Monday, July 4, 2011

How much can social norms vary within a country?

Earlier I wrote a post about Norway’s surprisingly tight social norms and asked whether tight norms are good or bad. The study I referred to found that other countries that have tight norms had experienced population density, conflicts or other major crises in the past. Institutions such as autocracy and media regulation, as well as virtues like impulse control and self discipline are results of the historical factors. These institutions and virtues  reinforce the tight norms. In the end, this reinforcing effect results in a stable pattern of norms, or culture if you will. 

So why is Norway tight? Population density is not one of Norway’s greatest problems. Norway did experience hunger and the Black Death, but so did everyone else and that was centuries ago. Norway took part in the World Wars, but other more important participating countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and former soviet states have much looser norms. I know that Norwegians are considered to be reserved and a bit sarcastic, but still. Something doesn’t make sense. 

So I had a look at the data in the report and I found a possible explanation. The survey is done in my city: Bergen (see photo)! 

Photo: Emil Weatherhead Breistein /

Perhaps is the answer that the precious city between the seven mountains on the west coast for some reason has tighter social norms than the rest of the population. (However, based on upbringing in a rural small town, I suspect that there are areas with much tighter norms) Bergen is an old, small (260 000 inhabitants) city with a somewhat patriotic population. But on the other side, you would think that the big student population of about 20 000 would balance the tightness out? It is important to note that only 100-300 people were interviewed at each location (258 in Bergen). Is that enough to represent the whole city, let alone the whole country? It will be interesting to see how robust these results are over time and in other locations. 

So, help me out here, does Bergen have tighter norms than the rest of Norway? Can the tightness of social norms vary much within a country?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Why do I think that right-wing people are stupid and lack compassion?

It is not a bombshell that people have different morals standards. We feel differently about what is wrong and what is right and wrong and we can feel really strongly about something without being able to argue exactly why- “it’s just right”. But why do we care about some things more than others? Researchers have now found what they believe to be the five most important components that make out our moral foundation. These are issues that have always mattered to humans in most societies. Even monkeys care about this stuff. These issues are:

1. Harm
2. Fairness

Harm and fairness is about treating people right and being kind and compassionate. We feel pain when we see people get harmed, and we get disgusted when people are treated unfairly.

3. Loyalty
4. Authority
5. Purity

The final three issues are about how to be a good member of society. Patriotism and self sacrifice is motivated by loyalty to a group. Authority and respect shape the social hierarchy; it explains why some are considered leaders and others as followers. Respect for traditions also stems from the moral dimension of authority. Finally, a sense of what is pure and sacred shapes what we feel is OK to do to our bodies and what should be condemned.
It’s intriguing that we share an evolutionary predisposition to care about these things and that they shape the institutions that make up society. What I find even more intriguing (and really really cool) is that our party preference is determined by our morality, and in a rather systematic way. I will show you:

What you are looking at is the results of an online survey that maps the moral mind. As you can see, there is a significant difference between liberals and conservatives. While they all care about treating people right, liberals don’t have strong opinions about how to be a good member of society, but conservatives do. It amuses me to see that I am an extreme version of liberals. This is not surprising though, the Norwegian political spectrum is located more to the left; our “right wing” parties are would probably be center in the American political spectrum.

Jonathan Haidt from the team that developed the survey says that there might be good reasons to why both sets of morality are present. The different moral sets balance each other out. So according to Haidt, we need them both.  
“Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions. They want order even at the cost to those at the bottom”
I wonder how flexible the morality is and whether we can change others morality? Haidt says that the morality is linked to the degree of openness. Liberals are more open to experience, while conservatives are not as open. I wonder how morality is linked to the tight norms in Norway, something I wrote about earlier. Since Norwegians are more left-wing, but also have high expectations and restrictions to social behavior, how will the moral map look like? I also wonder whether liberals can contribute more to world peace. Yes, that might sound a bit harsh, but what I mean is this: Conservatives are stricter on who can become members of society (they care more about authority, purity and loyalty to the group), it seems like they make more exceptions to the golden rule (I wrote about the implications of this in another blog post).

Jiz! There are so many questions that arise from this. I also wonder how society shapes morality. If you want to learn more about the theory of moral foundations go to If you want the short version, watch the intriguing video Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives. You should also do the survey, it is really fun!

Ps. I don’t think that right wing people are stupid and lack compassion any more. I just think that they point their compassion the wrong way; inward instead of outwards. And that is just not right.