Monday, 14 September 2015

Our moral compass defines our identity (to others) - science.

It seems obtuse at first. As it comes into focus, it still appears somewhat off. People are shown other people - walking. Those who walk at the same pace as the crowd are seen as smarter. The slower and faster walkers are looked down upon. If I told you this was the basis of all laws, regulations, and of government itself, you might look at me slightly strangely. After a while - much against your better judgement - you'd start to agree.

When people are asked to judge another's intelligence, they tend to look at Emotional Quotient (EQ), not Intelligence Quotient (IQ).

People walk at many different paces. No crowd walks as one body. People's behaviour within the crowd is... random. When, however - a crowd becomes one mind, as they do during specific incidents of rioting... or some protests, its members can become as synchronised as a primitive tribe. When a crowd is walking at one pace, a custom is created. EQ is heavily associated with an ability to abide by custom. High EQ is also associated with the ability to intentionally disobey customs. The person who wears a shirt with the word 'costume' on it to Halloween is perceived as smart. The one who steps too far off the mark, or unintentionally flouts custom, is a different story.

Morality and custom have a lot in common. People who act in a predictable way, by obeying customs, are less likely to unexpectedly harm us. The man who opens the car door for his woman, and regularly buys her flowers, is more likely to be perceived as marriageable. After all, he obeys customs gentlemen might.

There is such a swathe of pseudo-science out there, I thought that what I am about to tell you - might just be that. It isn't. It turns out that friends and relatives of neuro-degenerative patients, only tend to feel that they no longer know the mind-loss victim, when their morals decline or their speech becomes impaired.

Researchers firstly did something abstract: something along the lines of... is your friend still your buddy old pal if they suddenly turn into a jerk. Many people would say no.

One might well add real world examples to that: Is your husband still the person you knew if he murders your sister? Most women would say no. The neighbours saying a serial killer was quiet and kind, are asserting their reliance upon neighbourhood customs. How could a good neighbour be a serial killer? Yet, every so often... they are.

Because we define others in a way that facilitates our own survival, it seems our judgements of whom other people are - centre not on their intelligence, their memories or so much else - but rather upon their moral compass. It makes sense. If someone wouldn't murder, they wouldn't murder us.

To get to know someone, is to know what direction their hidden moral compass points - whether we recognise its clear components, and how close to your own true north it rests.


It is just one study I am referring to from this point of the article. It is perhaps one of a kind, a fluke - it is walking in a different direction from the centuries old philosophy crowd. However, it makes sense, and as such I think it worthy of discussion.

The abstract of the study, appearing in the journal, Psychological Science, states:

'There is a widespread notion, both within the sciences and among the general public, that mental deterioration can rob individuals of their identity. Yet there have been no systematic investigations of what types of cognitive damage lead people to appear to no longer be themselves. We measured perceived identity change in patients with three kinds of neurodegenerative disease: frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Structural equation models revealed that injury to the moral faculty plays the primary role in identity discontinuity. Other cognitive deficits, including amnesia, have no measurable impact on identity persistence. Accordingly, frontotemporal dementia has the greatest effect on perceived identity, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has the least. We further demonstrated that perceived identity change fully mediates the impact of neurodegenerative disease on relationship deterioration between patient and caregiver. Our results mark a departure from theories that ground personal identity in memory, distinctiveness, dispositional emotion, or global mental function. ' ('Neurodegeneration and Identity' by Nina Strohminger of Yale School of Management, Yale University and Shaun Nichols of Department of Philosophy, University of Arizona, published August 12th 2015 c.f. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/08/11/0956797615592381?papetoc )

Nathan Collins, writing for the Pacific Standard ('Identity Is Lost Without A Moral Compass', Quick Studies Series, 18th August 2015), puts it this way:

'In previous work, she and co-author Shaun Nichols found that moral traits, such as empathy or politeness, seemed to be the most important component of identity. But that research focused on hypothetical situations—if a friend became a jerk, would he or she still be the same person you knew before? The new study "is an expansion of that work that aims to see if this privileging of moral traits extends to a real-world example of radical mental change, neurodegeneration," Strohminger writes.

"Contrary to what generations of philosophers and psychologists have thought, memory loss doesn't make someone seem like a different person."

Strohminger and Nichols focused on three neurodegenerative diseases: frontotemporal dementia (FTD), Alzheimer's disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS served as a control since it primarily affects movement, and not memory or moral behavior. Alzheimer's, for its part, primarily affects memory, but also has some impact on moral behavior. Of the three, FTD is the one most likely to have a moral impact—its symptoms include a loss of empathy, poor judgment, and increasingly inappropriate behavior.

'Next, Strohminger and Nichols recruited 248 people from online support groups for friends and family of patients suffering from FTD, Alzheimer's, or ALS, and they asked questions like, "Do you feel like you still know who the patient is?" using five-point scales. Friends and family of ALS patients averaged about 4.1 points on that scale, but the number dropped to 3.8 for Alzheimer's and to 3.4 for FTD, suggesting that morality was at the core of how people conceived their loved ones' identities, perhaps even more than memory.

'Following up with a more detailed analysis, Strohminger and Nichols discovered that symptoms of declining morality were strongly associated with the perception that a patient's identity had changed, while failing memory, depression, and more traditional measures of personality appeared to have almost nothing to do with a person's identity. The only other symptom that had any discernible impact on identity was aphasia, a language impairment' (c.f. http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/identity-is-lost-without-a-moral-compass )

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Marc Evan Aupiais

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