David Redish is a poet, playwright, scientist, and a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota.
Below, David shares 5 key insights from his new book, Changing How We Choose: The New Science of Morality. Listen to the audio version—read by David himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. We’ve been studying the wrong game.
Science works by burning away the complexity until we get to a key nugget of truth underneath. We then rebuild that complexity, putting it back together, and understanding all the parts. While writing this book, many of the experiments that my colleagues and I had been studying were really moral experiments. Do you share your resources with another? If another player doesn’t share with you, how do you respond? If another player in the game cheats a third player, do you spend your own resources to punish them?
During our research, most discussions of morality talked in terms of doing the right thing, even though we know it’s better strategically for you to cheat. But that’s simply not our everyday experience.
For example, during a winter snow here in Minnesota a few years ago, a stranger¬’s car got stuck in the snow in front of my house. We all brought out our snow shovels and dug her out. Of course, we did. Why would we do anything else? As a teacher, it’s in my best interest to help my students be the best they can be. Their success is my success. It’s not better for me (or them) to cheat. When I collaborate with a colleague, I bring my expertise, they bring theirs, and we create something neither of us could have done alone. People living in societies are not “doing the right thing despite wanting to cheat,” they do the right thing because they want to. Ultimately though, what does it mean “to want to”?
2. The decisions we make depend on how we process information.
We now know a lot about the processes through which humans make decisions. The big discovery in decision-making over the last fifty years is that the you, who you are, is actually made up of several decision-making systems.
“Deciding whether or not to take a job is deliberative, hitting a baseball or playing a musical instrument is procedural, and running away from the lion is Pavlovian.”
There are deliberative processes that imagine future outcomes to decide if that’s what you want, procedural processes where extensive practice lets you find flow, and Pavlovian or instinctual processes that learn when to release an ingrained behavior. Deciding whether or not to take a job is deliberative, hitting a baseball or playing a musical instrument is procedural, and running away from the lion is Pavlovian. It also turns out that laughing with your friends is also Pavlovian, as is that anger you feel when someone betrays you. It’s also Pavlovian to feel empathy which makes it hard to betray a friend.
Each of these systems is instantiated in different parts of our brains, they process information about the world differently, and they use different aspects of that information to make a decision. Each of them learns differently from past experiences. We now know a lot about how these systems learn, about how they process information about the world. That means we can change, not only what we do, but also who we are, just by changing the way we think about the world.
3. We can change who we are and what we do by changing the questions we ask ourselves.
How I ask you a question can change whether you respond to it with your Pavlovian system, with your procedural system, or with your deliberative system. It can also change how each of these systems reacts to the problem at hand. Remember, you are all of these systems working together.
“The answers come from different decision systems—different parts of who you are come up with different answers.”
In the classic moral dilemma, a train is hurtling towards five people, but you can throw a switch to move the train to another track and save those five people. Unfortunately, there’s one person on that other track. Do you sacrifice that one person to save five? Many people say yes. Now think of it differently; you’re a doctor, and you can kill one person to provide organs to save five others. Do you? Most people say no. Isn’t it the same problem though, sacrificing one person to save five others? Why do people give different answers to these two questions? The answers come from different decision systems—different parts of who you are come up with different answers.
Moral codes change the question. They change which part of you makes the decision and they change how that part of you makes that decision.
4. Moral codes move us beyond tribalism.
Most ethological descriptions of morality talk about “tribalism.” Tribalism is defined as the idea that humans are naturally altruistic and cooperative within their tribe, but xenophobic beyond. That’s not wrong, but it is deeply incomplete. We have spent thousands of years developing social technologies that allow us to work together in larger groups to escape the bounds of tribalism.
It turns out that moral codes are social technologies—similar to how the wheel transformed travel, the way the cell phones transformed our communication network, the way a rocket can take us to the moon—moral codes are technologies that change the world we live in.
“We have spent thousands of years developing social technologies that allow us to work together in larger groups to escape the bounds of tribalism.”
These moral codes, these social technologies, have been hiding in plain sight. Systems like the importance of democracy, and the moral respect for it, reduce the violence that can come from policy disagreements. Aspirational goals like “All men are created equal,” written by a man who certainly did not treat all men as equal, enabled people later to argue for equality as a moral right. Physical technologies, like books, movies, newsreels and social media, enabled individuals to see the lived experiences of others and recognize that including them in their larger community would be a moral good.
These aspirational goals change how we see ourselves. They change our decisions because they change the way that our decision-making systems process information about the world, and thus change the world we live in.
5. We all do better when we all do better.
Moral codes change the world we live in because they change the societies we live in. Remember, much of our environment is other people, a collective society. As mentioned earlier, the decisions we make depend on an interaction between who we are and the world we experience.
Changing the question changes that world, and thus changes the decisions we make. Moral codes are toolkits to change our selves, which changes our decisions, which changes our societies, which changes our world. Moral codes make a world where, to quote the late Senator Paul Wellstone, “we all do better when we all do better.”
To listen to the audio version read by author David Redish, download the Next Big Idea App today: