Blog: Essays

Sacred Values, Decision Making, Changing Minds


Neuroimaging 'will to fight' for sacred values: an empirical case study with supporters of an AQ associate (2018); Nafees Hamid et al. Research spokesperson: Scott Atran, an adjunct research professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School and Institute for Social Research

Sacred values are preferences, beliefs and practices that communities deem protected from material trade-offs

Self-reporting of support for violence appears insensitive to material costs and benefits, and asking people to trade sacred values for material benefits provokes moral outrage.

This feature of intergroup conflict, where people fight on when odds of victory are low, suggests choices made independently of calculated risks and likely outcomes. If so, then a primary focus on undestanding, preventing or deterring such behaviors through utilitarian cost-imposition strategies may be insufficient.

Although behavioral work suggests willingness to fight and die for sacred values is relatively insensitive to cost-benefit reasoning, it may be possible to modulate it using methods that do not entail material incentives or threats.

Research on radicalization distinguishes between deradicalization and disengagement, suggesting that former violent extremists rarely change their beliefs (deradicalize) but more often lose their motivation to defent them (disengage). [32. Deradicalization or Disengagement? A process in need of clarity ...; J. Horgan (Perspect. Terror. 2. 3-8)] Accordingly, we conjectured that it might be possible to induce flexibility in the way people defend their sacred values.

different decision pathways

distinguish radicalized from non-radicalized individuals (an important, but different, research topic).

Willingness to fight and die ratings were substantially higher for sacred values (mean 6.61 out of 7 points) than for non-sacred values (mean 3.8). Willingness to fight and die ratings were also conveyed faster in trials comprising sacred values (4.72 vs 5.49)... Value sacredness was stable after six months.

the sacred value condition... involved less activation in neural areas previously associated with cognitive control and utilitarian reasoning.

For both sacred and non-sacred values there was a significant change in willingness to fight and die ratings in the direction established by peers after participants received conflicting (peers-lower) community feedback, with no statistical interaction with value sacredness. In addition, the sacred values condition evoked higher degrees of both moral outrage (built as an average of anger, contempt, an disgust scores) and joy at peers' willingness to fight and die ratings compared with the non-sacred value condition. Post manipulation moral outrage ratings were substantially higher... when values were sacred...

This observation is consistent with the role of the insula in social aversion, including reactions of disgust and indignation.

Nevertheless, the moderating effect of social influence on willingness to fight and die was independent of moral outrage, suggesting that social influence may affect committment to willingness to fight and die in an implicit way.

Overall, these observations are consistent with the idea that choices involving sacred values are less dependent on cost-benefit calculations than choices involving non-sacred values, and the view of sacred values as moral imperatives guiding goal-oriented actions.

deep-seated political conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conclict, the Iranian nuclear programme, the Muslim-Hindu conlict...

Figuring out the neural mechanisms that sustain sacred value processing will be key to: (i) validating behavioural modulation effects on value committment by factors that differentially affect sacred and non-sacred values, and (ii) comaring neural substrates of sacred value processing in different samples with diverse cultural backgrounds in order to define cross-cultural commonalities in sacred value processing.

The question remains why there were no brain regions associated with affective processing, such as the amygdala, which activated during the sacred compared with the non-sacred value condition. We believe that the most likely explanation for this owes to our experimental paradigm not being sensitive enough to detect the differential neural activity associated with affective regions.

decisions regarding sacred values may rely on deontic rights and wrongs, whereas decisions over non-sacred values may rely on cost-benefit ponderation.

a heuristic making decisions easy to solve, or cached-offline, whereas decisions regarding non-sacred values would involve some degree of calculation.

community feedback shifted willingness to fight and die ratings in the direction established by peers

Our findings suggest that even when social network interventions are unlikely to reduce commitment to a sacred value, they could reduce adherence to violent options.


then material incentives (economic carrots) or disincentives (sanctions as sticks) only back re.

We found that the brain used di erent networks when considering di erent causes. There were areas we saw that were inhibited, silent, for sacred causes. These were the areas we call deliberative. These are involved in assessing the pros and cons. With sacred causes when people are deciding how much they should ght and die, they are deciding much faster. It’s not a rational decision, but a rapid duty-bound response regardless of real costs or likely consequences. They are doing what they believe.

Arguments and attempts at persuasion that rely on rational and seemingly reasonable attempts to pull people away also will have limited impact because the part of their brain associated with deliberative reasoning has deactivated. Moreover, such strategies do not reach out to the individual.

We also have to nd out when and why people lock in to sacred values, and how those values might be de-sacralized.

Another implication is that the people best poised to get others to abandon violence without abandoning values are those who hold the same values. This con rmed what I had previously observed in Sulawesi, when Sala preachers were able to dissuade a suicide attack group from killing others and dying themselves.



How to Change Someone's Mind


Notes on the recent research done on ChangeMyView

Papers cited:

[1] Designing for Civil Conversations: Lessons Learned from ChangeMyView (2017); Shagun Jhaver, Pranil Vora, and Amy Bruckman

[2] Winning Arguments: Interaction Dynamics and Persuasion Strategies in Good-faith Online Discussions (2016); Chenhao Tan et al.

COMMUNITY - different settings, different conversations

[In CMV] "Users tend to conform to standards of thoughtfulness in commenting behavior set by others on online news discussion sites [1]

It may be difficult to influence civil behavior in a new or existing community if the existing participants don't display such behavior. [1]

on most other subreddits, users are more committed to defending their own views rather than understanding others' perspectives. [1]

such communities are not suitable for civil disagreements. [1]

creating example content that suggests the desired norms and use gamification to encourage civil contributions. [1]

Participants said that CMV users are intelligent, knowledgeable and active on the community. This makes posting on CMV rewarding. [1]

Echoroom effects, forming relationship and relationship expectations

when users share a common social identity on an online community, they are more susceptible to group influence and stereotyping, despite participant anonymity. [1]

discussion quality is monitored by moderators, and posters commit to an openness to changing their minds [2]

CMV rules also encourage commenters not to post any low effort comments [1]

CMV rules explicitly forbid users from being rude or hostile to other members or accuse others of being unwilling to change their views. Many participants felt that a strict enforcement of these rules has been critical in maintaining the civil nature of conversations. Participant P-4, who is a CMV moderator, said that the moderation on CMV tends to be stricter than on other subreddits [1] ... it makes people mroe cautious in how they are posting and encourages polite posts. [1]

making sure that OPs explain why they hold their beliefs and do so at reasonable length (500 characters or more), and that OPs engage in conversation with challengers in a timely fashion. [2]

(advantages of using CMV as a data source:) The OP has, in principle, expressed an openness to other points of view, so that we might hope to extract a sufficient number of view-changing examples [2]

"I've seen threads go ugly so fast [on other subreddits] and I think that having active mods helps CMV not get bogged down by trolls." P-5 [1]

to "soapbox" their point of view instead of engaging in a genuine inquiry about the topic. [1]


The use of delta and deltaboards provides strong competitive cues to CMV users and motivate them to adopt behaviors that earn them reputation [1]

gamification cannot help a system if the entity being gamified does not already have some intrinsic value for the users [1]

weaving gamification into this process deepens their engagement and desire to participate [1]

Competition-based incentives that are central to gamification can undermine participants' motivation [1]

demotivating effects of gamification [1]

META - how we find out how persuasion works

an ideal setting for the study of persuasion would allow access to the reasoning behind people's views in addition to the full interations [2]

predicting which of the two similar counterarguments will succeed in changing the same view. [2]

stylistic choices in presentation of an argument [2]


Information doesn't necesarily lead to understanding or change. It is a revealing, not a transforming, medium. [1]

multiple factors are at play in persuasion. Beyond the characteristics of arguments themselves. [2]

in the majority of cases, however, opinions are not changed [2]

possibly depending on how strongly the OP holds them and how the OP acquired and maintained them [2]

Changing someone's opinion is a complex process, often involving repeated interactions between the participants [2]

because people can see time and time again what works [1]

topics that are the most malleable (food, eat, eating, thing, meat, read, book, lot, books, women) and the most resistent (government, state, world, country, countries, sex, women, fat, person, weight)


First person pronouns are strong indicators of malleability, but first person plural pronouns correlate with resistence. In psychology, self-affirmation has been found to indicate open-mindedness and make beliefs more likely to yield ... first person plurals can indicate a diluted sense of responsibility for the view [2]

The use of more paragraphs, bold formatting, and bulleted lists are all higher when a malleable view is expressed. Taking more time and presenting the reasons behind an opinion in a more elaborated form can indicate more engagement. [2]

Dominance is the most predictive of malleability: the average amount of control expressed through the words used is higher when describing a malleable view... The same holds for happiness (captured by valence). In terms of arousal, malleable opinions are expressed significantly more serenely, ending on a particularly calm note in the final quarter, while stubborn opinions are expressed with relatively more excitement. [2]

resistant views tend to be expressed using more decisive words such as anyone, certain, ever, nothing, and wrong, while help and please are malleable words [2]

comparative adjectives and adverbs are signs of malleability, while superlative adjectives suggest stubbornness. [2]

The overall low scores suggest that this is indeed a challenging task for both humans and machines. [2]

(Not yet studied): sequence of discourse connectors (first-but-because; now-then-instead) [2]


The language used in arguing, however, is under one's complete control [2]

Many participants pointed out that they repeatedly observed that users who were able to change the views of OPs were those who were polite in their posts. This inspired them to be civil in their own comments. [1]

frequency of certain types of words may be associated with persuasion success (Arousal, Concreteness, Dominance, Valence) [2]

successful arguments being by using calmer words [2]

when it comes to normalized counts, though, only italicizing exhibits significance [2]

Definite articles ("the" instead of "a") are preferred, which suggests that specificity is important in persuasive arguments [2]

Persuasive opening arguments use fewer positive words, suggesting more complex patterns of positive emotion in longer arguments

persuasive arguments use a significantly larger absolute number of personal pronouns [2]

Hedging is more common in persuasive arguments under root reply and full path ("It could be the case")... Their presence might signal a weaker argument, but alternatively, they may make an argument easier to accept by softening its tone. [2]

if anything, it seems better to avoid using question marks [2]

One common practice in argumentation is to quote the other party's words. However, this does not seem to be a useful strategy for the root reply. [2]


dissimilarity with the original post in word usage, while existing theories mostly study matching in terms of attitude functions or subject self-discrepency [2]

Both effective and ineffective arguments start off more similar with the original post; effective arguments ramain less similar overall. [2]


a larger number of words is strongly correlated with success [2]

persuasive arguments have significantly more of both number of paragraphs and number of sentences [2]


challenger that enters the fray before another tends to have a higher likelihood of changing the OP's opinion; this holds even for first-time CMV challengers [2]

A late entry might give the challenger time to read attempts by other challengers and better formulate their arguments, while an early entry might give her the first-mover advantage. [2]

Most deltas were given to the first and second people who entered. Challengers who entered later saw a steadily-reducing liklihood of getting a delta.


the more participants there are in the effort to persuade the OP, the larger the liklihood of the OP changing their view [2]

a saturation in how much value each new challenger adds beyond a certain point [2]

-It seems that around 20 challengers makes a post involving enough to produce real results. Between 20 challengers and 130 challengers the delta percentage goes from 25% to 40%, but when you add more than 130 challengers it doesn't go up past 40%.


more than one reply in a rooted path-unit correspond to a higher chance that the OP will be persuaded. So, while the challenger's opening argument should be important, statements made later in the rooted path-unit could be more important [2]

Deltas were awarded, on average, 3% for first reply, 5% for second-deep reply, 6% for third-deep reply, 5% for fourth-deep, and then shot sharply down to 0 percent by the fifth-deep reply, shoing there is no point to adding comments after the fourth-deep in a path-unit.


since single-challenger subtrees consistently outperform multiple-challenger subtrees in terms of conversation rate [2]

might suggest that when talking about the same counterargument, challengers might not be adding value to it, or they might even disagree; alternatively, root replies that attract multiple challengers might be less effective to begin with. [2]

Although both single- and multip-challenger subtrees got more deltas the deeper the conversation went (from 2 to 4 exchanges deep), single-challenger subtrees went from 7% to 8% liklihood of getting a delta, while multiples went from 3% to 4%.

include links as evidence--an interesting contrast to studies of the backfire effect: "When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger." However, it hurts to be too intense in the counterargument. [2]

.com links seem to be the most powerful (compared with .edu and pdf documents) [2]


a member's success rate goes up with the number of attempts made. This observation can be explained by at least two reasons: the success rate of frequent challengers improves over time, and/or frequent challengers are better at persuasion from the beginning. [2]

suggesting that the success rate of frequent challengers does not increase. It is worth noting that this lack of apparent improvement might be explained by a gradual development of a "taste" for original posts that are harder to address. [2]


[some people] felt responsible for posting on CMV to create a dialog with people that they may not agree with beforehand. [1]


is benefit-cost analysis the only way to convince a utilitarian? [2]

Harvard negotiations:

If you like someone you might play lost-win. If you don't care for the relationship you might play win-lose.

Sometimes cooperation is not possible because negotiators are going too fast into solutions. You hear the problem and immediately suggest a solution. All parties are doing this. You end up with compromise. To get to win-win, based on your interest you should first develop criteria that must be fulfilled by a solution you could say yes to. What condititions must a solution you could say yes to fulfil? 'How would you realize that a restaurant is a good restaurant for you?' Of those that fulfil these criteria, there will be lots of restaurants. Before creating a solution, agree on certain principles that must be fulfilled by the solution.

People like to chose. You should have options to chose from. Develop maybe 2, 3 or 4 options, then evaluate your options by the criteria. More sustainable because they have a choice.


Lessons from Ecology


In the World Around Us

A lesser known aspect of predators is that they protect species lower in the food chain, and allow ecological niches to exist that provide habitats for species that would otherwise not be able to live in the area.

No one can "command" a bird to flock in a certain direction, because the travel pattern of the flock emerges from its own movement. - The Living Company

Tolerance of internal weakness, ironically enough, allows the rose to be stronger in the long run. - Ibid

The Snowshoe Hare is a "keystone" species. ... There is a well-established cycle of boom and bust for snowshoe hares which occurs on an average of 10 years (and which may be related to sun spots and rainy periods). The hare peaks are followed by an inevitable crash directly affect the numbers of animals, particularly lynx, dependent on them as an important food source. Hares overeat their environment, particularly willows, which then respond to over-browsing by producing a chemical defense to repel the hares, thus inducing starvation and their cycle spirals downward. This is soon followed by decreased number of lynx, red fox, wolverine and birds of prey. - Kantishna Wilderness Trails

When hunting wiped out the sea otter from the B.C. coast, the kelp forests disappeared from many areas. By limiting the number of sea urchins, the sea otter promotes the development of kelp forests which in turn provide habitat for fish and invertebrate species. - Biological Principles

In the Rift Valley in Kenya, there is an 'Eden'-like protected area known as the Maasai Mara, which teems with thousands of wildebeest, zebra, hyena, buffalo, impala, gazelle, giraffe, lion, and rhino. Elephants come here to age past their last set of teeth and die of malnutrition. Animal species are also becoming unhealthy due to lack of natural selection and inbreeding.

In Agriculture

[Chilean peasant farmers, who practice a "lazy" type of potato farming that could be improved 15 percent by more systematic weeding and cropping of a smaller variety of types which are higher-yielding] are not locked into a particular set of farming practices, or a particular type of potato; they may be inefficient at times, but they have diversity bred into their everyday practice, diversity that allows them to meet unforeseen disaster. - The Living Company


B.C. has few endemic species due to it being a relatively new landscape due to glaciation that used to cover most of it.

Since 1900, the Sahara has expanded by 250 km to the south, covering an additional area of 6000 square kilometers. Desertification in the Sahel can affect more than one billion of its inhabitants. 70% of the arid area has deteriorated and water resources have disappeared, leading to soil degradation. The loss of topsoil means that plants cannot take root firmly and can be uprooted by torrential water or strong winds. - UN on Desertification

Currently, the Gobi desert is the fastest moving desert on Earth; according to some researchers, the Gobi Desert swallows up over 1,300 square miles of land annually. This has destroyed many villages in its path. Currently, photos show that the Gobi Desert has expanded to the point the entire nation of Croatia could fit inside its area. This is causing a major problem for the people of China. They will soon have to deal with the desert as it creeps closer. Although the Gobi Desert itself is still a distance away from Beijing, reports from field studies state there are large sand dunes forming only 70 km (43 m) outside the city. - NY Times' "Living in China's Expanding Deserts

In Society

Variables that do not corrolate with longer life spans for the poor: religion, environment, and health insurance. A variable that does matter: How many rich people live in a city. More rich people in a city means the poor there live longer. [Reason for this not worked out yet] - Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, "Everybody Lies," citing Chetty et al.

Regionally / Globally

The real reason that the Europeans did not go inland and seize the Gold Mines of West Africa or Southern Rhodesia, for example, was that the Africans there were already well enough organized to exploit these resources themselves and to keep the overland trade in their own hands. It was in large measure the progress already made by the Africans in earlier centuries that enabled them to resist the modern age for so long. - A Short History of Africa, by Oliver and Fage

In Business

The flocking [at business training meetings] is intensive; course attendees nearly always tell you afterwards, "It was not so much what I learned in the official sessions, but what I picked up from my colleagues during the breaks that was important." - The Living Company

Most innovative companies are run by teams. This is because teams have a higher capacity to learn than individuals. - Ibid

Every company we found that had been in existence for 100 years or more had gone through a period of adaptation so profound that it had had to thoroughly alter its core business portfolio. Some had made this change several times. ... (An example: Booker McConnell, the "Guyanese company," it's first business was sugar production in South America. It then began spreading its investments under an outward-oriented management, in anticipation of the nationalization of its original core business. It moved into shopkeeping and shipping, as well as into publishing (through an "Authors Division"). Its annual Booker prize for literature is famous, although Booker McConnell's corporate identity remains largely unknown.) - Ibid

[These companies] found it easier to adapt because they had tolerance. Tolerance was the core quality that made it possible to diversify and decentralize, yet still manage the entity as a whole. These companies were particularly tolerant of activities in the margin: small, seemingly strange businesses that might have been pruned off the corporate rosebush elsewhere, but here were given enough resources to straggle along until the corporation needed them as an outlet for endeavor. - Ibid

[T]he senior manager of a company should make fewer decisions about the business itself and spend that time instead focused on creating conditions in which other people within the company can make good decisions about the business. - Ibid

Under monopoly conditions, a stable market or other conditions in which the company maintains control, the managers will do well to optimize efficiency. - Ibid

[The art of management] consists of the daily activity of steering the institution in a direction that will ensure that it, and the entities within it, move toward their full development. - Ibid

The health of a company is under constant attack from the inside and the outside. The attacks come from individuals or groups of individuals who do not want to be part of the whole. They are for their own purposes. It does not matter how honorable or dishonorable these purposes may be. The health of the community is under threat. - Ibid

Openness inevitably means that something other than oneself enters one's body. - Ibid

[When a large company buys a smaller] The tribes within the merged institution continue to see themselves as separate entities. If I come to your country as part of the merger of our companies, you will still see me as an outsider. You will trust me less than someone from your home institution. On the next promotion you make, you will seek out someone from your own bank; and on my part, I will attribute my failure to get the job to the fact that you are a member of the other tribe. Thus we will trust each other even less as time goes on. ... Shell [the buyer] did not show a rejection mechanism. But Billiton did. The Billiton entity ailed and, in effect, died. Less than a decade later, nearly all of the senior Billiton managers had left--notwithstanding the utmost care Shell had exerted to leave the original Billiton management in control. We had tried to prevent Shell managers from overpowering the new family member, but the ecological relationship between the two companies made that impossible.- Ibid

Every intruder has a choice: it can select a symbiotic relationship or it can pursue its own benefit, to the exclusion of all others. ... The parasite plans its exit on its own terms. Any other intruder exits through the host's natural functions and systems, such as excretion and procreation. A parasite breaks through the host's natural functions, exiting in a way that may destroy or harm the host. ... The primary difference between members and parasites, then, will have to do with their method of exit. Members will retire, whereas parasites will serve for their own sweet time and leave by a different route. - Ibid

When new members enter the system, make sure that there is a contract based on long-term harmonization of goals. - Ibid

[Money] is the means by which the company gets access to resources--by which it remunerates its people and its shareholders. - Ibid

Legal effects

Las semillas que los campesinos usan para producir las cosechas que comemos son la combinación del donde la naturaleza y el donde nuestros ancestros... Guardar las semillas e intercambiarlas es un deber. Infortunadamente las nuevas leyes depropiedad intelectual,las nuevas leyes de patentes sobre semillas les permiten a las compañías tratar el intercambio y almacenamiento de semillas como un crimen.

In Our Bodies

People experience a dramatic decline in cravings for sweet foods when they eat breakfast. However, breakfasts that are high in protein also reduced cravings for savory - or high-fat - foods. On the other hand, if breakfast is skipped, these cravings continue to rise throughout the day. - Prof. Heather Leidy

Dopamine levels are blunted in individuals who are overweight or obese, which means that it takes much more stimulation - or food - to elicit feelings of reward; we saw similar responses within breakfast-skippers. To counteract the tendencies to overeat and to prevent weight gain that occurs as a result of overeating, we tried to identify dietary behaviors that provide these feelings of reward while reducing cravings for high-fat foods. Eating breakfast, particularly a breakfast high in protein, seems to do that. - ibid

In Philosophy

When the Way rules the world, Coach horses fertilize fields; When the Way does not rule, War horses breed in the parks. - Lao Tzu

As taboos increase, people grow poorer; When weapons abound, the state grows chaotic; Where skills multiply, novelties flourish; As statutes increase, more criminals start. - Lao Tzu

Readings in Ecology

Of lemmings and snowshoe hares: The ecology of northern Canada The Snowshoe Hare The Living Company (book), "Ecology" section, by Arie de Geus

E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology

This article can be discussed on r/TTTThis.