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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates and heretical counterfactuals

The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates and heretical counterfactuals | Jennifer S. Lerner

"Research on social cognition ultimately rests on functionalist assumptions about what people are trying to accomplish when they judge events or make choices. The most influential of these as sumptions have been the intuitive scientist and the intuitive economist... Good intuitive scientists and economists look for the most useful cues in the environment for generating accurate predictions and making satisfying decisions and quickly abandon hypotheses that do not “pan out”. Rigidity is maladaptive within both frameworks.

In this article, we explore the empirical implications of an underexplored starting point for inquiry: the notion that, in many contexts, people are striving to achieve neither epistemic nor utilitarian goals, but rather, as prominent historical sociologists have argued (Bell, 1976), are struggling to protect sacred values from secular encroachments by increasingly powerful societal trends toward market capitalism (and the attendant pressure to render everything fungible) and scientific naturalism (and the attendant pressure to pursue inquiry wherever it logically leads). A sacred value can be defined as any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs, or indeed any other mingling with bounded or secular values...

* - Sacred values are often ultimately religious in character, but they need not have divine sanction (hence our hybrid designation of the functionalist metaphor as moralist-theologian). Sacred values can range hoist fundamentalists' faith in God to the liberal-social democratic dogma of racial equality to the radical libertarian commitmnent to the autonomy of the individual. Although the theoretical framework proposed here dues not differentiate sacred values with or without divine mandate, many writers, from Samuel Johnson to Fyodor Dostoevsky to T. S. Eliot, have drawn sharp distinctions here and have even suggested that only sacred values anchored in faith in God can sustain genuine moral outrage and cleansing. To paraphrase Dostoevsky, if there were no God, no act, not even cannibalism, would be forbidden...

The most emphatic ways to distance oneself from normative transgressions are by (a) expressing moral outrage—a composite psychological state that subsumes cognitive reactions (harsh character attributions to those who endorse the proscribed thoughts and even to those who do not endorse, but do tolerare, this way of thinking in others), affective reactions (anger and contempt for those who endorse the proscribed thoughts), and behavioral reactions (support for ostracizing and punishing deviant thinkers); and (b) engaging in moral cleansing that reaffirms core values and loyalties by acting in ways that shore up those aspects of the moral order that have been undercut by the transgression. Within this framework, rigidity, accompanied by righteous indignation and by blanket refusal even to contemplate certain thoughts, can be commendable—indeed, it is essential for resolutely reasserting the identification of self with the collective moral order (cf. Durkheim, 1925/1976). What looks irrationally obdurate within the intuitive scientist and economist research programs can often be plausibly construed as the principled defense of sacred values within the moralist—theologian research program (Tetlock, 1999)...

Fiske and Tetlock (1997) documented that, in most cultures, people are chronic “companmentalizers” who deem some trade-offs legitimate (goods and services routinely subject to market-pricing rules) but vehemently reject others—in particular, those that treat “sacred values” like honor, love, justice, and life as fungible.

This sharp resistance is rooted, in part, in the familiar incommensurability problem. Decision theorists have long stressed that people find interdimensional comparisons cognitively difficult and resort to noncompensatory choice heuristics such as elimination by-aspects to avoid them (Payne, Bettman, & )ohnson, 1992). The moralist—theologian framework, however, treats this explanation as incomplete. Apple—orange comparisons are difficult, but people often make them when they go to the supermarket. Moreover, people do not find it shameful to make trade-offs between money and consumption goods. The moralist—theologian framework traces opposition to reducing all values to a single utility metric to a deeper, more intractable form of incommensurability: constitutive incommensurability, a pivotal concept in modern moral philosophy (Raz, 1986) as well as in classic sociological theory...

Relying on error-prone heuristics is not the only pathway to base-rate neglect. In many contexts, accuracy is neither the only nor even the primary standard for evaluating quality of judgment. A classic example is the U.S. legal system in which procedural justice trumps judgmental accuracy whenever, as often occurs, diagnostic evidence is excluded from trial, indeed, in exactly this vein, prominent legal theonsts have proposed that base-rate evidence is fundamentally inconsistent with the legal ideal of individual justice and should be categorically excluded (Tribe, 1971).

Forbidden base rates refer to any statistical generalization that devoted Bayesians would not hesitate to enter into their probability calculations but that deeply offends a religious or political community. The primary obstacle to using the putatively relevant base rate is not cognitive, but moral. In a society committed to racial, ethnic, and gender egalitarianism, forbidden base rates include observations bearing on the dispropottionately high crime rates and low educational test scores of certain categories of human beings. Putting the accuracy and interpretation of such generalizations to the side, people who use these base rates in judging individuals are less likely to be applauded for their skills as good intuitive statisticians than they are to be condemned for their racial and gender insensitivity...

Particularly irksome are counterfactuals that apply normal laws of human nature and of physical causality to heroic founders of the movement. Consider the reaction of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Salmon Rushdie’s heretical counterfactual in Satanic Verses that invited readers to imagine that the Prophet Mohammed kept the company of prostitutes. For this transgression, the theocratic regime in Iran sentenced Rushilie to death (the ultimate expression of moral outrage).

Within the Christian faith in the modem era. such theological ferocity is rare, but it is not difficult to identify counterfactuals that strike the faithful as bizarre or repugnant... From a secular point of view, though, such counterfactuals are eminently reasonable. They introduce schematic chains of causal propositions—in Abelson’s (1981) terms, “scripts”—that virtually all of us apply reflexively in everyday life to a text that many of us deem divinely inspired...

Building on Durkheim’s (1925/1976) classic observations of how people respond to affronts to the collective conscience that disturb the normative equilibrium of society, the SVPM predicts that when observers believe that decision makers have entertained proscribed thoughts. they will respond with moral outrage, which has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components: lower thresholds for making harsh dispositional attributions to norm violators: anger, contempt, and even disgust toward violators; and enthusiastic support for both norm enforcement (punishing violators) and metanorm enforcement (punishing those who shirk the burdensome chore of punishing deviants; cf. Coleman. 1991). Pursuing the logic of constitutive incommensurability (to compare is to destroy), the model also postulates that the longer observers believe that decision makers contemplated compromising sacred values, even if they ultimately do the right thing and support sacred values, the more intense the outrage they direct at those decision makers...

In Experiment I, we explored the reactions of a broad spectrum of political activists to routine or secular—secular trade-offs (money for goods and services legally exchanged in the market economy of late 20th century America) and taboo or secular—sacred trade-offs (money for goods and services that cannot legally be bought or sold in late twentieth century America... Free-market libertarians should be most inclined to allow individuals to enter into whatever contractual understanding they wish—be it buying or selling lettuce or votes, newspapers or body organs, or future options for commodities or adoption rights for children. Their wrath will be reserved for those meddlesome souls who invent moral externalities (adverse effects on third parties) designed to justify constratnirtg consenting adults from making trade-offs and agreements that each contracting party agrees leaves him or her better off. By contrast, Marxists will be most offended. They will object not only to proposais to render sacred values fungible, but even to the exploitative character of many routine market transactions in Amcrican society. Finally, in the broad middle of American political spectrum, there should be consider... Liberals may object that market pricing of medical and legal services effectively assigns dollar values to life and justice, whereas conservatives may view such transactions with casual equanimity...

Why are some trade-offs regarded as so routme that people are baffled that anyone should even bother to ask about them whereas other trade-offs are so controversial that people react with scorn to the mere posing of the question? It explains little just to invoke ‘culture and socia1ization’... Outrage dissipates only within the rarefied ideological subculture of the libertarian movement whose members share a commitment to free choice within competitive markets. It is worth stressing, though. thai libertarians are capable of outrage. Free-response data suggested that their wrath was largely reserved, however for moral busy bodies who are forever inventing injuries to third parties that justify new regulatory restraints...

In Experiment 3. we examined Observers’ reactions to decision makers who used base rates that either did or did not turn out to be correlated with the racial composition of neighborhoods. The hypotheses included: (a) the symbolic antiracism hypothesis, that people would regard actuarial risk as a legitimate rationale for price discrimination in setting insurance premiums only when the correlation between actuarial risk and racial mix of neighborhoods is not mentioned. When the correlation is highlighted, people—especially liberals—will vehemently reject race-tainted base rates and invoke multiple grounds for rejecting them (a variant of the defensive-overkill hypothesis); (b) the covert-racism hypothesis, that conservatives would deviate from this trend and seize on the base rates as justification for charging steep premiums to a long standing target of prejudice in American society: Blacks...

To examine the impact of the ‘White-tainted” base rate, an ANOVA contrasted that condition against the "Black-tainted” condition. As predicted by the symbolic antiracism hypothesis, liberals exposed to the Black-tainted as opposed to the White-tainted base rate were more likely to agree that the executive should sell insurance for the same price across zones, F(1,37) = 5.88, p < .05. In addition, liberals exposed to the Black-tainted base rate were less likely to agree that the executive should charge higher premiums in the high-risk zones, F(l,37) = 7.42, p = .01. To test the blatant—racism hypothesis (that conservatives would support more egalitarian pricing when the high-risk zones turn out to be populated by whites) the same contrasts were performed, but they revealed no effects on any dependent measure.

[Ed: Translation: liberals are okay with discriminating against white people, but not black people, on the basis of base-rates. In other words, liberals are racist, but conservatives are not. This is a lot more revealing than the Implicit Association Test (IAT)]

... For many respondents. the use of base rates raised disturbing moral issues rather than tricky statistical issues. Permissible base rates in a race-neutral context were morally foreclosed in a race-contaminated context. These effects were driven largely by the insistence of liberals that base rates became ‘off limits’ once the linkage with race was revealed. Their overriding concern was to ensure thai a group that had historically suffered from discriminatory practices (and arguably may still be so suffering) would not, once again, be victimized. The opposite effect, using base rates to justify harsh reactions to Blacks, did not materialize at all in Experiment 3, even among the most conservative, and materialized only among a small minority of conservatives in Experiment 4. This “dog-that-did-not-bark” is contrary to the prediction of theories of racial policy reasoning that depict many, even most, Americans as covert or symbolic racists who are quick to seize on pretexts for denying opportunities to Blacks (cf. Sniderman & Piazza, 1993). Indeed, the pattern is more consistent with a view of liberals as “symbolic antiracists” (who change their views about the acceptability of inequality as soon as it implicates historically oppressed groups) than it is of conservatives as symbolic racists (who are always looking for justifications for thwarting the aspirations of oppressed groups)."
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