Alien Minds

By Robert Bernstein   |   April 25, 2023

“Everyone is basically the same” is how many of us were raised. The intention was to see our commonality, rather than our differences. But, what if we truly see the world in very different ways? It’s as if we are alien species, trying to live together.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has tried to help us aliens understand each other better by understanding our differences. He delivered a series of five talks here at the UCSB Sage Center in 2008, which I attended.

Haidt developed a “Moral Foundation Theory” with five factors: 1) Harm vs Care; 2) Fairness and Reciprocity; 3) Ingroup Loyalty; 4) Respect for Authority; 5) Purity/Sanctity. What sets us apart is how much weight we give to each of these factors. Liberals give almost full weight to the first two.

For liberals, an act is “moral” as long as it causes no harm, and it is fair. But conservatives also care about loyalty to their group (country, religion, political party), respect for authority (president, police, military, boss), and purity (some things are just “icky”). The latter caused conservatives to be homophobic and transphobic for much of history.

Conservatives see liberals as literally lacking senses that are as plain as day to them. Liberals see conservatives as sensing things that just don’t matter. Liberals are proud to be color blind, as it were. Haidt wants each alien species to be sensitive to how the other species experiences the world. Imagine you step in poop before entering a room, but you can’t smell poop. Once you realize that it offends others, you can make an effort to avoid the problem and/or clean it up.

I recently learned of another such factor making us aliens: The “Time Perspective Theory” of psychologist Philip Zimbardo. He developed the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI), a survey to classify people according to five categories: 1) Present-Oriented; 2) Present-Hedonistic; 3) Present-Fatalistic; 4) Future-Oriented; 5) Past-Oriented.

As with Haidt’s categories, each of us lives in our world, oblivious to the radically different way other alien species experience the world. People who live in a community of turmoil and unpredictability can easily become Present-Fatalistic and/or Present-Hedonistic. Planning for a future that may never come is pointless. Live for the pleasures of the moment. Whatever will be, will be.

Most Americans and Europeans grow up with a sufficiently well-developed sense of security and stability that they are able to plan for their own personal future. People get educated, work and save money. Of course, this is not true for Americans who live with gun violence and housing and food insecurity. For them, the future is so uncertain that it makes sense just to live for today.

Beyond this personal sense, many of us look to the future of the entire world with some mix of hope and concern. We are concerned about the Climate Crisis and how Artificial Intelligence may change the nature of work. We try to influence policy makers to share our concerns and take appropriate action. We see young people as offering fresh perspectives.

But for much of human history it made sense to be past-oriented. What worked in the past probably will work in the future. Young people just needed to learn traditions and the wisdom of their elders.

Conservatives have stayed in this mind set. They recoil at changing morality. They resist new ways of doing things. More importantly, they resist seeing the need for change. We have always burned fossil fuel, so what could possibly go wrong if we keep doing the same thing?

At some core level we are all the same. We want what is best for ourselves, our community and our children. It is good to see this commonality. But we also need to see how we are alien species trying to live together. We end up shouting at each other about wedge issues, spurred by those who profit from such division.

Perhaps we first need to understand how we are different before we can understand how to work together?

Beyond this, though, there is the reality of a changing world. Moralizing about restricting the sexual habits of consenting adults should never translate into law or policy. More importantly: We have dumped 100 million years of carbon into the atmosphere in about 100 years. We can sympathize with conservative sensibilities. But, in the end, we need to change how we do things. Or face disaster. The laws of physics do not care about our sensibilities.  


You might also be interested in...