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Morality Can Trump Tribalism

• June 13, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: jorgen mcleman/Shutterstock)

Encouraging research points to a way to decouple loyalty to one’s own tribe with disdain for outsiders.

The top news stories have been even more depressing than usual of late, with tribalism—accompanied by active hatred for perceived outsiders—emerging as a driving force everywhere from Middle Eastern battlefields to the halls of Congress. But encouraging new research points to a surprising way around this us.-vs.-them mindset.

It suggests a set of moral beliefs often associated with antagonism toward outsiders can, in fact, temper such aggressive impulses.

Specifically, a research team led by the University of Utah’s Isaac Smith reports a strong allegiance to concepts such as obedience and group loyalty does not necessarily equate with antipathy toward members of other groups.

The issue, the authors write in the journal Psychological Science, is whether one pays lip service to these values, or genuinely incorporates them into one’s identity. People who fall into the latter category generally believe all people—including outsiders—are “deserving of moral regard.”

“Having a strong moral identity can mitigate the effect of the binding foundations, which otherwise might allow people to justify the use of torture for the sake of protecting their in-group.”

“This bodes well for the continued effectiveness of moral identity as a countervailing force against other human tendencies that elevate tribal loyalties and concerns above all else,” the researchers write.

Their study is based on two previous bodies of research. The first is the set of basic moral foundations laid out by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. Haidt divided mankind’s fundamental moral impulses into those that protect the rights of individuals (such as avoiding harm and ensuring fairness) and those that bind societies together (including obedience and loyalty).

Not surprisingly, people who are more invested in the “binding” moral foundations (which, in a Western context, means social conservatives) have widely been pegged as magnanimous to their own group but largely hostile to outsiders. But Smith suspected that was an oversimplification.

He pointed to a second line of psychological research: “moral identity,” which is the degree to which a person’s sense of self is based in his or her ethical code. Smith reasoned that those who base their identity on their moral beliefs would be more accepting of outsiders.

In their paper, he and his colleagues describe three experiments that back up their thesis.

All of their participants responded to two sets of statements—one measuring which of Haidt’s moral foundations most closely match their own beliefs, and a second measuring how strongly their moral inclinations impact their sense of identity. (For the latter, they responded to such statements as “It would make me feel good to be a person who has these characteristics” and “Being someone who has these characteristics is an important part of who I am.”)

The first experiment featured 344 people recruited online who were asked whether they felt torture is a justifiable technique for interrogating suspected terrorists. They answered on a scale of one (often justified) to four (never).

Not surprisingly, those who scored highly on the “binding” moral foundations were less likely to condemn torture. However, this result “was attenuated among people with high moral-identity scores,” the researchers write.

This suggests “having a strong moral identity can mitigate the effect of the binding foundations, which otherwise might allow people to justify the use of torture for the sake of protecting their in-group,” Smith and his colleagues conclude.

These results were duplicated in a second online experiment, as well as a third one featuring 53 college undergraduates. They were primed with ethical concepts by writing words such as “fair” and honest” under the guise of a handwriting test.

Afterwards, the students were asked to imagine that they, and a group of foreigners, were trapped after an avalanche. Would they share their limited supply water with these outsiders?

Among those oriented toward loyalty and obedience, the answer was generally no—unless their identity was tied deeply to their moral beliefs. “A strong moral identity seems to have (checked their tendency) to favor their in-group at the expense of the out-group,” the researchers write.

The results suggest a strong sense of moral identity could temper “some of the less-desirable effects of the binding foundations,” Smith and his colleagues conclude. They add that this could potentially be achieved by “creating environments that increase the salience of people’s moral self-concepts.”

While the results need to be duplicated, it is hopeful to learn that intense loyalty to one’s group needn’t produce hatred for outsiders. The key is getting the most zealous patriots and hard-core believers among us to think seriously about themselves as moral beings.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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