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.
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
Jonathan 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
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For further reading, Adam recommends: