Moral Combat

Most of us have a clear sense of right and wrong. But what happens when we view politics through a moral lens? This week, we talk with psychologist Linda Skitka about how moral certainty can produce moral blinders — and endanger democracy. 

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Most of us think of moral convictions as a good thing. We have national parks and drunk driving laws because people in the past had moral convictions and acted on them. These threads of moral conviction are deeply sewn into the fabric of our nation, shaping policy and culture across generations.

Speaker 2: This social security measure gives at least some protection to 30 millions of our citizens who will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation.

Speaker 3: General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, open this gate, tear down this wall.

Shankar Vedantam: But new research suggests these moral convictions can be a double-edged sword in the context of a democracy. When we are convinced something is morally correct, it becomes difficult for us to hear views that clash with ours, difficult to have conversations with people who disagree with us and difficult to make compromises. This week on Hidden Brain, we bring you the latest in our series featuring counter-intuitive ideas about the state of the world in 2020.

Shankar Vedantam: As an election campaign rages around us, we ask, can our moral convictions keep us from actually achieving our moral convictions? There are many things about this year's US presidential election that feel unprecedented, but this pandemic-year campaign is also part of a long through line of hotly contested political struggles. There have been many times in recent decades where people have felt that the stakes of a political or policy battle were high and that the outcome could affect our nation's trajectory in profound ways.

Shankar Vedantam: Researchers have tried to understand how American voters come to their views on contentious issues. They find that many Americans seem to see political questions not just in terms of policy, but as a test of their moral principles. In other words, we're not just talking about the environment or immigration or guns, we're debating right from wrong. Psychologist Linda Skitka has studied the effects of moral conviction in politics and its effects on democracy. Linda Skitka, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Linda Skitka: Thank you, I'm happy to be here.

Shankar Vedantam: What are some issues today, Linda, where you think people have more than just strong views, where they actually have very strong moral convictions?

Linda Skitka: People can have moral convictions about almost anything, but some issues on average are higher in moral conviction than others, things like same-sex marriage, immigration.

Speaker 5: Build the wall, build the wall, build the wall.

Speaker 6: Say it loud, say it clear, immigrants are welcome here.

Speaker 7: Say it loud, say it clear.

Speaker 8: It's not really a debatable thing. Children deserve a mom and a dad. It's only right. That's just the way it is. You can't change nature.

Speaker 9: I firmly believe in equal rights for all people, it's as simple as that.

Linda Skitka: Gun control, police violence, a whole host of issues.

Speaker 10: I don't want the government taking my rights, my liberty, my God-given right to protect myself.

Speaker 11: They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS.

Speaker 12: Black lives matter.

Speaker 13: Black lives matter.

Speaker 14: Blue lives matter, blue lives matter, blue lives matter.

Shankar Vedantam: Now on the surface, having strong policy views about something and having moral convictions about something can superficially seem similar, but you and others have identified several hallmarks of moral conviction. I think of these almost like a litmus test. When you see one or more of these, it's a clue that you're dealing not just with policy disagreements, but something deeper. In one of your studies, you looked at people's reactions to this Supreme Court judgment. Take a listen to this piece of tape.

Speaker 15: Today the Supreme Court upheld Oregon's law permitting physician assisted suicide. The sixth to three ruling said the Bush administration had in effect criminalized the practice without the authorization of Congress.

Shankar Vedantam: Linda, what was this case about?

Linda Skitka: The case was about Oregon's Death With Dignity Act. Oregon had legalized physician assisted suicide some years ago, and the Bush administration challenged it on the grounds that it violated the federal controlled substance act.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course the question of whether people have the right to end their lives, presumably that's something that would elicit very strong moral convictions.

Linda Skitka: At the time that the court heard the case, about 50% of Americans were completely against it and 50% of Americans were supportive of it.

Shankar Vedantam: So when you conducted a study in it, you asked volunteers about their views about the verdict, walk me through what you did and what you found.

Linda Skitka: We contacted a nationally representative sample of adults in the United States and after the court calendar was announced but before the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case, we surveyed these people and asked them to what degree their feelings about physician assisted suicide were moral convictions, the degree to which they were experienced as religious convictions, as well as their standing perceptions of the Supreme Court, the degree to which they've perceived the court as legitimate, trustworthy, and procedurally fair.

Shankar Vedantam: What Linda and her colleagues were trying to tease out was the effect that moral convictions might have on people's views about Supreme Court decisions. Would people with strong moral convictions see the court decisions as more legitimate or less? After doing this initial survey, they waited for the Supreme Court ruling to come down.

Speaker 16: The high court refused to hear the challenges to Oregon's law. That was effectively a legal go-ahead for the state to try its right to die law.

Linda Skitka: And then we contacted the exact same people again, to find out what predicted their perceptions that the Supreme Court decision was an outcome that was fair, and that it was a decision that they would accept as binding as well as their subsequent perceptions of trust, procedural fairness, and legitimacy of the court.

Shankar Vedantam: Linda found that lots of people accepted the ruling of the Supreme Court, even if they disagreed with it. Lots of people, except those with strong moral convictions.

Linda Skitka: They saw the Supreme Court is more trustworthy and more procedurally fair if they agreed with the decision and saw the Supreme Court as less trustworthy, less procedurally fair and less legitimate if they disagreed with it.

Shankar Vedantam: So this seems to be one of the defining hallmarks of moral convictions ,that in some ways when we hear an authority figure come down on something, our reaction is not to say, "Is it possible there was something wrong with my moral conviction?" Our reaction is to say, "Is there something wrong with the institution?" Are there other examples like this, Linda, in public life?

Linda Skitka: Several examples of this we have found the exact same pattern of results when looking at pre- and post-reactions to the US Supreme Court's decision in a variety of the same-sex marriage decisions that were made in the recent years. We see it in reaction to lower court decisions as well. For example, it turned out that participants thought vigilante justice was equally fair if they had a moral conviction that the defendant was guilty, for example, as a court decision to use the death penalty. And we find this again and again, that when people have morally convicted policy preferences, they don't care how those policy preferences or outcomes are achieved, they just care that they are achieved. And so if it takes lying or cheating to achieve that outcome, that's fine.

Shankar Vedantam: Huh. I'm thinking how this plays out even on a national scale. You see this in all kinds of different ways. When former President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the US Supreme Court, for instance, the Senate basically said, "We can't take up this nomination because there's a presidential election underway this year. The American people should have a say in who this next Supreme Court justice is." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the argument that an election year was not a good time to consider a Supreme Court justice.

Mitch McConnell: The next justice could fundamentally alter the direction of the Supreme Court and have a profound impact on our country. So of course, of course the American people should have a say in the court's direction.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course, McConnell's views from 2015 have come up repeatedly in recent weeks as Republicans are racing to push through a Senate vote on the seat held by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Donald Trump: Today it is my honor to nominate one of our nation's most brilliant and gifted legal minds to the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

Mitch McConnell: There was clear precedent behind a predictable outcome that came out of 2016, and there's even more overwhelming precedent behind the fact that this Senate will vote on this nomination this year.

Shankar Vedantam: And so again, what it suggests is from the point of view of Democrats, you might sort of say Mitch McConnell is a bad person.

Speaker 19: Leader McConnell has basically decided the rules don't apply to Republicans, even their own rules. It's just brute political force.

Shankar Vedantam: But perhaps the better way to think about it is to say Mitch McConnell has such strong moral convictions about who should be on the Supreme Court that how that happens, the means in some ways are less important than the ends, that the ends justify the means.

Linda Skitka: Exactly. That's a great example.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering Linda, when you look at these two examples, the distrust of authority that we sometimes see and the tendency towards vigilante justice, do you think this speaks at all to a phenomenon that other people have commented on, which is that in the last 20 or 30 years, there's been a decline in trust in institutions writ large in the country, there's been a decline in trust in Congress, in the presidency, in courts, in the media, in schools, in academia, in universities? Across the board, there's generally been a decline in trust in institutions, in authority, in expertise. Do you think the two things are related?

Linda Skitka: I think they well could be. That we are a period of intense polarization where although actually the policy concerns of most Democrats and Republicans overlap, their distaste of each other is extreme and they don't believe that they have common concerns anymore. And this is a ripe environment for people to start seeing things on their side as right and other sides as objectively wrong.

Shankar Vedantam: When we are morally convinced about something, we don't usually need evidence to support our conclusions. We know how we feel, we can feel it. This might be one reason an increase in the intensity of our moral convictions might be linked to a decrease in our interest in scientific evidence. It's also linked to a disregard for experts. A scientist might tell you something important about a topic you know nothing about. Why do you need her expertise when it comes to something where you feel like an expert yourself?

Linda Skitka: When people have a really strong moral conviction, the moral convictions have two characteristics. People believe their conviction is objectively correct and as objectively correct as a fact about the world. So if I'm pro-life on abortion, I see the idea as abortion as being wrong as equally obvious as two plus two equals four. And so given that I know that two plus two equals four, or that abortion is wrong, I don't need an authority to explain it to me.

Linda Skitka: And in fact, if the authority does try to explain it to me in a different light, I'm going to start to question the authority because can't they see "what the obvious facts are on the ground"? But remember, this is a psychological perception. I am perceiving this to be fact when it's really a matter of my subjective state of mind and what I'm attaching moral significance to.

Shankar Vedantam: And I feel like I can see examples of this all the time. Dr. Anthony Fauci who has been involved in briefing the country on coronavirus has sometimes been criticized by supporters of President Donald Trump as being an agent of the deep state. And in some ways I feel like that's the same idea, right? His expertise is being questioned because his expertise is challenging people's moral convictions about what's right and what's wrong.

Linda Skitka: I think that's exactly the case. And we've seen it repeatedly in research where people do question and distrust authorities to get it right when they have strong moral convictions about outcomes. Another example of that was asking people before a Supreme Court decision whether they trusted the Supreme Court to get the decision right even before the Supreme Court heard anything in the case. If you have strong moral convictions about the issue, you not only rated that you distrusted the court to get it right, you did it very fast and automatically. You would give that response much more quickly than somebody who didn't have a moral conviction about the case.

Shankar Vedantam: So it's interesting, we're not looking at authority figures or experts in order to inform us, we're almost evaluating them to say, do they measure up or match our moral convictions?

Linda Skitka: Correct. Again, there's many other cases where we don't have moral convictions and we're going to have to use expertise and aspects of procedural fairness as a proxy. But when we do have moral convictions, that all goes out the window.

Shankar Vedantam: You mentioned this a moment ago but I think it's worth dwelling on for a second, where you said that people's moral convictions feel like saying two plus two equals four. Talk about this idea that moral convictions have this intuitive power that makes them feel as if, of course they must be true, they're self-evidently true.

Linda Skitka: Most of us probably share a moral conviction that murder is wrong. And now imagine that somebody challenges you and says, "You know what? Murder is not really wrong." You'll probably look at them and are like, "Are you nuts?" It's so obvious. Of course, murder is wrong. And that's why people experience their moral convictions about other issues as well.

Linda Skitka: Not everyone may have a moral conviction about abortion or gun control, for example, and people who don't have moral convictions about them are more likely to be open to argument to trust procedures to get the issue right. But when you do have moral convictions about them, it's just so obvious to you that the only correct outcome is your position that any procedure or court case or anything else like that that doesn't yield it has to be wrong.

Shankar Vedantam:Moral convictions involve subjective states of mind. We all recognize this. We understand this is why you can be morally offended by something that I find unobjectionable and that I can be offended by something that you think is just fine. But the paradox is that when we are in the grip of moral conviction, we forget that we are experiencing something subjective. Our convictions feel objectively true, like saying two plus two equals four. This is an illusion, but it's a powerful one and it leads us to a powerful conclusion. I feel that what I experience as morally correct cannot just be true for me, it has to be true for you.

Linda Skitka: I think one aspect of it is that people psychologically experience their moral convictions just like the table in front of you is an objective reality. We believe that our moral convictions have that same quality, that anybody looking at the table should recognize it's a table, anybody looking at your moral convictions should recognize that as a moral conviction. So we think that these are real objectively true features of the world.

Linda Skitka: And they may be related to our sense of needing to believe ourselves as being moral ourselves and that we're good. And so we will draw lines in the sand in order to convince ourselves that we're actually a people of moral character. And therefore, we really cling to these because to attack them is also to attack us as moral agents. But another example would be it's wrong for anybody to enter the United States illegally.

Speaker 20: We are sick and tired of people disrespecting, coming over by the thousands.

Speaker 21: And they just want to destroy this country. And the fact that matters is that God gives you something, whether it's a family or a country, you're supposed to take care of it, that's your responsibility.

Linda Skitka: To the extent that you have that position, taking any steps to protect against it would seem reasonable. And some people have a moral conviction that there should be legal resident immigration, particularly for people who've already been in the United States for a long time and paying taxes.

Speaker 22: I want my family together.

Speaker 23: I want family together.

Linda Skitka: For them, blocking that and deporting people who have lived in the United States for 20 years is just objectively wrong and it's so obviously objectively wrong to them that again, making arguments about it seems to be akin to saying, "Okay, murder is fine." And I think people are willing to have one conversation about this with people who disagree with them because they understand the facts of what's right or wrong about this issue that surely they will get the other person to agree with them about it. It's when that actually we can't get other peoples to agree with us about that one thing, then we almost have to hate them because to not agree with you about that must mean that they're evil, especially after you've revealed to them and explained to them why you believe what you believe.

Shankar Vedantam: Linda Skitka has an example from her own life about how moral convictions work, the intense emotions that accompany them, the disinterest in evidence, the distrust of authority figures who might challenge them. That's when we come back.

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologist Linda Skitka studies something most of us take for granted: the moral convictions that often animate national debates.

Shankar Vedantam: We've looked at how moral convictions cause us to disregard the opinions of experts, to question authority. When a court's conclusions line up with our moral convictions, we call the process fair. When they don't, we say the system is rigged. Another hallmark of moral convictions that Linda and others have identified has to do with the idea that we believe our moral convictions are true, not just for us and our circumstances, but for everyone everywhere, maybe even at all times.

Linda Skitka: We tend to believe that our moral convictions are universally true. So if we decide X is morally wrong, then X was morally wrong 50 or a hundred years ago as well. And if X is morally wrong, for example, for those of us in the US, it's not only wrong in the US, it's wrong in other countries as well.

Shankar Vedantam: Linda has an example of this that many listeners may find deeply unsettling: the subject of female genital cutting.

Linda Skitka: There are many countries in the world where female genital cutting is a cultural norm that listeners very often haven't heard of this practice, and when they do, tend to react very emotionally and morally object to it. And so Western feminists, for example, have no problem saying that female circumcision should be banned in countries they've never visited, with women they've never spoken to, no examination of what the cultural meaning of the practice might be for the people who practice it or consideration that it may be as normative to them as male circumcision is to us. They're very quick and willing to say, "No, this should be wrong not only for us in the United States, but for women everywhere."

Shankar Vedantam: Linda had a similarly strong reaction herself when she first heard about the issue many years ago. But she did something that most of us don't do. She examined her own reaction with curiosity. Now, if you want me to jump ahead of the story, I can tell you that Linda still has deep moral concerns about female genital cutting, but she also feels her journey on this issue reveals a great deal about how moral convictions work.

Linda Skitka: I first learned that something like female circumcision even existed in women's studies classes I took in college some 30 years ago and was pretty horrified that this was a possibility. It was described as a heinous practice. It was also described in terms of female genital mutilation, it wasn't described as circumcision. So mutilation by definition is going to conjure up a lot more aggressive act than female circumcision might. It was emphasized that sometimes these practices happened in very unsterile situations and sometimes with non-surgical tools, such as with glass. So the description certainly was horrifying, and I think was intended to moralize the topic.

Shankar Vedantam: And describe for me when you're sitting in that class, if you still recall it, what the emotion was that went through you when you heard about it?

Linda Skitka: Oh gosh, a flood of adrenaline, just a very intense visceral reaction. And that wasn't until years later that that occurred to me as like, wow, that was my first really self-aware moral conviction.

Shankar Vedantam: Linda realized this when she stumbled on an article about the topic. She realized she had reached her conclusions without needing much by way of evidence. The strength of her feeling was evidence enough that what she was feeling had to be true.

Linda Skitka: And it was also because I was exposed to the work of Richard Shweder who had written a review piece of the medical literature and survey research on female circumcision that really challenged all my beliefs, that in surveys of women who have experienced the procedure, many of them laugh at the idea that Western feminists are concerned about it, laugh at the idea that they might experience any diminished sexual pleasure. His review also includes medical research that shows the extent of damage or any medical indications of problems with say sexual functioning or other problems that suggest that those problems were minor to non-existent. So this whole chapter was reviewing evidence to challenge my initial belief that this was morally wrong.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if this is really... does this follow from the idea that we talked about earlier that our moral convictions don't just seem to be our moral convictions, they just seem to be truths that we adhere to that everyone else should also adhere to, that in other words, they're universal because they're self-evidently true?

Linda Skitka: Exactly. It's going back to that two plus two equals four part. Because it is so self-evidently true, we don't need to ask the women, for example, in other cultures whether they value a given cultural practice. So we already know the right answer and are sure that they are bound to agree with us.

Shankar Vedantam: And again, from a psychological perspective, you're sort of looking at your own mind now, and you're saying, "I had a strong moral conviction about this and I've read this review article and it's shaking my moral conviction a little bit." What did that tell you? I mean, I think most people are caught up in the question of, is this a right thing to do or is this a wrong thing to do? And of course that's an important question to discuss. But from a psychological point of view, what you're getting at in some ways is you were gleaning some insights into how your own mind was working. What were those insights?

Linda Skitka: Most of all that I had not done any independent research to back up my initial moral conviction on the topic. So I basically realized I was really uninformed when instead it felt like I knew everything that was to know, and that the psychology of that feeling I already knew everything I need to know was interesting because it was really based, I think, more on a strong emotional reaction than anything really based on facts.

Shankar Vedantam: So at this point you hadn't yet sort of started the research agenda, but one of the things you would eventually find, of course, is that moral convictions often have this quality to them that we know that things are right or things are wrong without necessarily having the evidence for it, that the evidence in some ways follows our convictions. It doesn't precede it.

Linda Skitka: Yes. And what we know about people is that we tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs more than we seek out information that will dis-confirm them. And so likely once the moral conviction is developed, you're going to be showing that same bias. You're going to be collecting information that's going to support that initial moral conviction rather than challenge it, which was true in my case, I only came across these counter-arguments completely by accident.

Shankar Vedantam: What's interesting here from a psychological point of view is how it is we come to our conclusion. So in some ways when you're raising this issue, my first reaction is why is Linda talking about this issue? I don't understand. This seems bizarre. This seems wrong to even be discussing this question. And that reaction, the reaction that I have, that even discussing the issue is problematic in some ways is testament to how moral convictions work.

Linda Skitka: Exactly. Talking about this topic, like right now talking about it and knowing that an audience might hear all of this is worrisome because I know that it arouses really strong reactions in people, but that's part of the psychology that I'm really interested in studying, that kind of depth of really strong reactions. Independent of whether what's right or wrong, that psychological reaction is fascinating. So it's a great demonstration of what it means to have a moral conviction. It makes people very uncomfortable to bring it up, and that's probably a natural reaction to even perhaps attack me is like, "Are you suggesting it could ever possibly be right?" That's part of the psychology of moral conviction.

Shankar Vedantam: And what do you think it is that basically when someone even asks the question, should we actually be looking at this? How did this come about? I'm looking at this with curiosity. When it comes to our moral convictions, curiosity itself is sort of indicative of guilt in a way, right? In other words, if I'm basically I'm curious about why the Nazis did something, that almost makes me suspect in a way, because you're sort of saying, "Well, why are you so interested in trying to figure out what the mechanisms of this? Isn't this obviously wrong? Are you trying to find a justification for what happened?"

Linda Skitka: Exactly. That's exactly the psychology of this. That if you experience something with moral conviction, it feels ridiculous to ask, is this really wrong? Right? Of course, it's wrong. Two plus two equals four, female circumcision is wrong, you don't need to probe this. And by the very virtue of questioning it makes me worried about your character.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course, I think to be clear, the point that you're making Linda is the reason you're interested in this is not because you think that female circumcision or genital mutilation is the right thing to do or an appropriate thing to do, you might still have reservations about it, you're interested in sort of the psychology of how people come to the conclusions they come to.

Linda Skitka: Exactly. And the most interesting things I think to study from a psychological perspective are the things that people really feel intensely about, and people certainly feel intensely about this.

Shankar Vedantam: What are your personal views right now on male and female circumcision?

Linda Skitka: I'm by far no expert really on the topic, but I have read a considerable amount on it. And after reflecting on the arguments, pros and con, I really land on the issue of consent. It's not where I started, by the way, but it is where I've landed, that female and male circumcision are usually done on very young children often without... well, never with their consent. And I think the issue that people are not given an opportunity to consent to intense body modification is ethically wrong.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if one of the concerns about this area of research is the fear that in some ways, when you study something scientifically and understand how it's put together psychologically, in some ways it diminishes the intensity with which we feel about issues. It diminishes the strength of our positions, perhaps even diminishes our convictions.

Shankar Vedantam: If you actually know how the conviction comes together, if you understand the psychological mechanics of it, you understand, well, actually, maybe this doesn't actually make that much sense, maybe it doesn't actually reflect my deepest values. And I'm wondering if this is one of the concerns that people might have about this body of research in general, which is, it runs the risk of basically inviting moral relativism, of basically saying everything is just a matter of your personal view of what is right and what is wrong. Everything is negotiable, everything's up for grabs, there's nothing that's actually universally true.

Linda Skitka: Yes. That is decidedly a risk. But it's an empirical question to some degree, right? Is morality relative or is there an objective truth out there? And we don't really know unless we actually pry into the psychology of it.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, what are the effects of our moral convictions in politics and on democracy?

Linda Skitka: Compromise has become kind of a dirty word that members of Congress, for example, compromise, that is a failure of leadership and character.

Shankar Vedantam: You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Stay with us.

Shankar Vedantam: At the University of Illinois at Chicago, psychologist Linda Skitka studies the nature and consequences of moral convictions. She finds these convictions both arise in the context of visceral emotions and arouse visceral emotions in us. When we are in the grip of such emotions, we are quite happy to disregard evidence, to discard the views of experts, and to question the legitimacy of institutions that don't agree with us.

Shankar Vedantam: When you look out at the landscape of American politics, does any of this sound familiar? Linda also finds something even more disturbing: moral convictions tend to prompt people to disregard the rules. You can see this on a large scale and you can measure it in laboratory experiments, such as this one by Janice Nadler and Elizabeth Mullen.

Linda Skitka: This was a very ingenious study. They brought people into the study and they exposed them to a legal decision that was either consistent or inconsistent with people's moral convictions and gave them a pencil to complete a questionnaire about their reactions to it. And unknown to the participants, they had some kind of electronic monitoring gizmo on it that allowed them to find out whether the pencil was returned or not.

Linda Skitka: And people were more likely to steal the pencil if they had to answer a questionnaire about a court decision that they morally disagreed with. And what seems to explain it the most is people's emotional reactions to decisions that they morally disagree with, that it makes people so angry that it cuts off their normal self-monitoring to behave according to the norms.

Shankar Vedantam: So a few years ago, Linda, several of the parents of kids who were killed in the Newtown school shooting began receiving abuse on the internet. People told them that they had faked the deaths of their children in order to push a gun control agenda. I want you to listen to this news clip.

Speaker 24: The families of the murdered children became the targets of conspiracy theorists who decided that the massacre did not happen, the children were not real, or that the parents had been paid to stage the attack. And not only did they share these false and hateful messages among themselves, they began harassing families of the murdered children.

Linda Skitka: I'm quite confident that the people who were doing this were acting out of a misplaced sense of moral conviction, that killing of children is such a horrendous thing to contemplate and if that's inconsistent with something that you morally cherish such as the right to bear weapons, you're going to have to do a whole bunch of psychological gymnastics in order to make the world make sense again. If you want to adhere to this cherished belief that guns are good, you're going to have to come up with an explanation for how something horrible has happened.

Shankar Vedantam: In some ways, this is connected to what we were talking earlier, of course, which is that when we are filled with moral certitude, we believe that the ends in some ways justify the means, right?

Linda Skitka: Correct. And we have several examples of that, the vigilante example that we brought up earlier, but numerous others. If you want to think about any basic revolution that has occurred, most people who drum up the courage to engage in overthrowing their government, for example, must have a very strong moral conviction about the justice of the cause.

Shankar Vedantam: At a less dramatic level, Linda and others have found that moral convictions make it very difficult to find common ground. If you have a visceral response to female circumcision or female genital mutilation, for example, can you imagine sitting across from someone who believes the practice is fine? Would you want to sit close to such a person? Researchers know the answer to that question because they've actually measured how people behave in such situations.

Linda Skitka: Yes, there's been several studies that have put people with competing moral convictions in the same room. Most of these have actually used chair placement as an indication of preferred physical distance away from people who disagree with us. And so in one study that we did on this topic, we brought participants into the study and we told them that we were going to randomly assign half of them to learn something about who they were about to meet, and half of them would not.

Linda Skitka: And in every case, the participants learned that the person that they were about to meet was very strongly pro-choice on the issue of abortion. We then escorted them into another room where they were supposed to actually meet this person. And what they saw when they walked into that room was a backpack on a chair and the backpack had a little button on it that was pro choice, but there was no actual other research participant.

Linda Skitka: And the experimenter would go, "Oh my, where's the other participant? They must have wandered off to try to find the bathroom or something. You know this building, they'll never find their way back." And the building we were in in fact is built on a principle of rotating squares and it's very complicated so it was a very plausible cover story.

Shankar Vedantam: The experimenter would encourage the volunteer to grab a seat from a row of chairs against the wall. Then she stepped out of the room to ostensibly go find the other person. In reality, there was no one else. The point of the experiment was merely to see where volunteers would place their chairs.

Linda Skitka: And what we found is that people placed their chairs closer to people if they happen to share the attitude on abortion and put the chair further away if they disagreed with them and the distance away was much bigger than the distance close. In other words, people preferred more distance to those they morally disagree with and they prefer being closer to people they morally agreed with.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the things that I find very interesting is the research that shows that this distaste that we experience in physical space also translates into social space in all kinds of ways, that we really want to keep our distance, not just physically, but socially from people whose moral views conflict with our own. Talk a little bit about the range of different social spaces that people have looked at where we actually want to keep our distance from people with different moral convictions.

Linda Skitka: There's a whole range of social relationships we don't want to have with people who morally disagree with us. We don't want them to teach our children, we don't want them to marry into our family, we don't want them to move into our neighborhoods, we don't want them to be the owner of a store we might frequent. There are very few social roles, if any, that we want people who morally disagree with us to play in our lives.

Shankar Vedantam: And why do you think that is? Or if one of my child's teachers has moral views that are different than mine, but the teacher is still a good teacher and my child likes the teacher and does well in class, what is it that I fear is going to happen by having that teacher teach my child?

Linda Skitka: I think we're afraid that somehow this is going to rub off on the child, that they might be exposed to morally hateful views, whether that's true or not. We're worried about that carrying over. People distance themselves from immoral things because they're worried that it might contaminate them, that to even entertain having a conversation with someone who has a moral disagreement with you, for example, or who engages in a moral behavior, it feels like you could catch it. And people are very resistant to getting contaminated with things that they consider to be immoral.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to pick up on this idea of contamination because it actually leads me to something else I was thinking about as I was reading your work. One of the things that happens in public debates that have to do with moral convictions is in fact, this idea of contamination. So let's say for example, I disagree with you about something and I disagree with you so strongly that I feel like you are an immoral person for believing what you believe because I believe so strongly in what I believe.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, let's say that someone else, person C, endorses your work in some way, or is affiliated with your work in some way, or is associated with you in some way, there's some part of my disdain for you that now rubs off on them. In other words there's a guilt by association that follows that if I actually think that you're a bad person, someone who associates with you should also be a bad person. I mean, the extreme example of this is, if you think about the Nazis, would you like someone who was friends with a Nazi who wasn't actually a Nazi himself, but was just friends with a Nazi? And the answer would quite obviously be no.

Linda Skitka: There's a long line of research evidence that indicates exactly that, although this is probably true of things that are both morally loaded and not morally loaded, that if you intensely dislike someone and that other person likes someone, people will intensely dislike that third person as well. This has been studied in a form of balance theory that people like to keep a psychological balance, that bad things are bad things and good things are good things and things that associate with bad things are bad and things that associate with good things are good.

Shankar Vedantam: So you can make compromises where you feel that others have different views or perspectives. You say tomato, I say tomato, but compromise on moral convictions feels entirely different. It feels immoral to say I'm going to compromise on my moral principles.

Linda Skitka: We really think that attitudes come in at least three different flavors, that some attitudes are experienced as preferences. That for example, I might really like chocolate, but you prefer vanilla. That's okay. We understand that some attitudes are in that domain and whatever floats your boat, right? Or don't yuck at my yum. And a whole host of attitudes fall into that kind of domain, where we're very, very tolerant. Other kinds of attitudes we experience more as normative or convention.

Linda Skitka: For example, the right way to drive in the United States is to drive on the right hand side of the street, but we understand that that's a coordination rule, this is just how everybody does it. It's perfectly fine if people in other countries like the UK or Australia drive on the left-hand side of the street. Attitudes in this domain are what people in my group believe or use to coordinate our behavior.

Linda Skitka: Some religious belief fits in this domain. For example, in some religious communities, certain foods are prohibited. It's okay if other religious groups don't prohibit those foods, we understand that that's just got a narrow boundary on it. Moral convictions on the other hand are things that we perceive is universally and objectively true. They transcend group boundaries. They're very intolerant and very closed to compromise in addition to having stronger ties with emotion than attitudes that are experienced as preferences or conventions.

Shankar Vedantam: So when people have strong moral convictions, you and others have found that the strength of these convictions predict that they will find it very difficult to develop procedures to resolve differences. Talk about this work that you've done, about the challenges that moral convictions pose when it comes to actually finding compromise with others.

Linda Skitka: We have done some really interesting research in this area. For example, in one study, we brought four people into our lab to have conversations. And they were directed to have conversations, not about how to determine the outcome of something or what the outcome should be. For example, whether capital punishment should be banned or allowed. Instead, they were supposed to come to consensus about the procedures we should use to decide whether capital punishment should be banned or allowed. And the groups that came in were either attitudinally the same, everybody had the same position on it, or they were attitudinally heterogeneous, where two people had one opinion, two people had another opinion. And some of our groups were preselected to have strong moral convictions about the issue as well.

Shankar Vedantam: So again, here's the setup. Volunteers with similar and different views on a subject were asked to come up with a set of procedures to arrive at a consensus. The goal wasn't to arrive at a consensus, just to set up the rules to get there. What Linda and her colleagues wanted to know is whether having moral convictions helped or hindered people as they try to figure out how to work with one another. The researchers found that when people merely disagreed, coming up with ground rules for the conversation was easy, but when they had strong moral convictions, arriving at even the basic ground rules was difficult.

Linda Skitka: It was very tense. Third-party judges viewed videotapes of these conversations and rated them as more tense and defensive. And they had much greater difficulty coming up with a compromise solution to decide the issue. Interestingly enough, if the groups were high in moral conviction and all had the same opinion, they also had a problem coming up with a procedure to resolve the issue. The morally convicted groups just couldn't come up with a procedure that they were confident enough would achieve the right outcome, and so therefore couldn't come to consensus about what that procedure might be.

Shankar Vedantam: When you look at polarization in politics today, how much of it would you attribute to the growing number of issues in which Americans have strong moral convictions?

Linda Skitka: A decent amount. Compromise has become kind of a dirty word in politics, that constituencies think their members of Congress, for example, compromise, that is a failure of leadership and character. So yes, I do think that people feeling moral convictions about many of the key issues of the day is leading to challenges in achieving policy solutions that everybody can live with.

Shankar Vedantam: So there's a profound paradox here in this story, Linda. As a country, the United States was founded on moral principles. Set aside for a moment whether the country has always lived up to those principles. But when you read the Declaration of Independence, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. We are hearing moral conviction. It's self evident. It needs no proof. It's categorical, it brooks no doubt. In other words, we are a country in some ways that's founded on moral conviction, but we're also a country in some ways that's foundering as a result of very strong moral convictions. How do you think about that? Not just as a researcher, but as a citizen in terms of your work, how do you unpack that irony, Linda?

Linda Skitka: I get asked this a great deal of the time, and that is, are moral convictions good or bad things? I would have to say I don't think I want to live in a world without moral convictions, even if sometimes they lead to things that would seem to be pretty negative, largely because without moral convictions, I don't think you would have any desire to ever change anything or to fight for a more just society or to fight for very much at all. And so if we ever hope to improve our lot, I think we need morally convicted others that are willing to become politically engaged, willing to volunteer, willing to fight for those causes in order to achieve anything better than what we currently have.

Shankar Vedantam: How do you square the circle though? Because we've been discussing essentially this irony, which is I, like you, would not want to live in a world where people did not have strong moral convictions. At the same time, I can see how when tens of millions of people have very strong moral convictions about dozens of issues, it can bring compromise to a halt and ultimately be self-defeating. Do you see your work sort of reflected in the world around you when you watch the news?

Linda Skitka: Well, it's certainly in the news all the time right now because we are in a very polarized place in the United States and I think people are drawing lots of moral dividing lines. But on the other hand, you also can see lots of people are really motivated to make the world better. The response recently to police violence, for example, although complicated, nonetheless has spurred people even in the context of a pandemic to shout for justice.

Speaker 25: Say his name.

Speaker 26: George Floyd.

Speaker 25: Say his name.

Speaker 26: George Floyd.

Speaker 25: Say his name.

Speaker 26: George Floyd.

Speaker 25: Hands up.

Speaker 26: Don't shoot.

Speaker 25: Hands up.

Speaker 26: Don't shoot.

Speaker 25: Hands up.

Speaker 26: Don't shoot.

Speaker 25: Hands up.

Speaker 26: Don't shoot.

Linda Skitka: It's interesting even given the cost of the pandemic, are very high to go out and make your voice heard at this moment, many people nonetheless are.

Speaker 27: I can't talk to your parents, I can't talk to your grandparents. At some point, you got to be the voice for the black people in your household, and it has to start today [inaudible 00:46:13]. The officer set his knee on George's neck. You think they care but, three officers...

Shankar Vedantam: I mean, I think what I find really interesting about your work is that looking at it from a psychological perspective allows us to get beyond the questions of are moral convictions good, or are moral convictions bad? Because in some ways, the same things that make them good are also potentially what makes them bad, right?

Shankar Vedantam: In other words, the fact that people are willing to disregard the rules, disregard norms, fight against injustice, change systems, potentially think that the end justify the means are all the reasons that good things happen as a result of moral convictions. They're also a reason why bad things happen as a result of moral convictions. What's interesting is psychologically the things driving both these things sound like they might be the same phenomena.

Linda Skitka: Exactly. They're sides of a double-edged sword. Blindly following authority and the rules isn't always a normatively good thing. And if we over condition people to be completely obedient, blindly obedient, destructive things can happen as well. So in those cases, we want people who have the moral convictions that can allow them to resist that kind of malevolent authority. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine a civil society functioning very long if we don't have some coordination rules and basic obedience to common norms of conduct.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean, I'm wondering when you look at your research and you look at the world, what happens if you have an election and at the end of the election, your side doesn't win and you believe your side really ought to win. Not just that they ought to win because they were better politically, but because they are better morally. Do you think that might prompt me to support taking extra constitutional steps to keep power? Because my commitment is now to my cause, it's not really to the rules of my country.

Linda Skitka: I think there's a risk of that if there were enough people with that strong a moral conviction, but one hopes that there may be an overriding moral conviction, there's a belief in the fairness of our democratic processes and election procedures. And this is where I think arguing that our election procedures could be flawed is a particularly dangerous thing to do.

Linda Skitka: We need basic commitment or belief in the idea that our electoral processes are a higher order moral good that allows us to subsume our individual commitments to individual candidates. I, like many other people are deeply interested in politics and have my own political points of view, and certainly some of those rise to the level of moral conviction. However, I do think I can temper it by thinking them through in terms of what am I really committed to. And I think an overriding moral commitment on my part is to a thriving democracy.

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologist Linda Skitka works at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Linda, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Linda Skitka: Thank you.

Speaker 28: We're willing to be beaten for democracy. And you misuse democracy in the streets.

Speaker 29: It is wrong, deadly wrong to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.

Speaker 30: [inaudible 00:49:26].

Speaker 31: Show me what democracy looks like.

Speaker 32: This is what democracy looks like.

Speaker 31: Show me what...

Speaker 33: Well, we're going to out-organize, out-last and out-hype all the other corners.

Speaker 34: We are seeing those huge lines. A lot of people want to get out and vote early. I mean, we're not going to try to walk through this crowd anymore like we were earlier this morning. You could see they are now piling in as the lines just opened up.

Speaker 35: I feel very strongly about this election and I could not wait to cast my vote another minute.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Midroll Media is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Special thanks this week to our former producers Thomas Lu and Cat Schuknecht.

Shankar Vedantam: Our unsung hero today is Kerry DarConte, she's a senior manager of partnerships at Stitcher, our new distribution partner. Kerry has carefully guided us through the transition, coming up with solutions to every challenge imaginable. She's always helpful, always kind. If this whole podcasting thing doesn't work out, Kerry, you might consider a future career as a psychotherapist or president. For more Hidden Brain, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Find more information about us at

Shankar Vedantam:

If you like this episode and like our show, please remember to tell one friend about it. Next week on the show, we conclude our series on counter-intuitive ways of seeing the world in 2020. We look at the political divide in America, and here's a hint, it's not the one we're always talking about.

Speaker 36: What people were concerned about is essentially politics coming up in their day-to-day lives. They actually were not as concerned about the opposing partisanship component of it.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for listening, I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.


Subscribe to the Hidden Brain Podcast on your favorite podcast player so you never miss an episode.


Go behind the scenes, see what Shankar is reading and find more useful resources and links.