Tetlock the Prophet
By Bryan Caplan
The replication crisis had made it fashionable to mock social psychology, but this 2000 article on “The Psychology of the Unthinkable” by Phil Tetlock and co-authors feels prescient:
A sacred value can be defined as any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs, or indeed any other mingling with bounded or secular values. When sacred values are under assault… people engage in a continual struggle to protect their private selves and public identities from moral contamination by impure thoughts and deeds. The most emphatic ways to distance oneself from normative transgressions are by (a) expressing moral outrage—a composite psychological state that subsumes cognitive reactions (harsh character attributions to those who endorse the proscribed thoughts and even to those who do not endorse, but do tolerate, this way of thinking in others), affective reactions (anger and contempt for those who endorse the proscribed thoughts), and behavioral reactions (support for ostracizing and punishing deviant thinkers); and (b) engaging in moral cleansing that reaffirms core values and loyalties by acting in ways that shore up those aspects of the moral order that have been undercut by the transgression. Within this framework, rigidity, accompanied by righteous indignation and by blanket refusal even to contemplate certain thoughts, can be commendable— indeed, it is essential for resolutely reasserting the identification of self with the collective moral order.
Yes, humans have always treated some thoughts as “unthinkable” – and even intellectual elites are all-too-human. But when this piece was written two decades ago, Western intellectual elites still heavily stigmatized the quasi-religious mentality. Now much of this stigma has gone away; the number of intellectuals who have gotten angry at me for promoting calmness still stuns me.
Discourse is worse, but at least it’s now obvious that Tetlock and company were right.