Monday, 6 April 2015

Visiting Project PERFECT

Naomi Kloosterboer
This post is by Naomi Kloosterboer, PhD student at the VU University of Amsterdam.

In February and March of this year, I was a visiting PhD student in the Philosophy Department of the University of Birmingham. There is a welcoming and open atmosphere at the department where philosophy chatter and discussions are abundant, staff members like hearing about your philosophical ideas and research, and where many situations lend themselves to an opportunity to have drinks at the staff house bar and continue discussions.

During my time at ‘Brum’ I worked on the first part of my PhD Thesis, which is about understanding the threat that ignorance – as arising from the psychological literature on confabulation, attitude misattributions, choice blindness, etc. – poses to rational agency. Furthermore, I participated in the weekly Proseminar, the postgrad reading group, in the weekly PGR seminar, where postgrads present their work, and in the bi-weekly PERFECT reading group. These groups provided very engaging discussions from fellow students and members of staff. In this post I will discuss a paper that was discussed in the PERFECT reading group, chaired by Professor Lisa Bortolotti: ‘Lifting the Veil of Morality: Choice Blindness and Attitude Reversals on a Self-Transforming Survey’ by Hall et al. (2012).

Hall and Johansson and their group have developed, as they call it, the choice blindness paradigm (cf. Hall et al. 2010, 2012; Johansson 2006, PhD Thesis; Johansson et al. 2005, 2006). The paradigm is built upon the fact that it is possible to manipulate the relation between people’s decisions and the outcomes of these decisions without them noticing, revealing that people are prone to miss even dramatic mismatches between what they want and what they actually get. Moreover, faced with the question to explain choices they in fact did not make, participants offered reasons for the outcome.

After several studies on aesthetic, gustatory and olfactory choices, an experiment was designed to test whether people are also blind to their opinions on moral issues (Hall et al. 2012). In the study, which was conducted in a park, participants rate their level of agreement or disagreement on a score from 1 to 9 either with a general moral principle, e.g. “Even if an action might harm the innocent, it can still be morally permissible to perform it”, or with a specific political moral statement, such as “Large scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism.” Minutes later they are asked to give reasons for the score they filled in. However, unbeknownst to the participants and involving a kind of magic trick (see explanation of the method in Hall et al. 2012, 2), some of the principles and statements are reversed. This means that the participants are asked to give reasons for an opinion opposite to their original transcribed score.

The results of the experiment show that the phenomenon of choice blindness is not excluded from the domain of moral opinion. About half of the manipulated trials (either changed principle or statement) were not detected. Since each individual was confronted with two altered principles or statements, the detection can also be framed in terms of individuals instead of trials. This “reveals that a remarkable 69% of all the participants accepted at least one of the two altered statement/rating relations” (Hall et al. 2012, 4). So a notable sum of participants has given reasons for an opinion on a principle or statement that was the opposite of how they rated their opinion just minutes earlier. Furthermore, the reasons participants gave for their reversed opinions were as confident and strong as the reasons they gave for their original positions. As Hall et al. conclude, this indeed seems to demonstrate “a dramatic potential for flexibility in our moral attitudes, and indicates a clear role for self-attribution and post-hoc rationalization in attitude formation and change” (2012, 1).

However, there are a few methodological questions and nuances in the results left out of the story here. I will discuss one condition that influenced how prone a subject was to choice blindness and relate this to the complexity and formulation of the statements. The influential condition I want to point out is the following. Participants who have rated themselves politically active are less prone to be blind to the outcome of their choice in the case of moral statements (it doesn’t influence the results in the case of moral principles). This is not a random condition influencing the results, but one that has significant import. Hall et al. mention the condition, but do not provide an interpretation of how it relates to the overall results. 

What could be such an interpretation? Well, for example, it could tell us something about what it means to have an opinion or attitude about something. These politically active persons have probably engaged with the issues reflected in the statements, and are more likely to already have had an attitude about them. Maybe they are the ones who have given the issue some serious thought and made up their mind about it prior to the questionnaire itself. The persons who said they weren’t politically active hopefully know about the issues and know some of the reasons in favour of and against, but it might just be the case that they had not previously made up their mind about it. This means that, there and then – that is, in the park on their way – they had to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with the statements. Taking a look at the statements, that is not at all easy. As Hall et al. note in the discussion:

Even if societal standards dictate a moral ought for citizens to educate themselves and form considered opinions about the issues covered in the current study, the complexity of the dilemmas are such that single-mindedness sometimes can invite suspicion (who am I to hold extreme attitudes about the righteousness of the different sides in the Palestine conflict, with its vast historical scope and complexities?). (2012, 7)

The statements are such that to form a genuine opinion about them, one would have to take a look at the different sides of the issues, their histories, and their context. (Also, which might be due to the translation form Swedish into English, some of the statements are written in technical language, not language the layperson would use.) I am not surprised, then, that if you haven’t already made up your mind about the issues, you have to rely on your gut feeling. Neither is it strange in such a situation that the score you transcribe does not reflect a fully formed and integrated opinion or attitude of yours but is related to your sense of where you’re standing with respect to the issue.

Another problem with the statements are their supposed reversals. Not only aren’t all statements (and principles) the exact opposite of one another, but some of the statements are even compatible. Take the statements about the Palestine conflict:

Original statement: The violence Israel used in the conflict with Hamas is morally defensible despite the civilian casualties suffered by the Palestinians.

Its reversal: The violence Israel used in the conflict with Hamas is morally reprehensible because of the civilian casualties suffered by the Palestinians.

Both statements can be true at the same time if Israel’s policy is morally defensible on other grounds. The civilian casualties suffered by the Palestinians is a moral reason that counts against Israel’s policy, but that doesn’t mean there cannot be other moral reasons that favour of Israel’s policy. An action can be morally defensible despite a moral reason against it and at the same time be morally reprehensible for precisely that reason. That is to say that these statements are formulated in such a way that they are partial moral judgments, not all-things-considered judgments.

To conclude, being politically active or not and the complex nature of the presented statements provide reasons to be cautious in interpreting the experimental results. This is not to say that the results aren’t significant; they at least show that in certain situations we are incredibly inventive in giving reasons for holding a moral opinion that was the reverse of our transcribed original standpoint.

Please let me know your thoughts on the choice blindness paper. I had a great time here. Thank you all very much philosophers@Birmingham!

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