Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Material versus sacred values

I attended a talk this afternoon by Dr. Morteza Dehghani, a research scientist at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies who works on computational cognitive modeling.

He talked about the difference between two approaches to decision making: rational choice based on material/utilitarian values, and irrational choices based on what he refers to as sacred values. To excerpt from his talk abstract:

"In dealing with conflict, two broadly different approaches to modeling the values that drive decisions and choice of behavior have emerged: a consequentialist approach based on instrumental or material values, versus a deontological approach based on moral or sacred values. Sacred values are different from secular values in that they are often associated with violations of the cost-benefit logic of rational choice models... I argue that understanding sacred values and the processes by which they emerge are vital for understanding and modeling decision-making in cultural contexts."
He noted that sacred values are derived from one's cultural upbringing, and are reflected in popular stories, mythologies, scriptures, and the way history is interpreted and told. They are defended on the basis of faith and emotion, not reason. Our cultural background, through the stories we hear and read growing up, significantly impacts how we make moral decisions. Having lived all my life in cross-cultural settings (for many years as a south Indian in north India, and now as an Indian in America married to someone born in China), I found this quite fascinating.

If you think about it a bit, it is clear that sacred values play a key role in many of the most significant aspects of our life, particularly those that relate to our interactions with others: friendship, familial duty, love, religious faith, patriotism, social responsibility. Our views on these are indeed colored greatly by the culture and traditions we are exposed to, and rarely have a purely rational basis.

Dehghani argued that the way the stories that form a culture impact the decision making process is by providing a rich store of analogies that can be applied to a particular context. These analogies allow for case-based reasoning, which could, however, be quite irrational, unlike cost-benefit analysis. He presented his work on a cognitive decision making system called MoralDM, which combines both approaches to better model results obtained via psychological experiments. He also discussed how the emergence of sacred values around Iran's nuclear program may make rational incentive-based negotiations backfire.

An online article I read recently on NYTimes by Robert Sapolsky, This is your Brain on Metaphors, also explores some very related questions. I think the notion of metaphoric reasoning versus literal reasoning described by Sapolsky is essentially the same as the distinction between case-based reasoning and cost-benefit analysis made by Dehghani.

After the talk, I looked up some of Dehghani's other work. In a paper titled "The Role of Cultural Narratives in Moral Decision Making", he and his co-authors describe two experiments where they gave different sets of questions with two choices - one involving rational self-preservation, and another involving irrational self-sacrifice to groups of Iranians and Americans. The questions posed in each experiment were essentially variants of a story familiar to Iranians in which a self-sacrificing choice is made. Their experiments show that familiarity with an analogous story dramatically influences the decision. The authors conclude:
"Our results suggest that a core differentiating factor in moral reasoning between cultures may be familiarity with different collections of cultural narratives. Even if the foundations and the logic of morality were universally present, the different cultural stories would cause differences in the judgment of morality between cultures. We believe some well known findings on moral reasoning might be explained by formal examination of moral narratives present within and across cultures."
A corollary to this, which I have certainly experienced for myself, is that in order to really understand someone from a different cultural background, one needs to become familiar with their particular set of narratives, the stories they grew up with.

The dark side to culturally-determined, emotional, irrational decision making, however, is that it is one reason we must forever experience divisions and conflict in our heterogeneous world. Our only hope lies in greater mindfulness of the possible sources of misunderstandings, and non-violent communication.

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