Category Archives: moral network mapping

individuals’ ideologies as networks

Hypothesis: People not only hold opinions about parties and specific issues; they also explicitly connect their various beliefs together to create more-or-less coherent logical structures. Understanding these structures yields insights about individuals that we would miss if we only knew a list of their opinions.

This thesis challenges a common assumption in political and moral psychology. Although scholars meticulously analyze the structure of the arguments in books, essays, and speeches, several streams of research suggest that ordinary people have no such structures–their political preferences are random, or chosen by elites, or driven by latent variables of which they are unconscious. I think that we won’t find the conscious structure in average people’s thinking unless we develop tools that can detect it.

Looking at some individuals

To that end, last summer I collected data from 100 Amazon Turk participants. I restricted the sample to liberal residents of the USA, in order to control the range of issues that would appeal to them so that I could analyze the small dataset effectively.

I showed each person a list of 30 ideas they might favor, about half of which leaned left. I simply asked, “Which of these would you like to see happen?” and encouraged them to be selective. Consistent with my effort to recruit liberals, they chose almost exclusively liberal items. For instance, 80% chose “health insurance for all” and zero chose “a return to traditional values.”*

After subjecting respondents to a bit of explanation and training, I showed them their own chosen items in pairs (in random order). For each pair, I asked, “Are you in favor of X because you are in favor of Y?” Each time they said yes, that created a link between two nodes (or an edge between two vertices, if you prefer the technical language). From these responses, I was able to generate network maps for each person and for groups.

Here is one such map. This person is a white man, age 32. He places himself as far as possible to the left on a unidimensional ideology scale and he says that he agrees with AOC most often, followed by Bernie, then Warren, then Obama, and finally, Biden. He believes that eight things that he would like to see happen (e.g., health insurance for all) provide reasons to reduce corporate influence on government. He also sees an indirect link between reducing corporate influence and racial justice (by way of reducing incarceration) and an indirect link to the environment (by way of enabling a tax on carbon). However, he doesn’t connect political reform to free college or LGBTQ+ issues, although he cares about those issues and connects them.

In short, his network is highly centralized around reducing corporate influence. This seems like an important fact about how he thinks.

Below is another map, this time for a white woman, age 30, who ranks the Democratic politicians in precisely the opposite order as the man did (Biden first; OAC last). However, she ranks herself as a one on a 0-10 ideology scale, i.e., very liberal.

Her graph is more complex than the man’s. She is 3.6 times more likely than he was to see any given pair of ideas as a connection. Two-thirds of her arrows are double-headed. (She favors less crime because she favors more trust in government, and vice-versa.) You can move around her graph from one item to the next, and then onward. It is not centralized around any single node.

As noted, I first asked respondents whether each of their goals provided a reason for another goal. It was up to them what counted as a “reason.” I believe, however, that we can put ideas together in numerous ways, with a range of logical connectors. A justification is one link; a cause is another.

Therefore, I next showed respondents pairs of outcomes and asked whether each one would cause the other one. I included outcomes that they had not selected in the first place, because you might not select something as a high value even though it causes an outcome that you do value highly.

Here is the first respondent’s map with the causal connections added in:

It becomes complicated–perhaps too complicated to understand visually. But it’s clear that he believes higher voter turnout and a more responsible electorate are “upstream” factors–they cause many desirable outcomes–even though he did not initially choose them as his priorities. It makes sense to me that they are means to the ends he favors.

Finally, I showed respondents random pairs of items and asked, “Imagine x happened. Would that change your opinion by making you more supportive of y?” This produced another kind of connection (hypotheticals), which I can add to the first respondent’s map along with the causes and reasons:

Metrics suggest that this addition doesn’t actually change this person’s map very much, although it adds a few ideas at the end of arrows.

An example: the role of reparations in the mentality of the left

Months ago, I hypothesized that reparations for slavery play an important role in the thinking of left-liberal Americans. Progressives oscillate between hostility to the US government and desire to expand federal economic action. If the government paid reparations, progressives would trust it more and would therefore tilt to democratic socialism.

I can identify some individuals who may exhibit this logic. For instance, here is a 40-year-old white woman who favors a set of progressive outcomes and sees all of them as reasons to reduce corporate power over government (rather like the first man discussed earlier):

She did not select reparations as one of her original priorities, but she was asked whether actually seeing reparations happen in the world would make her more favorable toward other outcomes. She said it would make her more supportive of 10 things, including trust in government and civility. One can imagine that she thinks: if the government paid reparations, I would want people to trust it and would want citizens to be civil to each other, because the regime would be more legitimate. However, this is largely my inference about her responses, and it’s not a common pattern in the data.

These are three examples from the 100 cases that I collected. I have many more to look at, and I have IRB permission to interview selected respondents about their reasoning.

Aggregate results

I am also interested in examining the aggregate data. One evident finding is that people’s top priorities for how they would like to see the world change are not the same as the factors they see as most influential.

In my sample, the most frequently chosen goals are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a solution to climate change
  3. a higher minimum wage
  4. racial justice
  5. more school choice

The items that are seen as having the most direct effects on other items are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a less corrupt government
  3. less corporate influence on government
  4. a more responsible electorate
  5. more equitable education

And the items that have the most links of any kind to other items are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a less corrupt government
  3. racial justice
  4. more trust in government
  5. economic growth

Healthcare hangs in there as the top priority however you slice it. However, better government and economic growth–which are not chosen as high priorities from a simple list–emerge when people think about various kinds of premises or causes for the things they do value.

Another method would be to measure the relationships between people’s networks of ideas and a different variable of interest. I was planning to look at self-placement on an ideological scale, but my sample clusters together too closely. Seventy-four percent rate themselves between 0 and 2 on a 0-10 scale.

Instead, I am using as the dependent variable how people rank AOC compared to other Democratic politicians. I chose that outcome because her ranking correlates most strongly with ideological placement, and also because the biggest negative correlation in the whole matrix is between her rankings and Joe Biden’s (-0.67). Plus, her rankings have a nice distribution: the median is 3 on a 1-5 scale. So I take her strong supporters and opponents to mark the ends of a meaningful spectrum within the US left.

If we simply correlate the priorities that people choose (or don’t choose) with their rankings of AOC, then the correlations that are significant are:

  • more school choice and racial justice (which were chosen by identical people*)
  • equity for LGBTQ+ people
  • (not choosing) economic growth
  • (not choosing) less crime
  • (not choosing) a reduction in government debt

These correlations make intuitive sense to me. Among liberals, those who care less about crime, deficits, and growth would like OAC best.

If you put all the choices together with the demographics and ideology in one linear regression model to predict support for OAC, it does a decent job (r-squared = 0.488).** However, none of the individual items (including ideology) are statistically significant. One could conclude that knowing which items people pick helps you to predict their opinion of AOC, but you need to know most of the items.

If, instead, you look at which items people thought were reasons for other items, the model is more predictive (r-squared = .608 with the same number of variables) and ten items become stat. sig. on their own (p <.05). Knowing that an individual sees one of these items as a reason for other items gives a basis to predict that this same individual likes (or dislikes) AOC.

That seems like confirmation of my original hypothesis. The structure of people’s beliefs–more than the things they support–predicts a consequential opinion. However, I am still working on the regression and other aggregate methods; suggestions are welcome.

*Increasing school choice was also popular. I am not surprised to see support for that idea among liberals. One thing that may be surprising is a perfect correlation between racial justice and school choice: the same 49 people chose both of those items. **For this model, I omitted the people who placed themselves in the right half of the ideology scale, who looked to me like outliers. See also: ideologies and complex systems;  it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedthe pivotal significance of reparations for the American left; etc.

the pivotal significance of reparations for the American left

About one in four Americans supports reparations for slavery. There is a racial split on that question, with up to three in four African Americans–but only 15% of whites–in favor.

If you think that justice demands reparations, you should support them. You might not make reparations your main criterion for choosing candidates in a given political contest, because you might vote on other grounds, but you should endorse proposals that you believe are just.

Here I want to address a different issue. I’ll offer an explanation (not a justification or a critique) of the importance of reparations in the mentality of left-leaning Americans.

I think that many Americans on the left are torn between two political positions, each coherent on its own but in tension with the other:

1. A strong version of New Deal/Great Society liberalism and/or social democracy, in which the nation-state intervenes assertively in the economy to promote equity and environmental sustainability. This stance is compatible with enthusiastic support for voting and democratic processes. It requires a lot of trust in the state and a willingness to entrust state actors with the ability to, for example, investigate how much wealth (not just annual income) you have, which schools your kids will attend, and which health treatments will be paid for, given data about your body.

Martin Luther King, Jr., provides a classic statement of this view when he recalls the launch of the Great Society: “A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings.”

2. A deep suspicion of the United States government as white-supremacist, patriarchal, and colonialist: as a continuous entity that has played a leading role in genocide, enslavement, and apartheid, in part because those policies have sometimes been popular among the white majority of the country.

It’s debatable what positive program follows from the second position, but in practice, it can mean support for local initiatives, nonprofits, women- and minority-owned businesses, and autonomy at the neighborhood level. Malcolm X provides a classic text for this view:

The white man, the white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community. But you will let anybody come in and control the economy of your community, control the housing, control the education, control the jobs, control the businesses, under the pretext that you want to integrate. 

… we haven’t had sense enough to set up stores and control the businesses of our community. … But the political and economic philosophy of black nationalism…the economic philosophy of black nationalism shows our people the importance of setting up these little stores, and developing them and expanding them into larger operations. Woolworth didn’t start out big like they are today; they started out with a dime store, and expanded, and expanded, and expanded until today they are all over the country and all over the world and they getting some of everybody’s money. …

So our people not only have to be reeducated to the importance of supporting black business, but the black man himself has to be made aware of the importance of going into business. And once you and I go into business, we own and operate at least the businesses in our community. 

Note that this position is compatible with certain forms of libertarian thought but not with social democracy.

It is not embarrassing to be drawn to two incompatible views. The social world is complicated, and there are good reasons in favor of many positions. However, when you feel the pull of two incompatible ideas, a deciding factor becomes very important.

Reparations play that role for the American left. If the United States government were to pay reparations, that would tilt many left-leaning people from the second position to the first: from Malcolm to Martin, if those labels are helpful. The impact would be especially strong if Congress and the president decided to pay reparations of their own volition–not by grudgingly negotiating with a social movement–and if the payment were substantial.

The underlying theory here is similar to Homer-Dixon et al (2020). An ideology is a complex system that consists of numerous ideas with logical links among them. It cannot be described adequately by placing it on one left/right spectrum, nor even several such continua at once. It is not a point in logical space but a structure of ideas.

In complex systems, we frequently see multiple equilibria, and specific nodes have surprisingly large impact because of their location. A single node can tilt the system from one equilibrium to another.

My conjecture is that reparations plays such a role in the system of the ideology of the American left. Left-leaning people may not rate it as the most important issue. They may not even endorse it whole-heartedly. But it (perhaps uniquely) can tilt them from a libertarian equilibrium to a social-democratic equilibrium.

This is an empirical conjecture for which I do not have data. To test it, we would have to explore the epistemic network of left-leaning Americans, either by analyzing large bodies of text or by surveying individuals about their ideas and perceived connections among their ideas.

See also: on Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of #blacklivesmatter; ideologies and complex systems; and unveiling a systems map for k-12 civic education (for a methodological analog).

ideologies and complex systems

A recent paper entitled “A Complex Systems Approach to the Study of Ideology”* presents a theory much like the one I have begun to develop in a series of posts on this blog and other work.

The authors write,

If we construe ideologies as complex systems, we have (at least) two levels of systems embedded in each other. At the individual level, the elements are ideas, beliefs, and values, whose interactions give rise to a person’s understanding of society, which in turn guides individual political behavior. At the group level, the elements are individual minds whose interactions give rise to discourses and power dynamics, which in turn guide collective action and societal change. We thus conceive of an ideological system as a network of minds, where minds are networks of concepts.

Fig 1 illustrates their model. Compare a diagram of the ideas held by my undergraduate class some years ago (with each student’s ideas in a different color):

The authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” also diagram the ideology of the Tea Party Movement, using the qualitative analysis in a well-known article by Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin as their material.

Their diagram of the Tea Party is not heavily documented, but it demonstrates a payoff of their method. A paradox about the Tea Party is that they were powerful opponents of Obamacare yet passionate defenders of Medicare. The authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” explain this pattern by arguing that “representations of social programs are connected on one hand with representations of the self as a hard worker contributing to society and, hence, deserving of the government check …, but on other hand with the highly negative representations of government, spending, and taxation common to conservative ideologies.”

Each idea and link in the Tea Party ideology is consistent enough in its own way, and the overall system generates a combination of policy positions that only seem inconsistent if you try to place the whole ideology on one linear spectrum from pro- to anti-welfare. As a network of ideas, the ideology is as well structured as many others are. This is not an endorsement, since some of the specific nodes in the Tea Party’s network are objectionable by my lights. But a complex systems model offers a more refined analysis.

The word “complex” is used loosely and in various ways, but the authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” mean systems that exhibit “emergence, nonlinearity (disproportionality of cause and effect), path dependency, and multiple equilibria.” In the Tea Party ideology, for example, resentment of groups perceived as undeserving (which, in turn, is a racialized perception) has a powerful effect because of its location in the whole network. The Tea Party can land in several places (libertarian or #MAGA) that reflect multiple equilibria.

I find it intuitive that our ideas are structured and that the structures matter apart from the lists of individual ideas we hold. I acknowledge that we are not necessarily conscious of the whole structures of our own thought. Self-consciousness requires critical introspection and/or interaction with other people, and it is always partial.

However, I do believe we are conscious of portions of the network at any given time–not just the individual ideas, but the connections among them. Much of our discourse is about mini-structures of ideas, e.g., “I think this because of that.” Methods that reveal structures of ideas and links are alternatives to the family of methodologies that use latent variables to “explain” lists of specific beliefs, as in Moral Foundations Theory. I believe that such methods assume rather than demonstrate that human beings are driven by a few unconscious psychological traits. Although such explanations offer some insight, they should be combined with methods that allow us to see how people and groups build more complex structures. This is why I am excited to see this new paper and the work that underlies it.

* Homer-Dixon, Thomas, Jonathan Leader Maynard, Matto Mildenberger, Manjana Milkoreit, Steven J. Mock, Stephen Quilley, Tobias Schröder, & Paul Thagard. “A Complex Systems Approach to the Study of Ideology: Cognitive-Affective Structures and the Dynamics of Belief Systems.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology [Online], 1.1 (2013): 337-363. Web. 4 May. 2020. I had been previously influenced by Thagard’s work although I have not made the detailed study of it that it deserves.

See also: judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; from I to we: an outline of a theory; an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; etc. `

judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view

  1. Judgment or practical reason (i.e., deciding what is right to do) means forming beliefs about facts, values, and strategies. It is sometimes worth trying to isolate the factual beliefs in order to test them empirically. But no claims are purely empirical, and the goal of distinguishing facts, values, and strategies is ultimately misplaced. (See right and true are deeply connected.)
  2. Individuals hold many opinions at once, and often some of our opinions are connected logically, causally, or in other ways. This means that we have structures of opinions. The form of our structures matters as well as their content. For instance, a structure can be too scattered or too centralized. These structures are better modeled as networks than as foundations plus superstructures. Only some networks of beliefs have nodes that function like foundations. (See an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory.)
  3. Individuals develop their opinions in constant interaction with other human beings, living or dead. We start with no explicit views of the social world and borrow most of what we think from other people. Whenever a person influences us, that reflects a link in a social network. And those who influence have their own networks of opinions that are linked by logic, causality, or in other ways. Therefore, developing judgments is a matter of participation in a network of people and their networked ideas. (See what makes conversation go well: a network model.)
  4. A culture is a name for a cluster of individuals with overlapping networks of ideas. It is a useful simplification for a world in which each individual at each moment has different ideas from the same individual at another time and from all other individuals. Some cultures hold foundational beliefs about some questions (e.g, monotheism is a foundational belief in a monotheistic culture); but in general, it is misleading to define a culture in terms of its foundations. (See everyone unique, all connected.)
  5. Often, we must judge institutions as opposed to concrete acts. (See Moral Foundations theory and political processes). For instance, we may need to assess the United States or marriage rather than an individual statement or action. Institutions also generate the material for our judgments, including most of what we take to be facts. (See decoding institutions.) Institutions exhibit patterns that are not intended or designed. (See the New Institutionalism.)
  6. Institutions are not best modeled as networks of individuals, because they have salient features–such as rules, incentives, and boundaries–that are not like nodes and links. (See a template for analyzing an institution.)
  7. The whole system of networked individuals, networked beliefs, and institutions is dynamic, not static. Individuals develop over their lives; institutions are founded, decay, and change; social networks form and shift; and networks of ideas change. (cf. Dewey’s pragmatism.)
  8. Power operates at all points in this system: e.g., when one individual influences another, when one person is put in contact with or separated from another person, when an institution is designed, and when its norms change. (See decoding institutions.) Power is not intrinsically bad; it just means that A can affect B. But some power is bad, and power shapes the materials of judgment.
  9. Liberty is a genuine value (see six types of freedom), but it should not be understood as freedom from others’ power or a right of epistemically free individuals to act according to their own judgments. Our judgments are formed by the communities we belong to (see the truth in Hayek).
  10. There are better and worse individuals, ideas, judgments, and institutions, but telling the difference between better and worse is a deeply social and iterative process. (See structured moral pluralism [a proposal].)

from I to we: an outline of a theory

These are the main ideas that I’ve defended (or plan to develop) in my theoretical scholarship. They are organized from micro to macro and from ethics to politics. As always, I put this draft online to welcome critical feedback.

  1. Each individual holds a changing set of opinions about moral and political matters. These ideas are connected by various kinds of logical relationships (e.g., inference, causation, or resemblance). Thus each person’s moral opinions at a given moment can be modeled as a network composed of ideas, plus links. In a conference paper, Nick Beauchamp, Sarah Shugars and I have derived network diagrams for 100 individuals and provide evidence that these are valid models of their reasoning about healthcare, abortion, and child-rearing. This approach challenges theories that depict moral reasoning as implicit, unconscious, and unreflective.
  2. A culture, religion, or ideology is best modeled as a cluster of roughly similar idea-networks held by many individuals. Human beings are not divided into groups that are defined by foundational beliefs that imply all their other beliefs. Rather each person holds a unique and often flat and loose network of ideas that overlaps in part with others’ networks. This model avoids radical cultural relativism, as I already argued in my Nietzsche book (1995).
  3. This model of culture also challenges John Rawls’ argument for liberalism as tolerance and neutrality. Rawls presumes that most citizens hold incompatible but highly organized and consistent “comprehensive doctrines.” As a result, they must largely leave one another alone to live according to their various conceptions of the good. If, instead, we understand worldviews as loose and dynamic idea-networks, we find support for a liberalism of mutual interaction instead of distant toleration.
  4. We are not morally responsible for the ideas that we happen to learn as we grow up. That is a matter of luck. But we are responsible for interacting with other people who hold different opinions from ours. Such dialogues can be modeled as the interactions of people who hold different idea-networks. As they disclose and revise ideas and make connections, the discussants produce a shared network. In a paper now being revised and resubmitted, David Williamson Shaffer, Brendan Eagan, and I model Tufts students’ discussions of controversial issues as dynamic idea-networks.
  5. A person can organize her beliefs in ways that either enable or block dialogue. For instance, an individual whose network is centralized around one nonnegotiable idea cannot deliberate; neither can a person whose ideas are disconnected. Thus discursive virtues can be defined in network terms, deliberations can be evaluated using network metrics, and we can strive to organize our own ideas in ways that facilitate discussion.
  6. If people talk, it implies that they were willing to sacrifice time and attention to a conversation. If they have something significant to talk about, they must hold a good in common that they can control or influence. Thus we cannot have the kinds of discussions that improve our own values unless we are organized into functional groups. But creating and sustaining groups requires more than talk. Groups also need rules and practices that coordinate individuals’ action, as well as relationships marked by trust, loyalty, and other interpersonal virtues. In short, civic life depends on a combination of deliberation, collaboration (solving collective action problems), and relationships.
  7. To enable deliberation, collaboration, and relationships requires favorable institutions, such as appropriate legal rights, widespread education in these virtues, and a robust civil society composed of associations that offer opportunities for self-governance. Since these institutions are inadequate in the USA, we need reform.
  8. To change constitutional rights, school systems, and other large institutions, political actors must employ leverage. They must move strangers and impersonal organizations at a distance. Making effective use of leverage is an ethical obligation but also a threat to the relational values implied by points 1-7 (above), which are prized by certain political theorists, such as John Dewey and Hannah Arendt. We must understand how to use impersonal leverage at large scales without undermining or displacing relational politics.