Duval on Moral Epistemology, pt. 2: learning under parental supervision

Duval on Moral Epistemology, pt. 2: learning under parental supervision August 6, 2016

In the previous installment, I detailed how a stimulus might pass through some or all of the values on the circumplex whilst being assessed. I showed that the hallmarks of natural conservative thought make an appearance in all social undertakings, and thus must form a part of liberal thought and be a necessary part of a liberal moral epistemology. I also pointed out the cyclically self-referential nature of Security, Conformity, and Tradition, which I dubbed the Conservative Vortex, and the reinforcing effect that Benevolence can have on this cycle.

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I stated in my previous post that I would explain why Conservatism, and in particular American Conservatism, is a deviation from human morality more generally, why corporal punishment and views on education are factors in this, and how corporal punishment leads to the epistemological confusion between the social and the general (the category error that I have mentioned). However, before I discuss any of that (which I must postpone to the next installment), I must talk about conformity, given its importance to Conservatism, the early (pre-school) learning environment, and attachment theory. After this we can move on to education and punishment. Here I am very much leaning on the work of others, as this is well outside the area of my original study, but very much the direction I wish to take future work (*waves to potential benefactors*).


The defining values of conservatism, according to Haidt, are the degree to which In-Group, Authority, and Purity are held to be important. My work showed that these can be derived from the values that make up the conservation quadrant in Shalom Schwartz’s Values Circumplex, i.e. Security, Conformity, and Tradition. Of these I think conformity is the most important to look at, as conformity takes for granted the means to security, and becomes tradition if held to for long enough.

Conformity, however, is not a simple, single phenomenon. Deutsch and Gerrard (1955[1]) suggested that there is both normative conformity and informational conformity. Normative conformity being the conformity brought about by group pressure (real or implied) – the desire to fit in, and the fear of rejection. Informational conformity, on the other hand, is where the individual looks to the group for information that they don’t have in order to resolve ambiguity/uncertainty. Mann (1969[2]) suggested a further type of conformity, ‘ingratiational’ which, as the name suggests, is an instrumental type of conformity wherein the individual seeks to gain favour by appearing to conform. As a term, ingratiational conformity is useful, as it singles out a very particular mindset, which I will come back to at a later date. I find Herbert Kelman’s taxonomy more useful, over all.

Kelman (1958, p. 53[3]) defined three types of conformity:

  1. Compliance: “When an individual accepts influence because he hopes to achieve a favourable reaction from another person or group. He adopts the induced behaviour because […] he expects to gain specific rewards or approval and avoid specific punishment or disapproval.”
  2. Identification: “When an individual accepts influence because he wants to establish or maintain a satisfying self-defining relationship to another person or group […] the individual actually believes in the responses which he adopts through identification, but their specific content is more or less irrelevant.”
  3. Internalization: “When an individual accepts influence because the content of the induced behaviour – the ideas and actions of which it is composed – is intrinsically rewarding. He adopts the induced behaviour because it is congruent [consistent] with his value system.”

Deutsch and Gerrard’s coupling of normative and informational conformity both rely on the cognitive appraisal of a situation and a resultant action, and Mann’s is wholly instrumental. With Kelman’s types of conformity we see a transition from compliance at the purely cognitive (System 1) level, to the internalization that shapes one’s (System 2) intuitions. My only concern with the description of ‘Internalization’ is the use of the active voice in its description, it is, by this stage, a mostly passive process – by the time compliance is internalized the cognitive act of acceptance of that influence is in the past. Identification straddles the gap between Compliance and Internalization, hence “establish or maintain.”

One can discuss the ideas of normative and informational conformity in the context of Kelman’s taxonomy. Normative conformity is social conformity where one is educated in compliance and identification with, and finally internalization of, the values considered important by the tribe. Informational conformity, on the other hand, is learning about the world, albeit usually in a social context. This makes for fuzzy boundaries, because facts about the world can include facts about the tribe, whether the tribe accepts them or not, and facts about the world that are not about the tribe can be distorted if they do not fit the tribal narrative, from flat earth and geocentrism, to the naturalness of homosexuality and whether or not climate change is anthropogenic. (As mentioned in a previous post, though, these things can be made to be about the efficacy of authorities, from God to the President, and thus brought into the social domain.) So, conformity is about education, but conformity to the laws of the social environment is (somewhat) optional, conformity to the “laws” of the general environment is not (as in Tim Minchin’s suggestion that those who do not believe in the theory of evolution should maybe extend their disbelief to the theory of gravity, “and just float the fuck away”[4]).

Early Learning

Preceding any formal education into one’s tribe’s beliefs about the social and general environments, a child is first educated by their experiences as an organism in the general environment, such as light, heat, hunger and other bodily functions, and so on. That said, and again reinforcing the idea that metaphors for family describe politics (a la Lakoff), the general environment finds children, in most cases, being raised by one or more close family members, and infants naturally defer to such authorities, and conform to their rules because, physically, they have no alternative, although this, too, is learned, as anyone who has ever been woken by a newborn’s demands for food at 3:30am will attest. Whilst children are in the care of their parents or other caregivers they are going through the compliance-identification-internalization process of coming to understand the world around them, flavoured by their caregivers’ understanding of the world around them. There is no functional distinction between the general and the social. Epley, Waytz and Cacioppo (2007) put it this way:

“…newborn infants are notorious in their need for intensive care giving. Except in extremely rare cases, this care is provided by other humans. The social life of infants in nearly every human culture on the planet, no matter how primitive, is therefore dominated by exposure to and contact with other humans. This exposure and contact is exactly the kind of experience necessary to create detailed, interconnected, and rich representations of human characteristics and traits and to create relatively vague, disconnected, and sparse representations of nonhuman agents’ characteristics and traits. As children age and are exposed to a wider array of nonhuman agents, richer representations of these agents are more likely to develop, and anthropomorphism toward such agents should diminish as a result of the coactivation of alternate non-anthropomorphic representations.”

I’m not being subtle in my use of this quote. In talking about the peculiarities of US Conservatism, we must discuss the significant influence that belief in God has on politics (and vice versa) and the roots of this in anthropocentric education.

Children understand their world in social terms to begin with, by necessity. It is only as they mature that, to inject some Piaget back into the discussion, children start to accommodate differences between what they had previously assimilated as part of the social environment, and what turns out to be part of the general environment. An important example is that of promiscuous teleology – the idea that things in one’s environment have a purpose. Of course, in a social environment, things mostly do have a purpose, chairs are for sitting on, glasses are for drinking from, but in the general environment, it is not true that “rocks are jagged so animals can scratch themselves” (Callaway, 2009[5]). Of course, it is true that chairs can be used as ladders, and glasses can be used as impromptu prisons for spiders, and animals can use rocks to relieve itches.

Deborah Kelemen, from whose work the quote about jagged rocks approximately comes, has done quite a bit of work on children’s teleology (e.g. Kelemen, 1999a[6], b[7], c[8]), and found that it persists into adulthood, but in a very particular way. When under pressure, even university-educated individuals will endorse teleological explanations for things (Kelemen & Rosset, 2009[9]). Now, as it happens, I wouldn’t go quite as far as Kelemen does in her discussion, because I think that some of her stimuli can have non-teleological interpretations, for example ‘‘finches diversified in order to survive” (ibid, p. 4), could be read as teleological at the level of the individual finch (“in order to”), but explanatory at the level of the finch species. Nevertheless, this vestigial teleology that is present in adults, but only expressed in those under some kind of pressure or “when inhibitory control is poor” (ibid, p. 4), is indicative of a larger issue with human learning and intelligence, it is recursive and stratified.

By recursive, I mean recursive. In the case of human thought, one’s current thoughts about a thing rely on one’s prior thoughts about that thing (see Michael Corballis’ excellent ‘The Recursive Mind’ (2014[10]) for a book-length discussion). As such, by ‘stratified’, I mean that some aspect of earlier iterations of the recursive process remain, as is illustrated by this extended multi-part quote from Diamond and Kirkham (2005[11]):

“Adult observers are often astonished to see 3-year-olds fail the simple dimensional-change card-sort task (DCCS; Zelazo, Frye, & Rapus, 1996[12]), especially because the children routinely indicate accurate knowledge of the rules for sorting and then promptly sort incorrectly. In this task, each card contains a simple line drawing of a familiar object (such as a truck or star) colored entirely in a primary color. Children of 3 years generally sort the cards by either color or shape without a single error. However, when asked to switch the criterion for sorting, most 3-year-olds continue to sort by the initially correct criterion.


We (Kirkham et al., 2003[13]) coined the term “attentional inertia” to try to capture this tendency of the cognitive system to stay focused on what it had been focused on. Developmental psychologists universally report that by the age of 4 to 5 years, children “solve” the DCCS task, as evidenced by correct switching from sorting by either shape or color to sorting by the other dimension.

Not so fast! Here we report results from testing adults on this task. As is done with children, we took pains to remind participants of the relevant sorting dimension on each trial before the stimulus appeared. In this computerized version, we also kept the response icons visible throughout, so no one had to remember which response key went with which stimulus attribute. As the results show, adults can indeed switch from sorting by either color or shape to sorting by the other, but attentional inertia is still evident. It remains evident in longer response times (RTs) when the sorting criterion switches and in the persistence of faster RTs throughout the testing session when participants are sorting by the initially relevant dimension.”


In sum, we propose that adults never fully outgrow the cognitive and perceptual biases that are so striking in infants and preschoolers.”

So, here, with the dimensional-change card-sort game, and variants, adults exhibit vestiges of childish behaviour. Instead of getting it wrong, as three year olds do, they seem to get it wrong, initially, but override that before acting. Behaviours or pre-dispositions that are learned, and then unlearned, through childhood are maintained in adulthood, and Kelemen’s work suggests that we can cause people to regress to more childlike representations by putting them under some kind of pressure. Our own personal experiences of being toddler-like if sufficiently tired or hungry should suffice to hammer the point home (indeed, I suspect the inclusion of the word ‘hangry’ in the Oxford Dictionary[14] may well be recognition of this fact). But this is all about explicit facts about the general environment, with varying levels of interference from the social environment – what about social learning? What about those ideas about family that form the basis for ideas about government?

Attachment Theory

As has been illustrated, above, despite being in a ‘learning from the general environment’ mode, infants necessarily get spillover between the general environment and the social environment, mostly because they are learning about both of these, simultaneously. It is only later that the two are split, and it is likely that this split isn’t completely clean, or accurate. It may be that the reverse is true, and attachment to a parent or caregiver, as an idea about reality, spills over into beliefs about the general environment. This gives rise to ‘Religion as Attachment’ as a line of research (e.g. Granqvist, 2010[15]). Pehr Granqvist makes an important point about the impact of parental attachment on religiosity, suggesting that it can happen in two importantly distinct ways: correspondence or compensation. The correspondence pathway suggests that a securely attached child will likely adopt a parent’s religion, at least in part, if they are securely attached. The compensation pathway, by comparison, is the adoption of God as an idealized surrogate attachment (parental) figure.

Diane Benoit (2004[16]) is at pains to make it clear that “attachment is not bonding” (p. 541). The purpose of attachment is not to play with, entertain, feed, set limits for, or teach the child. “Attachment is where the child uses the primary caregiver as a secure base from which to explore and, when necessary, as a haven of safety and a source of comfort” (ibid). “[T]he attachment system is activated by natural “clues to danger” (e.g., separation from the attachment figure, physical illness, or pain) and terminated by “clues to safety” (most notably, physical contact with the attachment figure)” (Granqvist, 2010[17]). This being the case, it is probably fair to say that whilst playing with, entertaining, feeding, setting limits for, or teaching a child may not be definitional of attachment, they are likely to, in sum, be “clues to safety.”

It seems clear that attachment is a learning process. According to Bowlby’s (1969) original formulation of attachment theory newborns express indiscriminate attachment behaviour (attempting to elicit caring behaviour from all people), becoming discriminating at around three months (indicating recognition of those adults that are regularly part of their world), and finally adopting specific attachment behaviour at around eight months, at which point the caregiver becomes a secure base to return to in the case of “clues to danger.” (It seems appropriate to suggest that a parent, here, is complying with, identifying with, and internalizing the relationship with, a child, and possibly the child is, in some sense, laying the groundwork (or having the groundwork laid) for future compliance, identification and internalization.) By around three years of age the attachment relationship is somewhat more like a partnership, in that children learn to defer their need for overt expressions of attachment whilst the attachment figure goes about their own business. From around five, attachment lessens as children become more able to spend extended time away from the attachment figure, relying instead upon more abstract and indirect aspects of the attachment relationship.

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All of this relies on sensitive and loving caregiving leading to secure attachment. As we can see in Table 1 (Diane Benoit, 2004[18]), even insensitive caregiving can lead to an organized strategy to dealing with distress (and indeed, religion as attachment suggests that God is an idealized parental figure – an organized compensatory approach).

Given the vast array of different cultural practices with regard to childrearing, we would expect there to be differences between nations as to the types of attachment we find. This is indeed what Van Ijzendoorn & Kroonenberg (1988[19]) found (see table 2 below). However, whilst some of the differences in the table seem stark, Van Ijzendoorn & Kroonenberg note that there was 1.5 times more variance within each country’s sample (where there was more than one sample) as there is between the countries. As this meta-analysis only includes single samples from some of the countries, the likelihood of some key cultural variation being present, such as religion or socio-economic status, no major conclusions can be drawn. It is of note for example that with 18 studies from the US, the result is similar to the overall average (65, 20.4, 14.6), which implies a regression to the mean, which by extension implies a commonality to parenting that transcends national boundaries.

As one might suspect, avoidant and resistant attachment both show up as risk factors for later issues, but as this represents around 35% of the population, it is not a useful predictor. The insecure-disorganized attachment profile, on the other hand, has very high rates of psychopathology and social maladjustment associated with it (Benoit, 2004), so it is as well that it is generally very low in the general population.

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Attachment to Ideology

Weber and Federico (2007), state that “the primary goal of attachment behavior is the alleviation of anxiety and an enduring sense of felt security (Sroufe & Waters, 1977).” Recall that the quelling of anxiety was central to conservation – the implementation of rigid predictability in an unpredictable world through conformity and tradition, giving rise to security. What they found was that attachment anxiety had a direct effect on the belief that the world is essentially a dangerous place, and these beliefs lead to a more authoritarian political style; an avoidant attachment style lead to beliefs that the world is a competitive jungle, which leads to a more socially dominant political style. Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) come to a broadly similar conclusion, but they conceptualize adult attachment (which is to say, the result of infant attachment) as secure, dismissing (avoidant?), fearful, or preoccupied (see Fig. 1).

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To put this in the context of the Schwartz-Duval model, the avoidant (dismissing) attachment style leads to a Social Dominance Orientation (SDO: Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth & Malle, 1994[20]), this seems to be central to the self-enhancement quadrant, nestled between Achievement and Power, and thus a central defining characteristic of Libertarianism. Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA: Altemeyer, 1996[21]) is central to the conservation quadrant, as previously discussed (and maps onto the fearful type in Fig. 1). Altemeyer (1998[22]) also notes that there are individuals that are a worrisome combination of both of these traits, not just as politically motivated, and believing in hierarchy, but with a hankering to be at the top of that hierarchy, i.e. politically motivated, come what may (unless a more dominant, more authoritarian, leader asserts themselves). To put this in a “real world” context: whilst it’s hard to know how much is an act, and how much is real; Donald Trump’s behaviour suggests that he will attempt to assert social dominance over Clinton, and seem like a tough and determined leader to his authoritarian followers, but it’s already clear that he would genuflect before Putin (and possibly Netanyahu). And, to reference back to an earlier point, Trump’s claims that the Bible is his favourite book (Merritt, 2016a[23]) is an example of ingratiational conformity, which seems to be working with Evangelical conservative followers, if not their leaders (Merritt, 2016b[24]). The model is rounded out by the preoccupied type, which seems to relate to Haidt’s Religious Liberals, and the secure type are liberals, as per most attachment-ideology research.


The primary question about the relationship between attachment and ideology is how much of it is genetic, and how much of it is learned in the environment. For my purposes, the specifics are not especially important, merely that there are aspects of both, and interactions between the two. Indeed one of my complaints with Haidt is that the culturally constructed aspects of American conservatism seem to be all but ignored when claiming to base all human morality on it. Spassena Koleva (a colleague of Haidt’s), along with Blanka Rip (Koleva & Rip, 2009), suggest that attachment style can express either a relational need or a relational habit (which seems like Granqvist’s correspondence or compensation by another name). A satisfied need for secure attachment during infancy (an internalized sense of attachment) leads to broadly liberal individuals – unsatisfied, it leads to broadly conservative individuals. However, those that seek secure attachment on an ongoing basis are repeatedly securely attached, and are broadly conservative, as compared to those that are avoidantly attached, and are broadly liberal. This seems to be another way to conceptualize the Social Dominance-Authoritarianism continua outlined by Weber and Federico (2007). It does allow for the possibility of interaction between genetic predispositions and subsequent social drivers to compliance, identification and internalization of group norms that fulfill attachment needs. An unsatisfied need for secure attachment seems like a fairly certain driver for the ongoing habit to seek attachment, and indeed, unsatisfied attachment seems to drive compliance-like behaviour, ahead of identification with, and internalization of, a particular (political) group.


What I hope to have shown here is that early childhood education, prior to formal education, has an impact on political orientation. We can’t reliably detach all of this from genetics, but we can show that rejecting, inconsistent, or in other ways atypical parenting can lead to psychopathological or socially conservative outcomes, over and above what we might expect to be genetic. We’ve seen that the outcomes from attachment do map over the Schwartz-Duval model, at least somewhat, and that this is something to pursue.

Moving forward

Next we will look at the specifics of American conservative approaches to education, bringing the nurture aspect to the fore, and looking at the influence of Protestantism on this. As such we will look at the impact of ideas such as rote-learning, corporal punishment on learning, beliefs about the self, and others, and overall world-view.

[1] Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51(3), 629-636.

[2] Mann, L (1969). Social Psychology. New York: Wiley.

[3] Kelman, H. C. (1958). Compliance, identification, and internalization: Three processes of attitude change. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2(1), 51-60.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9uIMR8yCPg

[5] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16687-humans-may-be-primed-to-believe-in-creation/

[6] Kelemen, D. (1999a). Function, goals and intention: Children’s teleological reasoning about objects. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3(12), 461-468.

[7] Kelemen, D. (1999b). The scope of teleological thinking in preschool children. Cognition, 70(3), 241-272.

[8] Kelemen, D. (1999c). Why are rocks pointy? Children’s preference for teleological explanations of the natural world. Developmental Psychology, 35(6), 1440.

[9] Kelemen, D., & Rosset, E. (2009). The human function compunction: Teleological explanation in adults. Cognition, 111(1), 138-143.

[10] Corballis, M. C. (2014). The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9424.html

[11] Diamond, A., & Kirkham, N. (2005). Not quite as grown-up as we like to think parallels between cognition in childhood and adulthood. Psychological Science, 16(4), 291-297. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1855149/

[12] Zelazo, P. D., Frye, D., & Rapus, T. (1996). An age-related dissociation between knowing rules and using them. Cognitive development, 11(1), 37-63. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Philip_Zelazo2/publication/223928497_An_age-related_dissociation_between_knowing_rules_and_using_them/links/5681ac9608ae1975838f908b.pdf

[13] Kirkham, N. Z., Cruess, L. & Diamond, A. (2003). Helping children apply their knowledge to their behavior on a dimension-switching task. Developmental Science, 6(5), 449-467. http://www.devcogneuro.com/Publications/kirkhametalcardsorting2003.pdf

[14] http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/press-releases/oxforddictionaries-com-quarterly-update-new-words-added-today-include-hangry-grexit-and-wine-oclock/

[15] Granqvist, P. (2010). Religion as Attachment: The Godin Award Lecture, Archive for the Psychology of Religion 32, 5-24.

[16] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2724160/

[17] Granqvist, P. (2010). Religion as Attachment: The Godin Award Lecture, Archive for the Psychology of Religion 32, 5-24.

[18] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2724160/

[19] Van Ijzendoorn, M. H., & Kroonenberg, P. M. (1988). Cross-cultural patterns of attachment: A meta-analysis of the strange situation. Child Development, 147-156. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marinus_Van_IJzendoorn/publication/28648620_Cross-Cultural_Patterns_of_Attachment_A_Meta-Analysis_of_the_Strange_Situation/links/00b7d52b7ebb4839d6000000.pdf

[20] Pratto, F., Sidanius, J., Stallworth, L. M., & Malle, B. F. (1994). Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 741–743. https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3207711/Sidanius_SocialDominanceOrientation.pdf?sequence=

[21] Altemeyer, B. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[22] Altemeyer, B. (1998). The other “authoritarian personality.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 30, 47–92.

[23] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/trumps-bible-fail/478425/

[24] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/06/trump-and-the-evangelicals-a-match-made-in-well/488552/

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