Friday, June 11, 2021

"Moral Licensing" and "Value Signaling" as a path to de-polarization and "Truthiness"

Builing Bridges, not walls...


Build Bridges, not walls
Claude Monet, National Art Gallery, Washington DC,
December 2008, Photo copyright @unitedstatesian


Basic truth/facts which are accepted by the majority of the population seem to be rare. The path to reaching the common ground is more indirect than might be expected 

The direct route would be for journalists on both sides to form a kind of consensus commission. A multi-partisan group could work together to publish a "wiki" of agreed facts from the previous week's events. They could complement these posts with lists of contested facts on parts they do not agree on and links to their supporting evidence. 

In my opinion, the road to true change would also require the creation of one or two new parties, but I will leave that for a future post :-) 

However, these dry, unemotional facts would only solve a small part of the problem and I argue that it starts with two key concepts becoming part of colloquial language.... The solution lies in making Moral licensing & Value signaling part of the daily vocabulary: 

Moral licensing is a term I first heard in 2016 from the author Malcolm Gladwell. He used it in an interview to explain the swing from electing Obama, the first black president, to T****, an openly racist president.

Gladwell expounded on the idea in his first Revisionist History podcast (season 1, episode 1). I also found this short article which explains the idea well and gives tips to combat it in ourselves.

The clearest single example would be the person who goes to the gym and burns 300 calories in exercise and then they reward themselves with a latte and a brownie that have 800 calories! 

Value signaling, as explained by Angela Duckworth and Stephen Dubner in the "No stupid questions" podcast is when a person does something to signal their support for an idea, but that signal has no real effect on the issue. Examples of this would be when people put up black squares in their Instagram accounts in support of Black Lives Matter, however, they did nothing of real substance. Another example would be people anti-abortion advocates who vote for Republicans with the hope that it will solve the problem of unwanted births when it is actually achieved the opposite.

Why are these two concepts so powerful?

Trust, shared backgrounds, equality of opportunity, and a common set of morals are traits that have shown to be good indicators of societal well-being.  Facts and the "truth" are dry, boring, and easily malleable or ignored when you feel divided. Give me a policy idea and I will find facts, figures, graphs, etc to support that idea. The key lies in working towards common goals with a group of people you trust and where you think you will get a fair shake.

How does this work?

Let's say that a common value in the US is respect for the police. There are many issues to improve, but I would say that at least 90+% of Unitedstatesian (American ;-) voters are saddened by the sight of a police officer being dragged down the stairs and beaten by a flagpole bearing the American flag, as seen on January sixth. Likewise, the same number would be saddened to see a police officer killed by looters stealing sneakers in the #BLM protests.

Now, if you can't use moral licensing to justify these heinous acts to defend your side, then the next step is to find a solution to the problem. If value signaling is understood to be a useless waste of time, then you are left looking for real solutions. 

Will this solve all national problems and bring people together singing "We are the world?" No. But it will at least get people working towards common goals with a modicum of respect.