that not everyone is willing or able to quit, and the goal should really be to optimize everyone’s health, regardless of whether or not they’re smoking. The second group might try to encourage people to cut back on their smoking, or to switch to a safer form of tobacco or a non-tobacco form of nicotine delivery. This “harm reduction” approach is the same general idea as a needle exchange for hardcore drug users – not everyone’s going to quit, but let’s at least help them be as healthy as possible anyway. If this controversy reminds you of the debate over teaching high school kids about safe sex vs. abstinence only, or the fat acceptance movement and the health at every size campaign, it should. They’re all examples of one side favoring a simple, purity-oriented standard, and the other maintaining that there’s more to be gained by taking a more complex and nuanced view of things.

In my next post on this topic, I think I’ll describe the four elements of my moralization model in greater depth. Later, I’m planning to write about other examples, like environmentalism, in-group loyalty, and even genocide, which relies on the very same types of moral arguments. Or let me know what you’d like to hear more about!

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Coming soon!

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? In my earlier posts, I was mostly sharing my dissertation, which was about metanarratives, the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about our societies and the world we live in.

Next up, I want to share my current writing project, which is on moral psychology. Most moral psychologists have focused on questions of how we know right from wrong, the types of thoughts and feelings we take into account when making moral judgments. My research, though, is on the “moralization process” – how do we, as a society, change each other’s minds about what’s right and wrong? I argue that there’s a simple model of moralization that applies to a wide variety of domains across the political spectrum, from reproductive morality to environmentalism to health-related behaviors like eating, drinking, and smoking. I even tie in my research on genocide, which its perpetrators also justify with moral arguments.

Look for more on this topic later this week!

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The paradox: Evoking progress to avert disaster

As responsible citizens who keep up on current events, we are all familiar with problems that need our attention and action. Whether each of us is a liberal or conservative, mainstream or following topics few others seem to care about, we can all list ways in which the world has been going downhill, or seems to be resting on the brink of a precipice.

Here’s the trick. We can certainly all go out and cast a ballot, or even sit in a protest, to reject something, whether it’s a tax or a policy or a vision for the future that we don’t want. But if the changes we need to make to avoid or reverse a really big crisis are going to require a sustained effort, maybe even upending our whole lifestyle, then we’ve got a real problem. It’s not that people won’t accept big changes for the common good – they will. The problem is that people don’t want to organize their lives around avoiding disaster.

As my research has shown, when people’s beliefs about the world are oriented positively, with aspirations towards progress or towards restoring some desirable aspect of the past, they are relatively willing to make lifestyle choices that match these beliefs, such as career choices, spending, leisure time, social connections, and media exposure. When people’s beliefs about the world are oriented towards threats or loss, however, such as a looming catastrophe, their lifestyle choices don’t reflect these beliefs (although their voting decisions may).

It’s the same kind of behavior pattern that shows up in health contexts, which researchers refer to as “gain framing” and “loss framing.” Loss-framed messages (those that focus on things that might go wrong) are generally more effective at getting people to take simple actions, like undergoing screening to detect a disease, but gain-framed messages (focusing on the benefits of prevention) are better at getting people to make ongoing changes in their lifestyles.

How, though? Let’s take the case of global warming. Suppose we believe that climate change has already begun and that it’s going to get increasingly worse, with impacts on natural ecosystems and vulnerable human communities worldwide. Suppose we believe, too, that most individuals, especially in the more prosperous countries, need to start making different choices. How can we possibly put a positive spin on this?

The key is that whenever lifestyle choices are involved, we need to make it possible that “building” and “creating” and “growing” – positively framed activities – can be the ones that will address the problem. People want to build, create, and grow. We can build a more energy-efficient economy. We can create better technologies. We can grow new, more sensitive connections between ourselves and the natural world. We can also heal, repair, and renew, although these more nurturing activities may not be as inspiring to those who like action, and action-oriented people’s energies are important and worth encouraging. In other words, let’s talk about global warming as a creative challenge, not a looming crisis.

Another way to get people thinking positively – while still acting constructively – in the context of global warming has been suggested by my friend and former fellow student Ezra Markowitz, now a researcher in a Princeton think tank. Global climate change tends to make us feel guilty, since our past habits may well have caused or contributed to the problem, and of course the “looming catastrophe” frame can create a lot of anxiety on behalf of our own future and the world we’re leaving to our children and grandchildren. Ezra’s research suggests that people would be better motivated through positive emotions, like hope, pride, and gratitude. Hope and pride, in particular, would fit well with an orientation towards building and creativity.

Finally, in this context as in every other, all-or-nothing thinking creates problems of its own. Let’s bear in mind that at least for now, it’s not “too late” – “too late” conveniently excuses us for both laziness and irresponsibility. As science blogger Kat Friedrich writes, let’s “salvage the situation as best we can.” After all, ethical living is a matter of process; results are never guaranteed, but doing our reasonable best might actually help.

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“And just how do we go about changing the world, anyway?”: World Beliefs Survey, part three

Which types of beliefs about our world will motivate us to act? This question was at the heart of my dissertation research, and the answers are very important for those of us who care about the “big picture” and wonder how we can possibly be effective as citizens or advocates.

If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that my study was about “metanarratives,” beliefs about the nature of our societies and our roles in the world that can be encapsulated into very brief statements, along the lines of “We used to live in harmony with nature but now we don’t,” or “If we don’t watch out, illegal aliens and freeloaders will destroy our way of life.” In my first post, I reported about the relationships between broad metanarrative themes and personal characteristics, like political affiliations and gender. In my second post, I wrote about the types of narrative elements (storylike features) in metanarratives, which included goals, techniques for creating a special focus, and especially the “genre” of the metanarrative, a kind of evaluative gist of how things are going over time, like “progress” or a “looming catastrophe.”

Translating Beliefs into Actions

For me, the big question in my dissertation was whether these narrative elements might be related to the degree that people are acting consistently with their metanarrative beliefs in their daily lives. For example, are Progress beliefs more motivating than Stability beliefs? Do Looming Catastrophes get us moving, or do we just give up?

To address these question, I had the survey software randomly identify, for each person, four of the metanarrative beliefs that they said they agreed strongly with, and then ask them how much this belief was reflected in their life for each of these categories of action:
• choice of career
• use of leisure time (like volunteering)
• spending money
• voting
• joining groups (like clubs or religious organizations)
• things one reads or watches
• things one talks or writes about

Honestly, there were a lot of metanarratives in the survey for which I thought some of these options made no sense. Career choice, especially – we can’t all be activists, politicians, soldiers, diplomats, and the like. Nevertheless, it turned out that people really did think their beliefs were reflected in each of these categories for each of the metanarratives. There were differences, though. The responses that people made for voting were often quite different from the others (“uncorrelated”), and the others all tended to go together (“correlated”). In my analyses, I decided to look at them separately, as voting vs. lifestyle choices.

How Belief Genres Influence Action

Combining the activity information from the survey with the metanarrative coding I described last time, we get several key results:

(1) Metanarratives that belonged to genres with a sense of suspense were more likely to inspire action than those that did not. By “sense of suspense,” I mean that there was an ongoing problem with no resolution yet, and people might take two possible paths, which could resolve the problem or not.  These genres were Progress, Looming Catastrophe, Restoration, and even Prior Fall. The less inspiring ones were Stability, Triumphalist, and Romantic Saga. (Check out the prior post for definitions of those genres, if you’re wondering.)

(2) When people strongly believe in metanarratives about future improvements (Progress and Restoration), they’re more likely to make lifestyle choices consistent with those beliefs.

(3) When people strongly believe in metanarratives about declines, threats, and losses (Looming Catastrophe and Prior Fall), they’re less likely to organize their lives around the beliefs, but the beliefs are more strongly associated with deciding how to vote.

(4) And finally, it was also interesting to see that the older respondents (the web sample) were more likely to act consistently with beliefs that had a more historical reference (Restoration and Prior Fall) than were the students, who were more inspired by those that just referenced the future (Progress, Looming Catastrophe).

Caveats: If the survey were longer and included more metanarratives, then I could make these claims even more strongly… but the survey was plenty long as it was. Also, some metanarratives are clearly more easy to act consistently with in one’s personal life than others, and it’s possible that this could confound the finding about genres, if the easier or harder ones tended to group together in the same genres, but I don’t think that’s the case. And finally, for this part of the study I was again focusing on the data for the lifelong U.S. residents, and Americans have historically tended to be more optimistic about progress and being able to “change the world” than people from many other countries. Anyway…

What Does This Mean?

Any time in politics or social movements that someone makes a case that we should care about an issue, there will inevitably be a metanarrative somewhere in their message, telling us about potential directions and consequences, but their choice of metanarrative – the type of framing they use – could make a big difference in how or whether people will take action. In particular, this study shows that when it comes to the big issues, people would rather organize their lives around making improvements, not averting threats or staying put.

And that means if we think that individuals’ lifestyle choices are an important part of addressing global climate change (or any other big problem), we ought to stop talking about avoiding disaster (catastrophe) or even sustainability (stability). Rather, we should be finding ways to describe our changes as progress or restoration. What could this look like? Maybe we should focus on energy efficiency as a key indicator of progress, a sign that we’re becoming more responsible citizens of the Earth. And maybe healthy, simpler lifestyles could be described as regaining our ability to live compatibly with other species.

Bottom line: If we want people to act consistently with their beliefs about the world, we’ll be more effective if we stop talking about what we might lose. Instead, let’s make a point to stress all that we have to gain.

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