Moral Psychology and Politics: Why Is the Trump Tape Such a Revelation to Evangelicals? (Adam Johnson)

One of the benefits of working at a place like Bethel is that I get to learn from brilliant colleagues like Adam Johnson, who teaches cognitive neuroscience in our psychology department. Adam’s research focuses on memory, decision-making, and moral psychology and has been supported by grants from BioLogos and the National Institutes of Health. 

Adam Johnson and Carrie Peffley
Adam with his partner, Bethel philosophy professor Carrie Peffley

In this guest post, he draws on insights from moral psychology to help us understand evangelical responses to the 2005 Donald Trump recording first reported last Saturday in the Washington Post.

Over the last decade, psychologists have begun to ask questions about the origins of our moral beliefs. In contrast to moral philosophy or ethics, which asks what we ought to do, moral psychology asks how and why do we decide what we ought to do. Moral psychologists have begun to show our predispositions, sensitivities, and insensitivities to particular kinds of moral intuitions and reasoning. And they’ve begun to show how these predispositions, sensitivities, and insensitivities form the foundations of our social groups and politics.

Conservatives and moral purity

Haidt, The Righteous MindJonathan Haidt and his colleagues have shown that political conservatives (of various religious stripes) tend to emphasize moral intuitions based on purity, authority, and loyalty far more highly than political liberals. Political liberals, on the other hand, tend to emphasize moral intuitions based on fairness and care more highly than political conservatives. To see this, think about the ubiquitous arguments forwarded by conservatives and liberals regarding same sex marriage. Conservatives against same sex marriage argue that it violates the sanctity (purity) of heterosexual marriage and that it defies the authority of the Bible or traditional family values. Liberals for same sex marriage argue that it is simply fairer to allow people who love each other to marry and that it provides financial protection (cares) for children who have same sex parents.

Many of the events of the last week can be understood by viewing them through the lens of purity psychology. The psychological processes associated with purity are intimately related to feelings of contamination and disgust. They are functional, but not necessarily rational. In one of my favorite experiments, an experimenter makes fresh squeezed lemonade for a set of thirsty experimental participants; the experimenter then pours the lemonade into a brand new, never-been-used, plastic bedpan. The formerly eager participants generally reject the lemonade since it now looks like urine – even though they fully understand that their feelings of disgust are irrational. (But note how, outside this particularly odd experiment, this disgust reaction may potentially help avoid contamination and infection.)

Contamination, the recordings, and Trump’s response

The primary revelation from the recordings for many conservatives is that Trump is deeply contaminated. Trump, with a partial understanding of the conservative emphasis on purity, responded in two ways.

First, by calling his statements “locker room talk,” Trump attempted to reduce the disgust reaction by normalizing it. The only way to mitigate disgust is to highlight others’ previous participation in what might be considered a disgusting activity. For example, many folks are uncomfortable with the thought of grinding up animals until we realize that we already like hamburgers: “We’ve all done it; it’s not so bad.”

Second, by accusing Bill Clinton of worse things and Hillary Clinton of covering up those acts, Trump attempted to re-direct the disgust reaction onto his opponent. Because the two-party system functionally ensures a forced choice between two candidates, Trump understands that he will likely win if he can demonstrate his opponent is more disgusting than he is.

This is where Trump’s understanding of purity psychology fails him. A strange series of experiments show that people will avoid eating off a plate that has previously touched poop – no matter how well it has been cleaned. For all Trump’s attempt to re-direct people’s disgust reactions onto his opponent, this recording contaminates him in the minds of many conservatives — and to such an extent that the contamination won’t come out even after a good cleaning: “There are some things you just can’t wipe off.”

Why now? What’s new that changed people’s minds?

Many observers are asking why so many people who have previously supported Trump, given all his previously known impurities, are now withdrawing their support in light of the recording. Again, moral psychology provides some insight into why conservatives are withdrawing their support from Trump and how they’re withdrawing their support.

There’s an old moral quandary called the Trolley Problem, used by philosophy professors to teach students about different moral theories. Given a runaway trolley car that will run over and kill five rail workers working on the track, would you throw a switch that re-directs the trolley onto another track where it will run over and kill one rail worker?

The problem pits the deontological response (“No, it’s wrong to kill”) against the utilitarian response (“Yes, one person would die but five people would live”). The great majority of people select the utilitarian response.

But we can change the way that people respond to this quandary by modifying the question ever so slightly. Imagine that the five rail workers are now working on a straight track with a footbridge over it. As the runaway trolley flies toward the workers, you realize that you could push a person standing on the bridge onto the track and save the five rail workers. Do you push the person? And though the same deontological and utilitarian reasons hold for this version of the problem, the great majority of people select the deontological response in this case.

 

While there are many theoretical explanations for this change in moral reasoning, I think it’s enough to note that our moral reasoning changes with proximity to those affected by our decisions. It’s easier to use utilitarian reasoning at a distance. It’s easier to use deontological reasoning within arm’s reach.

And that’s why the recording matters so much when nothing else did before. Until this point, many Trump supporters could engage in something like a utilitarian calculus: “Sure, Trump has his problems, but he’s better overall because…” It’s the “one person dies, but five survive”-kind of moral reasoning. But the fact that Trump would grab a woman by her genitals demonstrates an incredible breach of the morality at close proximity. Our deontological response says, “That’s just wrong.”

As a result, many conservative evangelicals have withdrawn their support from Trump. Their withdrawal generally follows the intuitions of moral psychology.

Several months ago, for example, Wayne Grudem not only cast his support behind Trump but called him a moral choice. Grudem’s original reasoning was utilitarian. But as he has distanced himself from Trump, he has shifted toward deontological reasoning and removed the article from his website in which he originally supported Trump. Removing the article makes sense within the context of purity psychology. It attempts to expunge his website and history of the potential contamination his support of Trump might indicate.

Grudem isn’t alone or unique in his thoughts and response. Many conservative evangelicals, publicly and privately, feel the same way. As one of the behavioral sciences, moral psychology provides a way of examining human thoughts, feelings, and actions. And, I hope, it provides a clearer view of ourselves.

– Adam Johnson

* * * * *

For further reading, Adam recommends:


19 thoughts on “Moral Psychology and Politics: Why Is the Trump Tape Such a Revelation to Evangelicals? (Adam Johnson)

  1. Thanks for this brief article! It was very helpful, and easy to understand!

    I found your note about the difference in emphases between conservative and liberal especially helpful. It would seem to align pretty closely with my informal observation with regard to theological perspectives: that those who are “rules based” theological conservatives tend to emphasize didactic OT texts and Pauline texts in the NT, while those who are “principles based” theological conservatives tend to emphasize the narrative and poetic OT texts and Gospels and General Letters in the NT.

    I wonder if personality types tend toward one approach or the other (conservative v liberal political/social position)? Offhand, it seems most of the “evangelicals” who continue to stand by Trump after all this tend to be authoritarian types of leaders. Do you have more insights on this?

    Thanks again!

  2. When all you have is a hammer…

    Weaponizing one’s professional expertise in service of one’s politics should be fraught with a concern for its risibility, although as we know from Phillip Tetlock’s work, experts are seldom held accountable for being wrong [perhaps even most of the time].

    In this case, any attempt to psychologize Trump or especially Wayne Grudem lies in dangerous proximity to violating the Goldwater Rule. For Trump to argue that Bill Clinton has done far worse doesn’t require a GED let alone a PhD to explain, and as for Dr. Grudem, he may be putting things on hold waiting for more shoes to drop, but his argument was defensible based on the information available at that time.

    And perhaps still is. As Dr. James Dobson put it

    “Mr. Trump promises to support religious liberty and the dignity of the unborn. Mrs. Clinton promises she will not.”

    This is where Dr. Johnson’s invocation of the Trolley Problem

    “one person dies, but five survive”

    is a false premise–nobody died from Trump’s actions, but many [unborn] will die from Hillary’s—especially if she succeeds in repealing the Hyde Amendment, which will put the US government in the business of subsidizing abortions. For many, the moral calculus remains a simple matter of arithmetic.

    1. 1) I could be wrong, but I believe the Goldwater Rule applies to Psychiatrists. I do not believe that Adam Johnson is a Psychiatrist. Furthermore, simply pointing out that somebody’s reasoning in one instance was utilitarian and in another instance was deontological, hardly seems to violate a rule rule preventing a psychiatrist from divulging there opinion as to public figures mental health (i.e. Adam Johnson did not diagnose or insinuate that Wayne Grudem was suffering from a mental health issue). This is more of a philosophical observation than a psychological one.

      2) You completely miss the point of the use of the Trolley Problem. The issue of people dying (unborn or otherwise) is completely irrelevant to what this is displaying. The sole point of the Trolley Problem is to show that there is a relationship between ones proximity to something and whether or not they use utilitarian or deontological reasoning. That is all.

      1. Yes, the setup is a false premise. And worthless besides.

        The conundrum is not that hard — it only becomes hard when you state it in abstruse terms (deontology vs. consequentialism) and interpose it within a philosopher’s puzzle like the trolley problem.

        The conundrum is we have to choose between CANDIDATES, via a proxy of two CANDIDATES. It’s simple in concept. It’s just that, in practice, over many months, it’s easy to confuse candidacy with candidate; supporting the vision with validating the visionary.

        The candidacies can be evaluated very straightforwardly — and thus this is just like every other election.

        The candidates are both nasty, both associated with accusations of immorality and criminality.

        Usually the candidates’ pennies shine up pretty good so you can just make the choice on vision and maybe who you think has slightly better character.

        The moralists in this election — and at the most amoral time in perhaps our whole history we’re suddenly all very fussy moralists — have made this election all about character. But like every election, there’s hardly any daylight between the candidates’ character — just instead of two shiny pennies we have two gum-smeared, diseased arcade tokens.

        So in the end, this should be no different than any other election: make the choice on vision and maybe who you think has slightly less awful character.

        My guess is the reason that isn’t happening is we’re not really visionary people after all. We’re shiny penny people. And GOPe sorts are the shiniest penny people of them all — they won’t lend their vote even against the most ghoulish vision until they get their penny.

        But it should be clear why invoking the trolley problem is misleading: it’s a tool to explain reactions to CONDUCT, being made to explain reactions to CHARACTER. And being that they conjure images of imminent death, one can only presume the writer intended to suggest a connection between Trump’s moral vice and mortal danger.

        Your explanation does not explain: “The sole point of the Trolley Problem is to show that there is a relationship between ones proximity to something and whether or not they use utilitarian or deontological reasoning.” No, it does not show that. What is the “proximity” between voters and Trump’s gross language? Unless you are going to further rewrite the Trolley Problem — e.g., “you’re driving an Access Hollywood bus; do you run over one person to save five from overhearing Trump and Billy Bush?” — then all you’re doing is positing an unsupported a moral/mortal connection. It’s a disservice.

      2. 1. Is not the making of the comments itself conduct? Also do you believe that he would make those comments without having actually engaged in the conduct those comments indicate?

        2. The proximity element here is very simply that most Evangelicals either are female, have wives, have daughters or have friends who are female. Not nearly as many Evangelicals have friends who are of another race, who are immigrants or who are refugees. Hence, Trump’s comments and conduct towards women is going to hit much closer to home than his comments directed towards those other groups.

      3. Comments are not conduct any more than thinking is conduct.

        The proximity principle in the trolley setup is: “I might vote to kill someone but I don’t want to personally kill anyone.” The way you are using it is more like, “I might vote to kill someone but I don’t want to kill someone that reminds me of someone I know.”

        I mean, it’s just kind of made up and it’s not going anywhere.

      4. I disagree. The making of the comment itself is conduct and, in a court, in actionable as such. For instance, if a boss makes a lewd sexual comment towards a female employee, this would be actionable as sexual harassment. The boss engaged in the conduct of sexually harassing a female employee by making the comment. Now the conduct described in the comment is not conduct unless actually done, but the making of the comment is conduct.

    2. It looks to me like you’ve misunderstood the point of the essay, as if it is an attack, or at least a negative critique of one political side. It is not. It is simply an exploration of “how and why” people make moral choices.

      As the author writes in the first paragraph: “…moral psychology asks how and why do we decide what we ought to do. Moral psychologists have begun to show our predispositions, sensitivities, and insensitivities to particular kinds of moral intuitions and reasoning. And they’ve begun to show how these predispositions, sensitivities, and insensitivities form the foundations of our social groups and politics.”

      As a description of how people make their moral decisions, it was helpful for me to understand how and why my own moral decisions are made, as well as those of others. It’s a politically neutral essay. I cannot see how you interpret it as a one-sided attack.

      1. I understood the essay fine, thank you. Speculation and opinion under cover of scholarly authority. Social psychology is a data-driven discipline and there is no data or rigor in sight.

        Dr. Anderson is entitled to his speculations and opinions of course, but there is no authority here. Bill Clinton did far worse than what Trump talked about, and Grudem might have decided discretion was the better part of valor after the hiding he took from his overwhelmingly liberal fellows in the academy.

      2. I’m curious who these overwhelmingly liberal fellows in the academy are that Wayne Grudem would actually care about either way.

      3. You realize that most (not all) of the people you linked are journalists, not academics, right? Additionally, calling a number of those you linked “liberal” seems rather a stretch. In order to do so, you must be defining “conservative” extremely narrowly.

      4. That was just a sampling. Expending any more effort on uncooperative interlocutors and epistemologically immovable objects would be a waste of time. The gentle reader interested in the truth of the matter will investigate further if still not fully convinced.

    3. I disagree. The making of the comment itself is conduct and, in a court, in actionable as such. For instance, if a boss makes a lewd sexual comment towards a female employee, this would be actionable as sexual harassment. The boss engaged in the conduct of sexually harassing a female employee by making the comment. Now the conduct described in the comment is not conduct unless actually done, but the making of the comment is conduct.

      1. You are simply incorrect about this. The comment was made in response to a (gross) interview with Billy Bush. It is not actionable any more than if he made the statement into his private diary.

      2. I did not say that Trump’s making of the statement was actionable in court. I was making the point that the making of the comment itself is a form of conduct. I then gave an example of where the conduct of making a similar comment could, in a different context, be actionable in court to illustrate the point.

      3. To recap:

        Me: “Comments are not conduct any more than thinking is conduct.”

        You: “I disagree. The making of the comment itself is conduct and, in a court, in actionable as such.”

        Me: “It is not actionable any more than if he made the statement into his private diary.”

        You: “I did not say that Trump’s making of the statement was actionable in court.”

        Get me off this trolley.

      4. I was speaking of comments generically, not Trump’s comment in particular. This is why I then gave an example of where a comment would be actionable in court.

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