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Is Cathy Newman Just WEIRD?: Reflections on the Newman - Peterson Debate and the Psychology of Politics.

February 9, 2018

The Newman vs Peterson debate rumbles on online still and I remain intrigued by peoples responses to the debate.  Specifically, where opposing camps appear to claim victory for their champion and denigrate the loser.  This debate has become emblematic of the political divides that are occurring throughout nearly all Western societies presently. As such it appears like a microcosm of the social tensions and the ever more politically polarized times that we live in.  My first University dissertation was on the Psychology of Political Thinking.  As such, the Newman-Peterson debate fascinates me on many levels. As I still get asked about the debate, I thought I would share some of my reflections on the issues that it represents. It is also an opportunity to explore some fascinating research into the psychology of political thought.

 

Reading the online debates that are still unfurling, it is difficult not to notice the Left verses Right political divide in this exchange.  The political Right are crowing a victory for Peterson whilst the Left are high five-ing Newman.  This is very odd for a news report.  Certainly it is strange that a highly regarded, heavy-weight journalist such as Cathy Newman should be so partisan to an invited guest.  The Right see this as evidence of the "media elite" living in a "bubble," representing vested interests.  While Newman's partisan position is very apparent, I think this is overly simplistic and too conspiratorial to view her performance as simple political bias.  So what explains her behavior towards Peterson?  In a word, she is just WEIRD.  

 

WEIRD stands for White, Educated, Industrial, Rich & Democratic.  The term was first developed by Joseph Henrich in 2009.  Henrich had noticed that the vast majority of experimental psychological studies, while purporting to represent human beings at large, where actually being conducted on a tiny sample of humanity. In short, most experimental psychology research is being conducted on American psychology undergraduates who are almost exclusively WEIRDs.   For example, Arnett's (2008) study of the top journals in six sub-disciplines of psychology revealed that 68% of subjects were from the US and fully 96% from ‘Western’ industrialized nations (European, North American, Australian or Israeli). That works out to a 96% concentration on 12% of the world’s population. This is a hugely biased sample towards what are sometimes referred to as the "exam passing classes".  As such, these studies do not speak of human behavior in general but are heavily biased to a minority group who go to university.  Should we, as Henrich et al (2009) point out, change the titles of a leading research journals to the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of American Undergraduate Psychology Students"? 

 

This narrow sample is problematic.  For example, Henrich et al (2009) compared psychological profiles of this small WEIRD group to other comparative groups, Western and non-Western alike.  The differences between WEIRD vs Non-WEIRD is not absolute.  They share many common features.  However, they also demonstrate important differences in how WEIRD's perceive the world compared to non-WEIRDs in both industrialized and non-industrialized cultures.  These differences included:

  • fairness

  • visual perception (even optical illusions)

  • cooperation

  • spatial reasoning

  • categorization and inferential induction

  • moral reasoning

  • reasoning styles

  • self‐concepts and related motivations

  • the heritability of IQ

WEIRDs tend to view the world very analytically.  It is an atomic world view characterized by individuals expressing their own liberal choices in self-directed behaviors rather than through the lens of connectedness and inter-reliability of relationships.  This is apparent even from the age of 7.  As adults they engage in a necessity for deep moral explanation where other cultures see the world in more simple terms of right and wrong.  In this regard, remote tribes in the Amazon have more in common with people growing up in the Bronx than either group does to the WEIRD college professor living around the corner.  As such, it might not be as easy to generalize findings in Psychology to wider populations.  Instead it may just be the false promotion of the WEIRD world view as the world view.   Those who are not WEIRD become anomalies by default, even though they are the majority.  (To download and read the full original research by Henrich et al (2009) click here.)

 

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has found similar distinctions in his studies of moral development as outlined in his book "The Righteous Mind:  Why Do Good People Disagree on Politics."  His extensive and importantly cross-cultural research suggests that there are  six innate moral foundations, upon which cultures develop their various moralities. The six are:

  • care/harm

  • fairness (equality)/cheating

  • liberty/oppression

  • loyalty/betrayal

  • authority/subversion

  • sanctity/degradation 

Originally developed to explain cross-cultural differences in morality, subsequent research showed these moral dimensional were highly predicative of peoples voting patterns within Western cultures.  This demonstrated that the Liberals / Left tend to endorse primarily the care and equality foundations, whereas as the Right tend to endorse all six foundations more equally. For example, perennial clash between the morals of the Left and Right is one of Equality.  The Left's moral position is all people are equal and therefore deserve equal entitlement. The Right is more concerned with proportionality and fairness.  For example, two people work at the same job in the same company.  One is hard working, dedicated, never takes time of sick and goes the extra mile.  The other takes a lot of sick time and scrapes by doing the bare minimum.  When it comes to their appraisals, should they get the same pay rise?  The Left (equality) says yes, but the Right (proportionality) says no. Both are concerned with fairness, but what constitutes fairness differs for either side.(Click here to visit Haidt's website for more information or here to check your moral profile.)

 

According to Haidt's analysis of moral profiles, the Liberal / Left idea that all people are equal and deserve the same social support regardless of their social identities becomes possible when one no longer sees inter-relatedness of social ties and the cohesion with groups. There are no special relationships that evolve across history, shared culture and trans-generational obligations. As such the Left are in a relationship with everyone and no-one.  Ironically, this creates a world view as defined by their arch-nemesis Margret Thatcher and her misquoted assertion that "there is no such thing as society." 

 

Alternatively, the Right prioritize in-group loyalty, authority and the sanctity of cultural institutions and traditions.  They see society as locked into a set of primary social obligations to certain groups.  These bonds are historical, cultural and trans-generational.  For them, society is a product of collective endeavor that requires reciprocal commitment to those who have contributed.  As such they tend to be more religious and more traditional in their views. It is easy to see the cross-over between the WEIRD position with the equality / caring moral foundation and and the Non-WEIRDs wider moral basis that encompasses attachment and obligations to specific groups.   These are two very different moral tribes that co-exist within Western societies, but they appear to be moral tribes who are pulling apart.

 

The conflict between these two groups is supported by the research of a left wing economist David Goodhart.  In his book "The Road to Somewhere:The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics" he examines the spread of votes in the Brexit election, and to a lesser degree, the Trump vote (for a summary review click here).  Using social, economic and national values surveys, he too identified an interesting split in voters that follows the same pattern as Henrich and Haidt.  Goodhart's book places these  abstract moral positions into more concrete social groups that occupy specific geographic, economic and political spaces. 

 

Goodhart's analysis of the Brext vote once again identified two specific groups, the Anywheres and the Somewheres (Again, not a perfect separation but with some overlap).  Anywheres are people who had left home to attended residential university and not returned.  Instead, they moved on to the metropolitan cities where their identity and sense of self was shaped not by social relationships or geographic belonging but by their academic credentials and their CV. 

 

Anywheres are more mobile and disconnected, often attracted to London in their younger years before leaving for the shires to raise families in middling years.  Metropolitan cities like London best encapsulate the world of disconnected individuals where nearly all people are strangers and the high "churn" sees populations come and go with great rapidity.  They are well paid, enjoy the cosmopolitan lifestyle of high choice and can enjoy the material comforts of life.  But they could not tell you where the food on their plate actually comes from.  Unsurprisingly Anywheres voted Remain with a high affinity to a sophisticated European culture. 

 

Alternatively, the Somewheres are those who remain living close to where they were born,  These individuals remain connected to their social world of origins and derive their identify from where they belong.  They do not go to residential Universities.  Instead they draw their identity from their geography and from social ties that run deep.  For them Europe is not about access to cosmopolitan friendship groups but increased competition from cheaper migrant labor and scant resources.  They feel their communities are changing and with it their identities that are dependent upon it.  They voted Leave.

 

A critical factor between these two groups is attending University.  It appears that attending residential University is psychologically trans-formative in ways which are not understood.  This goes far beyond the acquisition of the specialist knowledge of ones course work.  It also seems to change peoples sense of identity from loyalty to ones community to a loyalty to self-identity in ways which have not been studied deeply.  It also influences peoples moral identity, for example, those attending University are much more likely to become Labour voters than those who do not.  At the same time we are witnessing a mental health crises in Universities.  I suspect that the rise in mental health problems in British Universities correlates not with new pressures on students, but on the increasing access to University from poorer social groups.  These Somewheres attending University experience a more profound contrast between community identity and self-identity.  Whilst there has been limited studies in this area, early pioneering studies support this theory.  For two studies click here and here.

 

Whilst there has been much unhelpful stereotyping on both sides of the Brexit debate, it is a clash of the two moral tribes.  It is WEIRD vs Non WEIRD.  It is Equality verses Proportionality.  Is is Somewhere verses Anywheres.  But it is not an even battle.

 

As Goodhart points out, Anywheres dominate both political life and the mass media.  They are drawn to these jobs and careers as it suits their moral sensibility and their exam passing status.  This colonization of powerful institutions gives them huge and disproportional leverage over society.  For example, if 80 per cent of the Anywheres / WEIRDs complain about a Government policy, they have a 50 per cent chance of changing it.  Hence we see constant capitulation on policy these days from central Governments. However, no matter how many Somewheres / non-WEIRDS complain about a Government policy they have zero chance of changing it. 

 

It is striking how often phrases like "metropolitan elites" and "mainstream media" where used in the Brexit campaign.  The Brexit vote may have been a protest vote but it was not against a political party, as they too were as equally divided on the issue.  And it is not against a grand conspiracy that is often referred to as the "deep state" by the Right.  It was a protest against a moral tribe that the Somwheres feel does not understand them or their concerns.  And it has hurt the Anywheres badly.

 

I think that changes in political campaigning strategies may be increasing the divide between these two groups.  Election strategies change over time in the arms race of vote gathering.  Bill Clinton and New Labour developed a very specific approach to elections.  Rather than carpet bombing the nation, they adopted an election strategy based on the concerns of marginal wards, those that could be won with very little voting swing in their favor. They based their national policies on the concerns of these smaller localities  in a focus-group style of politics that tempt swing voters to swing in their direction.  Obama developed a different strategy.  It is very difficult to win hearts and minds through debate, after all many people will simply never vote for you no matter what you say to them.  So instead he focused on rallying the lazy vote.  These are the people who would vote for you but do not get to polling stations.  Sadly there may be more lazy voters than swing voters.  So inspiring these people to go to the election booth can bring bring greater results than winning the debate.  Labour's Momentum has adopted a similar strategy. And so too with Donald Trump and his late night tweets.  He is not trying to persuade anyone to see his position.  He is rallying his vote.  And nothing will rally the lazy voter as much as moral outrage. Whilst effective this political strategy fosters ever greater antagonism.  You super-charge your vote whilst antagonizing your opposition even further.

 

In general though, Goodhart demonstrates that those on the political Right are much more tolerant of those on the political Left than vice versa, as demonstrated in national values surveys. Increasing the Left is closing down any political debate it appears to find intolerable through safe spaces, no-platforming and demonstrations. The central issue for WEIRDS / Anywheres is the foundation value of equality.  Anyone who questions this value is automatically understood to be against equality.  They must be bigoted, misogynistic, fascist etc.

 

And this is Cathy Newman's error.  She probably does not feel partisan to any political party and therefore feels she is unbiased.  But she is partisan to a moral position of equality and so assumes that as Peterson is questioning it so he must be against it.  But his thinking and research is much more nuanced than that.  His argument is not that inequality does not exists but that it is sourced in different pressures than Newman believes in.  I think she struggles in the interview because she is challenged by arguments that she cannot refute as the highly rational person that she is, but she cannot assimilate because of the moral position she holds.  The result is cognitive dissonance whereby holding two competing positions causes a deep and uncomfortable psychological stress.  She tries to relieve this stress through greater efforts at disputing Peterson rather than revising her moral stance.  So if Cathy Newman is guilty of anything, it is of being too moral and it is difficult to fault someone for this.  As such, the interview captures an example of the Left reacting to what they think the Right is saying when they listen through a primary moral lens.  

 

And this is the error we can all fall into these days.  There are dangers that the Left is finding it increasingly unbearable to hear people possibly violating their values and as a result there will be ever more demands to shut these people down.  This will be an increasing attack on democracy.  The Right will feel that that their values are not accounted for and will move their vote ever more to the Right if someone does promise to listen and act on thier behalf.  Regardless of their political caliber.  This will be an attack on humanity.  Democracy needs the public debate not for people to take sides but to hear the other side.  And regardless of our cultural, moral and political positions, we must all remain democrats first and foremost.

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