Last weekend Mark and I took our three youngest children to see the new Pixar movie Inside Out. Without spoiling too much, the movie is an imaginative look inside the human mind: a landscape of "islands of personality," deep chasms of the subconscious, rows of storage banks, and the like; linked by somewhat a somewhat unpredictable "train of thought" on a track that is laid down as it chugs from place to place. "Headquarters" in the human mind in question (an 11-year-old girl) is occupied not by any kind of rational thinking -- that's represented only by the train, I think -- but by five anthropomorphic emotions. They are Joy, Disgust, Fear, Anger, and Sadness. They sometimes work together and sometimes squabble for control, but the movie's theme is to elucidate that each one of them has a vital job to do to protect the host mind. Rejecting one of them as a troublemaker nearly has terrible consequences.
The themes and imagery of Inside Out meshed well with a book that Mark and I read recently on our last driving trip. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt is also a peek inside the human mind, the tasks of which he divides up into metaphorical "workers" in a way that is a bit similar to Pixar's five anthropomorphic emotions -- but on several levels.
The first division is into two different kinds of cognition which we use to make judgments -- the controlled cognition of language-based reasoning, and the automatic cognition of rapid response to pattern recognition. Haidt pictured these as a rational "rider" on the back of an intuitive "elephant." (We have met the rider and the elephant before -- the metaphor was co-opted by Chip and Dan Heath in the book Switch, about which I blogged a few years ago.) Haidt marshals evidence from psychological experiments to argue that our moral and ethical judgments -- our philosophies of life and of right and wrong -- and in fact a lot of our daily decisions -- are mostly governed by the big, powerful elephant. Then, our rational mind -- the rider -- leaps into action with a post hoc rationalization of what we have already started to decide.
This isn't an argument that our "emotions" are more important than our "cognition." What was new to me was the understanding that intuitive leaps are a kind of cognition -- just one that operates outside of our conscious control. To appreciate the power and the importance of such unconscious judgments -- to give them the respect they deserve alongside reason -- consider the example of visual processing. We do not have to reason to discover patterns in the photons that are projected onto our retinal tissue and then to extract useful information from them. We simply see, automatically, like any higher mammal, and our elephant-brain handles the intepretation most of the time without bothering our rider-brain.
Visual processing is obviously cognition -- a constant work of pattern identification, coupled to evolved snap judgments that prepare us to respond appropriately to the patterns in a variety of physical environments. Haidt argues that our moral processing, also taking place largely at this subconscious level, is a kind of cognition that uses pattern recognition to make rapid "snap judgments" that prepare us (often by means of emotions) to respond appropriately to patterns in a variety of social environments.
Evolutionarily speaking, the elephant has been around for a long time; we are the descendants of many, many generations of organisms, reaching back beyond primate history, whose elephants kept them alive. The intuition which the elephant represents is the process by which "a judgment, solution, or other conclusion appears suddenly and effortlessly in consciousness without any awareness by the person of the mental processes that led to the outcome." It is the kind of cognition that all mammals have -- including primates like ourselves. And evolution has sharpened it into something exceedingly well designed.
I found this concept really thought-provoking. I have been as guilty as anyone of arguing that someone-or-other comes to a faulty conclusion because of "emotion-based reasoning." If someone cannot articulate a logical reason for his or her judgments, I have been inclined to dismiss them out of hand. Having read Haidt's book, and grasped the analogy to visual processing, I am now somewhat more open-minded about the value of intuitive judgments. They are not always correct -- just as vision is not always correct and can be fooled in unusual or artificial physical environments (remember the ambiguously photographed dress? or any well-crafted optical illusion?). But they are powerful, and can handle a huge amount of information without taxing our resources. Anyone who has tried to work with visual recognition software has to come away with a renewed respect for what the human mind can process without our conscious help. So we should probably also grant some respect to other kinds of automatic judgments, while appreciating their limitations in a world that is sometimes different from the one our intuitions evolved to expect.
Haidt argues that "the rider evolved to be useful to the elephant." The rider, who represents language-based reasoning, is a human thing; if other primates have one, it isn't very far along. The rider is capable of long-term forecasts, of mastering new skills and technologies, and -- crucially -- of "fabricating post-hoc rationalizations" to explain, supposedly, why the mind came to the decisions and judgments that it did. No matter who we are -- educated or uneducated, Eastern or Western, liberal or conservative -- many of our judgments and decisions occur very rapidly at the intuitive level, and then we take time to tell ourselves a fairy tale in which we came to those decisions through a process of conscious, logical reasoning. This is kind of a disturbing notion if you value (or think you value) logic and reason. But Haidt gives plenty of examples of psychological laboratory experiments that appear, over and over again, to demonstrate that the elephant acts first, the rider justifies afterward.
So what's so useful about this? Well, we live in societies, in networks of relationships. Humans are distinguished by language-based reasoning because we use that language to influence each other. Our post-hoc rationalizations are articulated in order to convince other people. What's funny about this is that the riders do not appear to speak most effectively to other people's riders -- rather, it's the elephants who are listening! We do hear or read people's arguments, and the argument itself becomes part of the whole pattern that our automatic cognitive processes take in and rapidly judge. We take into account our snap judgments about the deliverer of the message -- do we know him? trust him? is he one of us? -- as well as the elephant's particular "buttons" that the other rider has managed to push with the content of his message.
And then -- after we have made a rapid unconscious judgment about the message -- our own rider takes over, and explains our judgment to ourselves with that post-hoc reasoning -- all the better to justify ourselves to some other person's elephant. It turns out -- and this is also supported by some of the psychological experiments detailed in the book -- that the main benefit that we unconsciously seek, in telling our stories to other riders, is actually to make ourselves look good -- to protect our status in the network of relationships to which we belong. The collective outcome of all this post-hoc rationalization influencing other people's snap judgments which in turn create more post-hoc rationalization is -- well -- human society. And we might be better able to understand ourselves, and each other, if we appreciate the roles that both rider and elephant play in the human mind, and let them do the jobs that they are both well-suited for.
Haidt does not stop at this two-fold model of human cognition, but digs a little bit deeper into the "elephant." He identifies six distinct adaptive elements of the automatic cognitive processes -- a couple of which correspond closely enough to some of Pixar's anthropomorphic emotions that I have to wonder if the screenwriters were familiar with Haidt's own influences. Like each of the the five emotions in Inside Out, each of the six elements has its own particular "job" -- navigating a particular social challenge that was encountered over the millennia of primate and human evolution.
Haidt argues that our moral judgments stem from our own particular combination of these six elements, whicb he calls "moral foundations." I will pick these up in a future post.