Monday, February 21, 2011

Haidt at VMI

Jonathan Haidt spoke at VMI today about hive psychology. As I understood him, and as I recall, here's what he said:

Why does selflessness occur?

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James describes conversion experiences in which people lose their sense of ego and want to give their lives to God. Emerson describes a similar-sounding loss of egotism and sense of oneness with God brought about by being in a forest. Others have supposedly similar "peak experiences" in all kinds of circumstances, or at least in a variety of places. Warriors sometimes lose their sense of individual identity, as J. Glenn Gray reports. Soldiers marching in formation, dancers at raves, people engaged in religious rituals, people who work for the same company and exercise together, crowds at sporting events, and others, all supposedly feel a similar sense of oneness with the group.

Haidt sees this as connected with religion, ethics, and politics. He also regards human beings as the only species to have found a way to fake the hive mentality that comes naturally to ants and bees, in which the individual is little more than an organ of the larger body that is the group. In humans, though, some degree of self-interest, if perhaps only in some members of the group, always remains. Self-interest has obvious survival value, but members of a group might increase their chances of survival if some are prepared to sacrifice for the good of all. So hive psychology makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. And that's why selflessness occurs.

A good leader, then, will do things that create a sense of membership in a group, a sense of all for one and one for all. Charisma helps, and being seen to be trustworthy and loyal to the group, prepared to make sacrifices on its behalf, is helpful also. But so can be less obvious things, like getting the people you want to follow you to exercise or dance together.

All this seemed to me to be interesting and very relevant to VMI, which is kind of like one big hive. But there is a lot going on here, about religion, ethics, politics, psychology, and biology. What does it all really mean?

I have no quarrel with the leadership lessons Haidt draws. These strike me as an empirical matter--if you can get workers to work better by having them exercise together then it might be good business to do so. Haidt said nothing about the ethics of doing so, and whether it works or not is something a philosopher cannot answer.

In terms of religion, I think we get little insight from all this. Maybe religion has survival value, maybe not. If it does, this doesn't tell us much about what religion is, whether (any of) it's true or not, etc. Nor does anything about ethics seem to follow.

Where there might be an interesting moral to draw is in connection with politics. The hive mentality seems best suited to rather simplistic or non-rational kinds of belief. Hives, like crowds and mobs, don't handle nuance very well. "Yes we can!" and "Drill, baby, drill!" can be chanted, but more sophisticated ideas don't fit the hive mentality. Hence the absurdity of one of my favorite pieces of graffiti: "War in the Gulf? Think it through, then act." It's hard to argue with the reasonableness of the last part of this, but it doesn't seem slogan-y enough for graffiti. It might be the very reasonableness, the intellectual sophistication that comes from wanting to track the truth, that makes liberals (here used in the Enlightenment sense, not as a euphemism for the left) unpopular with the hive-minded. Hence perhaps the lack of anything equivalent to Fox News for liberals. You could  have something like a Stalinist version of Fox News, but there's no market for it.* And maybe a hive-ish liberalism is somehow a contradiction in terms.

Maybe none of this goes much beyond Plato's political psychology, but Haidt has some interesting data, and maybe more than just that.  

*UPDATE: If this makes it sound as though I think Obama is a Stalinist of some kind, then I have expressed myself badly. To paraphrase Augustine: What, then, do I mean? So long as no one asks me then I know. But if someone asks me to explain it, then I don't know.


  1. I thought the reason that there's no equivalent of Fox News for liberals is because the media at large is by and for liberals already...

    I sympathize with your "what does it all really mean?" I see Haidt as raising questions, making connections (or showing where we might connect psychological research with other things we care about). It's up to others (I take it) to decide what to do with all of this means, or how to "use" these findings, etc.

  2. Right. I've had people say that to my face about all other news shows being for liberals. It seems to be said as a joke, but one that is somehow supposed to contain a truth. I've also seen people write it on Facebook, and they don't sound like they're kidding at all. It's bizarre.

    In his talk today Haidt seemed to be mostly inclined to find lessons about leadership, but I imagine that's because of his audience. He was speaking at the Center for Leadership and Ethics, after all. He also seemed as much interested in learning from the cadets as he was in teaching them anything. It seemed that this was genuine, rather than buttering up the crowd. But the end impression was of an entertaining presentation of a set of interesting facts. That's fine with me, but I sensed that he thought he was onto something new and big. Maybe what that is will be made clear by others. He's also working on this stuff now, so he might just not have reached final conclusions yet. He's a great speaker anyway.