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Who’s to Blame for Disagreement? An Interview with John Hibbing

Beyond Dislike: Viewing the Other Party as a ‘Threat to the Nation’s Well-Being’John Hibbing and Kevin Smith co-direct the Political Physiology Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Their recent article in Trends in Cognitive Science concludes: “Although many people want to believe that their positions on moral, religious, and political issues are the product of rational, conscious thought, the reality is that subthreshold, biologically instantiated predispositions shape all human attitudes, leading people to rationalize their positions and actions.” John generously allowed me to interview him about it:

Chris: John, first tell us about you. What got you interested in the relationship between biology and political science?
John: I was trained as a traditional political scientist and studied Congress, elections, and public attitudes, but I increasingly came to the conclusion that surveys (in which people report their own perceptions) do not reveal everything, since humans are notoriously bad at understanding themselves. Thus I became interested in techniques that would help us understand the human condition, especially as it relates to politics, without forcing people to try to explain themselves.

The lab you co-direct with Kevin Smith is unique. What kinds of journals and departments, if any, should develop elsewhere to confirm or expand your findings?
Our lab was probably the first of its kind in a political science department, but, for some time, psychologists, neuroscientists, and behavioral geneticists have been probing the extent to which political orientations mesh with non-political aspects of our person. There is a gradually growing core of people–mostly psychologists–expanding and confirming our findings. A good indication of this was a piece we recently published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences that attracted 26 commentaries.

You have been studying the role of biological factors in explaining political variation for 20 years, and the law that all human behavioral traits are heritable has been known for well over a decade. How, then, does your work in Trends in Cognitive Science qualify as a “trend”?
I’m not sure. The editors from Trends in Cognitive Science asked us to submit that piece, so they must have thought there would be interest. There is more attention to the politics-biology connection now than there was 10-20 years ago, and I think it is only going to grow.

After acknowledging that twin studies consistently find political orientation to be strongly heritable, your article highlighted research on the particular gene DRD4. Why bother studying particular genes?
In terms of understanding the pathways through which biology affects politics, it would be quite useful to know the particular genes involved because that would indicate where in the brain to look. DRD4, for example, directs attention to the dopamine reward system.

What would it cost to identify the particular genes that make behavior heritable, and who would fund such research?
It is not that expensive these days to genotype people. The problem is that, to do the research properly, you need sample sizes of many, many thousands, and that can be a problem, especially when it is not common to collect political data along with the DNA. Our lab has moved away from doing candidate gene association studies because there is so much more to biology than just the DNA nucleotide sequence. For example, many environmental experiences can eventually become instantiated in our biological characteristics, so it is important for readers to realize that biology does not have to be genetic [to be immutable].

You also wrote about measuring biological underpinnings using EEG, the technology behind neurogaming. Does this imply that one might use a neurogaming headset to identify environments, such as particular workplaces, which are more or less likely to overwrite one’s values?
We do know that experiences, such as driving a taxi in London, can alter certain areas on the brain…

Beyond Dislike: Viewing the Other Party as a ‘Threat to the Nation’s Well-Being’The Pew Center recently reported that 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans in the U.S. see the opposing party as a threat to the nation’s well-being. How should they act on their beliefs, given the evidence that the disagreement stems from biological diversity?
Research by Shanto Iyengar shows that political differences are increasingly a reason for bias–people are more likely today than a few decades ago to say it would bother them to have their child marry someone with opposing political beliefs–while most other traits and factors (e.g., sexual orientation) are decreasingly a reason for bias. So the problem is real.

Our basic pitch is that, if people recognize that that their political opponents experience the world differently from a cognitive and physiological point of view, it should make them more tolerant of political differences, just as we became more tolerant when we found out that mental disabilities, left-handedness, and sexual orientation had biological bases. People should be less proud of their own beliefs, because hubris is a big reason we have the gridlock and terrorism that we do.

Lamenting terrorism, failed policy initiatives, and ruined family reunions, you wrote that research findings suggest a need to revise traditional views of political opinion. Care to elaborate?
Quit calling them names and thinking that they will “come around” when persuasive arguments are made. Compromise needs to be stressed more and deliberation needs to be stressed less.

 

The imperative for compromise is John’s big message. We spoke at length about how compromise might be determined, but ended up with unanswered questions. John’s insight that humans are bad at understanding themselves is demonstrated by his experiment in which the average conservative and liberal claim to have the same reactions to pictures of dead animals, but brain scans of those reactions reveal differences significant enough to identify political orientation. We also discussed evidence that genetic and self-report measures correspond differently at different ages. The average person seems to spend 20-50 years shifting his/her self-report, but efforts to mold the young tend to unravel, leaving us ultimately aligned with the diverse orientations we inherited at birth. John wanted to emphasize that schemes to control politics through genetic engineering oversimplify the way genes work. Many different genes interact, and they interact with major life events, including social reforms. His discoveries are tools less for social engineering than for giving politicians the same reverent respect for societies that medical doctors have gained for the human body.

To learn more about John and Kevin’s research, buy their book, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, coauthored with John Alford from Rice University.

Evaluativism and the Neurodiversity Movement

The rainbow-colored infinity symbol represents the neurodiversity movement

What do you call it when someone discriminates on the basis of evaluative diversity? For a long time, I didn’t know there was a word for it, but it turns out to be “evaluativism.” In his essay defending evaluativism, Hartry Field offered the following example:

…in dealing with a follower of the Reverend Moon, we may find that too little is shared for a neutral evaluation of anything to be possible, and we may have no interest in the evaluations that the Moonie gives.

In other words, an evaluativist is someone who disregards or avoids people with whom they have disagreements grounded in evaluative differences (and Field’s example is one in which many of us would behave as evaluativists).

Yet much significant research about evaluativism seems unaware of this term. As examples:

To put it bluntly, we engage in evaluativism a lot and without realizing or naming it. Evaluativism is out of control. Where is the movement to fix it? It might have begun with the GRINfree website, or it might have begun with the neurodiversity movement.

The neurodiversity movement grew from the autism movement of the 1990s, especially from Jim Sinclairs’s essay, Don’t Mourn for Us, in which he pointed-out that autism is part of one’s identity, so a parent who wishes their child were not autistic effectively wishes that child were replaced. This sounds remarkably like evaluativism, where a mother wishes her son had not joined that church, or had not fallen in love with that girl, or become a liberal, or become a conservative, or become a materialist. To wish this is to reject the son’s identity, and the son may reciprocate. They may each disown aspects of the other by declaring topics like religion and politics “off the table” between them.

The neurodiversity movement, however, seems to be far ahead of the evaluativism movement. It has a logo (see above), a manifesto (the Holist Manifesto), a national symposium, a host of petitions (including for a neurodiverse doll, for special school districts, and for neurodiverse Disney characters), Thomas Armstrong’s book, The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain, and even a course at the College of William & Mary (Interdisciplinary Studies 490: Neurodiversity).

Yet where does the scope of the neurodiversity movement end? It is called “neurodiversity” because it includes differences labeled “dyspraxia, dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyscalculia, autistic spectrum, Tourette syndrome, and others.“ What are the others?  Does the neurodiversity movement even include advocating for more regard between liberals, conservatives, and highly sensitive persons (political orientations do correlate to brain features, as does emotional sensitivity)?

Drawing a line is a problem for the neurodiversity movement because a line would force people to get diagnoses and wear labels. The better solution is for society to appreciate the distinctions observed in individuals even before diagnosis. In other words, appreciate people for who they are, rather than for the labels they wear. But to advocate for that kind of appreciation would be to fight evaluativism.

For example, in an analysis of whether it makes more sense to label people with “Asperger syndrome” and “high-functioning autism” as disabled or to treat them merely as different, Simon Baron-Cohen pointed out that the observable differences that lead to labeling are merely how the person chooses to spend their time, their interests, what they think is relevant and important, what kinds of experiences they prefer, and how easily they are influenced by others. In other words, the differences are all evaluative. Until diagnoses are made, with their accompanying stigmas, there is nothing but evaluativism for the neurodiversity movement to protect these people from.

Here we must take care to avoid stereotypes. Not all women have the same values, so we must not portray sexism as a kind of evaluativism, yet women are more likely to be Naturally Relational, so women’s liberation cannot be achieved without addressing evaluativism. Not all Muslims have the same values, so we must not portray religionism as a kind of evaluativism, yet religionism cannot be resolved without resolving evaluativism. Likewise, John Elder Robinson points out that although autistic people are more likely to reject organized religion today (much less follow Reverend Moon), some church leaders may have been on the autism spectrum. The resolution of evaluativism may be a high priority for the neurodiversity movement, but we should take care not to equate neurodiverse identities with evaluative types.

The word “evaluativism” may be as new to you as it was to me, but members of the neurodiversity movement have always known that evaluativism is an obstacle they face. Armstrong’s suggestion that we recognize the strengths of the children we raise and teach isn’t just a way to respond to a diagnosis–its a strategy for addressing evaluativism in general.

Recognizing this connection is especially important for people who previously thought they had no personal stake in the neurodiversity movement. The truth is that evaluativism threatens every family, company, and nation, and the neurodiversity movement may be best positioned to rescue us. For your own family’s sake, please start following the neurodiversity movement, encourage its activists, sign their petitions, and invite them to address your organization.

Moral Ecology Approaches to Machine Ethics

picture of an ecosystemThe book Machine Medical Ethics, including the chapter Moral Ecology Approaches to Machine Ethics, was published by Springer this month. In addition to describing the GRIN model of evaluative diversity among machines and citing examples of technologies aimed to preserve evaluative ecosystems, it reviews the state of research into evaluative diversity among humans. A cached copy of the chapter can be found here.

Our Responsibility to Manage Evaluative Diversity


Published in this month’s Computers & SocietyOur Responsibility to Manage Evaluative Diversity, summarizes Moral Ecology Approaches and the GRINSQ validation study. Responding to Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, it describes the responsibility of the information technology industry to protect evaluative diversity (much like the responsibilities of the energy and manufacturing industries to protect biodiversity).

We all need to be aware of the value of diversity, but certain industries have special responsibility because mass-production can have especially high impact (good, as well as bad) on ecosystems. Massive swathes of decision-making are already designed in bulk by software makers and distributors such as Samsung, Apple, Accenture, Tata, Deloitte, Foxconn, HP, IBM,  Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Dell, Oracle, PWC, Yahoo, Baidu, KPMG, Ernst & Young, SAP, Wikimedia, Symantec, eBay, Tencent, and Infosys. If  no trusted-third-party monitors specific impacts, these kinds of companies will likely take blame by default. On the other hand, the discovery of social responsibility also provides opportunity to differentiate themselves.

If you cannot access the article from the Computers & Society website, you can find a cached draft here.

Find yourself with the GRIN Self-Quiz

The GRIN Self-Quiz (GRINSQ) measures your perception of your own evaluative nature. You can share your results or keep them completely confidential—it’s up to you. You need not pay anything nor reveal any personally identifying information.

Click to begin

The GRIN Self-Quiz is intended to supplement other measures of evaluative diversity (e.g. genetic tests, behavioral tests, fMRI, etc.) by providing initial screening at very low cost: just two-minutes to make twenty-four pairwise choices.  To promote tolerance, we need to offer inexpensive ways for our loved-ones and other teammates to discover their natural preferences.

Your freedom, as well as that of your loved-ones and coworkers, depends upon self-awareness.  Distributing a link to the quiz is an obvious first step for any manager or parent seeking to honor evaluative diversity in their team or family.  We can begin to understand the ways we may discriminate against each other only after we recognize the ways we differ.

You are free to use the GRIN Self-Quiz with attribution for research or other purposes. The validation study can be found here.  A nice explanation and worksheet for manual scoring can be found in Chapter 2 of GRIN Free – GRIN Together: How to let people be themselves (and why you should).