Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 11

Innate biases against diversity. There exists in many people a desire to preserve various uniformities. Many individuals, perhaps most individuals, prefer individuals who are like themselves: who look like themselves, act like themselves, talk like themselves, and think like themselves.

A curious experiment by Jeremy Bailenson provides further evidence that this is so. The experiment, as described by Desteno and Valdesolo, went as follows:

In the weeks leading ... to the 2006 election, the researchers selected a randon sample of people all over the country to participate in a computer-based study. First, they were asked to upload a recent photograph of themselves.... Then, the week of the election, they were shown a picture of each candidate and asked to complete a questionaire asking them to indicate how they felt about the candidate on a host of measures. Now, they weren't given any other information about the candidates besides their pictures, yet they were asked to make judgments about how honest, moral, and kind the candidates appeared, as well as how the candidates made them feel, how likely they would be to vote for them, and the like. But there's a twist. Unbeknownst to the participants, the experimenters had used photoimaging software to morph participants' own photographs with the candidates' faces, using a ratio of 60 percent candidate to 40 percent participant, which was just subtle enough that the participants wouldn't be able to consciously detect the manipulation.... What was the point? Bailenson and colleagues wanted to know if making the candidates look more like the participants would be enough to change their judgments and preferences.

It was. Results showed that across the board, people had a stronger preference for the candidate whose photo was blended with theirs. No matter who the candidate was or what he stood for, the people rated the candidate whose picture had been morphed with their own as being more honest, moral, kind, and so forth --- and they indicated they would be more likely to vote for him.

Bailenson and his colleagues ran a second experiment, this time using more prominent politicians: namely, George Bush and John Kerry. The results reinforced their first experiment, with an important qualification:

Those who were strongly partisan one way or the other didn't budge from their opinions of the candidates..., but independents and undecideds (those whose votes, let's not forget, tend to swing presidential candidates one way or the other) showed a significant preference for the candidate whose photo had been morphed with their own. [Out of Character, 133-135]

What we find here is evidence strongly suggesting an innate tendency shared by many people which has real world affect on behavior. (Desteno and Valdesolo, in some of their own experiments, have shown how this tendency affects behavior. See Out of Character, 137-141.) This is the very sort of tendency denied by Rand. Yet ironically, it is a tendency that she might have been influenced by in her personal life and even in her philosophy.

One of the most curious aspects of Rand was how fervently she insisted on maintaining a strict uniformity, not merely on philosophical, moral, and political matters, but even on aesthetic matters. She wanted everyone to be like her; or at least she acted as if she did. Why is this? Why would fervent champion of individualism and thinking for oneself demand strict uniformity of thought and feeling among her own disciples? Is it possible that, subconsciously, Rand was afflicted by that very same tendency that caused people to prefer candidates who looked like themselves? Or is it more plausible that Rand wished to preserve uniformities for strictly intellectual or "rational" reasons? If so, what are those reasons? Rand seems to have placed great emphasis on an individual's sense of life. She wished the people around her to have the same "sense of life," and therefore, the same emotional reactions, as her. But how did she know that a similar sense of life leads to similar emotional reactions? Did she simply make up this idea based on her own private and thoroughly anecdotal experience? Or did she have empirical evidence compiled through extensive experimental research upon which to base it? How did she know that this sense of life even exists as she described it? Isn't it more likely that have people have multiple senses of life, depending on their mood? And if so, how useful is Rand's construct?

It's at least possible, and perhaps even plausible, that Rand, when she used her sense of life construct to justify preserving uniformity in emotional reactions among her disciples, was being unconsciously driven by that very same desire for conformity that characterizes so many social phenomena, from fashions to peer pressure. In other words, it is not in the least implausible to assume that Rand was a human being like the rest of us, afflicted with similar imperfections and shortcomings. Only, because her philosophy denies that these imperfections and shortcomings have an innate component, she was blind to their existence in herself, and therefore unable to effectively deal with them either as they affected her behavior or even her philosophy. In theory, she was a staunch individualist; but in practice she was a social totalitarian.


Anonymous said...

Nice post.

Rand's individualism did not value diversity and encouraged conformity. That's something I noticed when reading her non-fiction -- Rand could never view disagreement (or just another point of view) as something honest or even simply as mistaken: it was always the result of evil, wanton and dishonest intent.

Maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but when I look at objectivist media, or talk to objectivists, it's clear that they consider the world something to be lectured at. Any info flowing the other way that contradicts orthodoxy is attacked or ignored.

- Chris

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Chris: Rand could never view disagreement (or just another point of view) as something honest or even simply as mistaken: it was always the result of evil, wanton and dishonest intent.

Exactly. I have come to believe that the worst thing about Rand is not that she was wrong. Being wrong is no big deal. Funny; she even seemed to know that when she wrote in Galt's speech:

When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit.

But somewhere along the way, she decided to stop considering the possibility that she could be wrong. Since, per Galt, rational people will learn when confronted with truth, she was able to conclude that those who disagreed with her had to be irrational evaders. And that led her into dogmatism, conformism, and a whole host of related ailments that persist in the Objectivist movement to this day.

I think you're right that Objectivists "consider the world something to be lectured at." Much like evangelical Christians, Objectivists are out to proselytize -- to save the world from its errors. They're not looking to learn or discover or grow. Sometimes I feel sorry for them.

Settembrini said...

Ayn Rosenbaum 'Rand' was the poor man's Nietzsche.

Mark Plus said...

Case in point: Rand's "Collective" apparently consisted mainly of the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the US and Canada similar to herself. I don't think she would have felt comfortable if a lot of, say, black Southerners moved to New York to attend Nathaniel Branden's lectures and NBI social events.