In part 1 of this short series, I dipped a toe into the three part explanation used by Haidt in his book, ‘The Righteous Mind’. However I would emphasis again both the need to contextualise this theory and that biology is not destiny. We need a bigger theory of human agency, thus:
“Humans, I have contended elsewhere, are simultaneously the products of biological, psychological and social mechanisms whilst retaining their agency. Acknowledgement must be made also of the sometimes mundane and sometimes dramatic interruptions of contingency. Thus humans can be said to be biologically, psychologically and socially ‘structured’ without being structurally determined” (Scambler et al 2010).
Haidt posits the following three processes in offering an explanation for our political decision making and choices. I might be tempted to see biological, psychological and social mechanisms in these three ‘steps’ which is then in accord with Scambler’s theory.
- Genes make brains.
- Traits guide children along different paths.
- People construct life narratives.
Traits guide children along different paths. Now this is more complicated to analyse than thinking about brain hormones, as there is so much to our childhood experiences. However we may reflect on the paths we take during certain experiences such as schooling and think about whether the innate traits we might have, guide us in certain directions.
I passed my 11 plus and so gained entry to a Grammar School. From the very first I was like a fish out of water. Consciously at the time, it was because none of my friends passed and so they would go to a different school. However, the feeling of ‘not fitting in’ carried on for 5 years. I also much later thought that being working class did not equip me well for a middle class education. I did not have the social, financial and cultural capital of many of my fellow pupils for whom the path to University would be straightforward.
Could it also be that being born with a progressive brain (dopamine) that responds to sensation seeking and novelty, I found that that the ethos of the school, emphasising Haidt’s moral foundations of authority, loyalty and sanctity, ran counter to this? If Haidt is right, my genetic traits guided me more easily along the path of passive rebellion to these moralities. This involved rejection of the school ethos while I dreamed of joining the Royal Navy with its promise of exotica overseas. Compared to this, doing my duty as a scholar to prepare for professional training for law and medicine seemed a). out of reach b) quite dull and of course c) invisible.
Haidt quotes Dan McAdams, who provides a three stage theory of personality development which might affect the sort of life choices we make and the ways we react to circumstances.
The first stage is the setting down of ‘dispositional traits’ that are long standing from childhood to old age. They operate in various situations and contexts. They include threat sensitivity, novelty seeking, extraversion and conscientiousness. The Big 5 personality traits might be developing early in childhood, and they are:
Perhaps my brain was constructed by genes that makes it lower than average on threat sensitivity and higher than average for pleasure from new experiences. The Grammar School, being an old fashioned institution based on tradition, God and Country did not provide enough novelty to produce pleasure but to someone averse to threat, it would provide a perfect home.
Perhaps I was also low on the disposition to conscientiousness and so I would not, and did not, put any effort into my studies. Therefore my dispositional traits guided me some might say adversely through Grammar school with the result of me leaving at the earliest opportunity without taking A levels. Others, with higher aversions to threat, and disposed to conscientiousness, would find a ready home in a school long on tradition, safe hierarchy and suspicious of novelty.
The second stage is ‘characteristic adaptations‘ these are traits that emerge as we grow, and adapt to particular life circumstances. At the Grammar school I learned to bide my time waiting for the moment to run off to sea. I could not see any positives in stuffy tradition and so I developed a rejection of authority symbols such as the school tie or singing hymns at assembly. Perhaps I developed the trait of passive resistance as an adaptation to my schooling. Later symbols of traditional authority would be viewed with suspicion and strategies were adopted to circumvent their impact on my life. It is now somewhat ironic that I joined an organisation which shared with the grammar school an ethos of tradition, loyalty and authority. Yet, I did so knowing that the Royal Navy would also provide sensations and new experiences. All the ‘Queen and Country’ paraphernalia was taken with a lorry load of salt, as the pay off was sailing to foreign climes. The passive resistance trait stood me in good stead as it allowed me to take the Navy’s bullshit and see it as merely a path to pleasure and novelty. The military suits the conservative mind and those with conservative traits would have them reinforced. If I had responded positively to the grammar school ethos of tradition, loyalty as manifest in physical sports, I might have adaptive traits such as ‘rule following’. I don’t.
The next stage in this process is the constructing of ‘life narratives’ which will be third in this mini series.