When explaining becomes a sin

As the cacophony of politicians and commentators replaces that of the police sirens, look out for the particularly shrill voice of those who condemn as evil anyone with an alternative explanation for the looting than theirs. For an example, take the Daily Mail headline for Tuesday, which reads “To blame the cuts is immoral and cynical. This is criminality pure and simple”

If I’ve got them right, this means that when considering what factors contributed to the looting, identifying government spending cuts is not just incorrect, but actively harmful. For the Mail, the issue of explanations for the looting is of such urgency that they are comfortable condemning anyone who seeks an explanation beyond that of the looting being “criminality pure and simple”. What could be motivating this?

Research into moral psychology provides a lead. One of my favourite papers is “Thinking the unthinkable: sacred values and taboo cognitions” by Philip Tetlock (2003). In this paper he talks about how our notion of the sacred affect our thinking. The argument he makes is that in all cultures some values are sacred and we are motivated to not just to punish people who offend against these values, but also to punish people who even think about offending these values. The key experiment, from Tetlock et al, 2000, concerns a vignette about a sick child and hospital manager, who must decided if the hospital budget can afford an expensive treatment for the sick child. After reading about the manager’s decision, participants in the experiment are given the option to say how they felt about the manager, and to answer questions about such things as whether they think he should be removed from his job, and whether, if he were a friend of theirs, they would end their friendship with him. Unsurprisingly, if the vignette concludes by revealing that the manager decided the treatment was too expensive, participants are more keen to punish the manager than if he decided that the hospital could afford to treat the child. The explanation in terms of sacred values is straightforward: life, especially the life of a child, is a sacred value; money is not and so should not be weighed against the sacred value of life. But the most interesting contrast in the experiment is between participants who read vignettes in which the manager took a long time to make his decision and those in which he didn’t. Regardless of whether he decided for or against paying for the treatment, reading that the manager thought for a long time before making a decision provoked participants to want to punish the manager more. Tetlock argues that we are motivated to punish not just those who offend against sacred values, but also those who appear to be thinking about offending against sacred values – by weighing them against non-sacred values. In an added twist, Tetlock and colleagues also offered participants the opportunity to engage in ‘moral cleansing’ by subscribing to an organ donation scheme. Those participants who read about the manager who chose to save the money over saving the child, and those who read about the manager who took a long time to make his decision, regardless of what it was, were most motivated to donate their organs. This shows, Tetlock argues, that it is merely enough for the idea of breaking a taboo to flicker across your consciousness to provoke feelings of disgust at ourselves (which provoke the need for moral cleansing).

Tetlock’s papers are a full and nuanced treatment of how sacred values and taboo cognitions affect our thinking. I have only presented a snapshot here, and can but recommend that you read the full papers yourself, but I’d like to break from the science to draw some fairly obviously conclusions.

The Daily Mail editors feel they are in a moral community in which society is threatened by the looters and by those who give them succour, ‘the handwringing apologists on the Left’ who ‘blame the violence on poverty, social deprivation and a disaffected…youth’ (to quote from the rest of Tuesday’s editorial). For some, the looting is an immoral act of such a threatening nature that to think about it too hard, to react with anything other than a vociferous condemnation, is itself worthy of condemnation.

The sad thing about adopting this stance is that it prevents media commentators from thinking about how they themselves might have contributed to the looting. The footage on TV and in newspapers such as the Daily Mail has been vivid and hysterical. Television has shown the most dramatic footage of the looting, while headlines have screamed about the police losing control and anarchy on the streets. You don’t have to be a scholar of psychology to realise that this kind of media environment might play a role in encouraging the copycat looting sprees that sprung up outside of London (although if you were, you would be aware of the literature on how newspaper headlines and TV footage, can provoke immitation in the wider population).

Some, like the Daily Mail, see any attempt at explaining the looting as excusing the looting. The looting, like so much for them, is a moral issue of such virulence that they see people who understand society differently as part of the same threat to society as the looters. Research in moral psychology provides some clues about their style of thinking. It doesn’t, as far as I know, provide much of a clue about how to alter it.


Tetlock, P. E. (2003). Thinking the unthinkable: Sacred values and taboo cognitions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(7), 320–324.

Tetlock, P.E. et al. (2000) The psychology of the unthinkable: taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 78, 853– 870

See also Vaughan’s Riot Psychology

34 thoughts on “When explaining becomes a sin”

  1. Good post, but there is one point which I think needs to be made, specifically about the canard that governement cuts would be to blame (as opposed to more realistic explanations like high unemployment and failures in parenting).

    Explaining is not a sin; but the type of explanation can be. People who try to “explain” that “government cuts” would be the cause of the widespread violence and looting we’ve witnessed somehow overlook the fact that there have been no cuts yet; the present UK government still spends more than its predecessor (http://www.economist.com/blogs/buttonwood/2011/08/political-risk-and-austerity). They also refuse to see that these are not riots inspired by political reasons but looting sprees – something that, by contrast, their perpetrators have no trouble admitting. So it’s not the “explaining” that is sinful, it’s the pathetic attempt by some on the left to misuse what has happened to grind their usual ideological axes, without any concession to truth, good taste and elementary morality.

    1. You’re misinformed about cuts. The fact overall spending is higher doesn’t mean individual services haven’t been cut – for example, the majority of youth centres around Tottenham have been closed under this government.

      It’s also obvious that something can be the cause of social unrest whether rioters are consciously protesting against it or not. For example, David Cameron seems convinced the riots are down to bad parenting, but it would be ridiculous to say he is wrong because the rioters weren’t protesting about bad parenting.

    2. “Explaining is not a sin; but the type of explanation can be.”

      A sin? Really?

      I took the original article to be using the term “sin” in a wry tongue-in-cheek sort of way, poking fun at the Mail and all the other false moralisers.

      How on earth can “the type of explanation” be a “sin”? You might as well say that explaining disease causation by germ theory / humours / past lives is a sin, or that intelligent design / evolutionary theory is a sin.

      Explanations are just theories and everyone should be entitled to put forward their explanations and have them examined in a rational way.

      In my observation ideologues and their followers sadly almost alweays treat explanations that are not santioned in their holy writings as “sin” and that applies equally to the liberal left as to the right. Wrong thought in their narrow worldviews is a form of crime, sin or disease, and they fear being polluted if they have non-orthodox thoughts.

      Any form of cure for this seems as doubtful as a cure for the human condition.

  2. Reframing the issue seems the only viable strategy to circumvent this reflex of outright condemnation of questioning sacred beliefs. At least there is some conclusive evidence that world views are not as rigid as we may fear (I remember a Danziger and Ward study). Philosophical papers and papers from linguistics that overlap with the cognitive science field have some convincing insight on framing, world views and metaphors. I think the stanford study on “crime as a metaphor” was even featured on Mind Hacks.

    I’ve written a blog post that is related to persuading people of different beliefs, but please bear in mind that it is meant for a nonscientific crowd so excuse the lack of proper ciatations. I hope backtracking the names and ideas can still be helpful for those who are interested in this (and I’ll be glad to point you to relevant literature in the comments if you have specific questions).


  3. Sorry, can’t agree with you here Tom.

    I think that the primary thing going on with the media over the riots is simply that most people do not think it is posisble to understand something without ceasing to condemn it.

    The reason I find the media so frustrating is that nobody says so and discusses the matter openly. All the philosophical ideas underlying everything are always unsayable.

    And I think that it is a part of a bigger issue, which is that many people seem unable to cope with the idea of a plurality of causes. People will ask whether X or Y is THE CAUSE, and get quite bewildered when you say that they are BOTH the cause, that all events are caused by a whole bunch of tendencies acting in concert.

    Similarly over the Norwegian shootings lots of people were saying ‘is he mad or could the racism in society have had an influence’, as if he couldn’t have an underlying madness AND be influenced by racism in society.

    Hence either it must be the case that rioting is caused by BADNESS IN THE RIOTERS or it is caused by BADNESS IN THE GOVERNMENT. Can’t possibly be both.

    1. “many people seem unable to cope with the idea of a plurality of causes.”

      I agree, Josie, and with praymont.

      Multiple causality seems to apply widely in life. Proximate causes, ultimate causes and a myriad of causes in between …

      Especially with these English riots, as has been pointed out here, there have been many different groups and individuals involved, to different levels, each with their own agenda, which in turn may have several items on it.

  4. Since I’m in the U.S. I can’t help but be reminded of the Bush government stance in the 2000’s which wss basically that disagreeing with their policies was supporting terrorism.
    It had a silencing effect, no doubt. It played on fear of being seen as “immoral” to push a certain agenda.

    I hope these recent events won’t be used in such a way.

  5. The Daily Wail (oops, Mail) editors have one objective: to sell newspapers. There’s no need to ascribe more subtle motivations for their headlines and editorials.

    Rather a shame, since for the first few decades of its existence, the Daily Mail was a pioneering crusading responsible paper.

  6. I think Josie’s and Tom’s points are compatible with each other.

    As Tom says, lots of people seem to think that explaining an action is the same as excusing it, overlooking the fact that a causal explanation of an action needn’t justify the act, even if it posits reasons (psychological motives rather than justifying reasons) for the act.

    To enlarge on Josie’s point that many want to focus on just one big cause instead of looking at many simultaneous causal influences, many people don’t inquire about the cause’s own aetiology. E.g., if we say that criminality and lack of respect for the law leads many to riot, we then should ask why so many youths are so strongly in the grip of those criminal tendencies and urges? Some people resist this digging for ‘root causes’ because they think it eliminates responsibility by depicting the choices as causally determined rather than free (as in, ‘they couldn’t help it — in this society they never had a chance to be anything but thugs’). But this doesn’t follow. There can be influencing conditions and enticements that make an action much more probable without causally determining (or necessitating) that effect. Such a result allows holding the culprits responsible for looting compatibly with the larger project of reforming society in order to diminish those harmful enticements and other conditions.

    Finally, some resent the search for root causes because they see that it might implicate their own past choices or ideology in setting the conditions for an alienated youth. E.g., it might show that we’re all better off if people aren’t living in a bleak Hayekian waste.

  7. But the resident Daily Mail psychologists (!) might respond that discussion of the complex factors leading to the riots may, at this stage, have some bearing on whether or not they continue. Supporting this, some research suggests that reading about determinism reduces ethical behaviour:


    Maybe it’s more adaptive, at this stage, to reinforce a strong stigma in relation to the rioting? If we all spend a lot of time coming up with theories to explain the behaviour, is there a danger that the young people involved will be less likely to take responsibility?

    Anyway, another good discussion of the psychological forces at work is offered by Norman Geras, former professor of government at manchester uni:

    1. “Maybe it’s more adaptive, at this stage, to reinforce a strong stigma in relation to the rioting? If we all spend a lot of time coming up with theories to explain the behaviour, is there a danger that the young people involved will be less likely to take responsibility?”

      The people involved in these riots and looting are all across the age range, Paul, not just the young.

      The underclass – in Marx-speak stigmatised as the Lumpenproletariat – has been proliferated to such an extent now that it seems doubtful that much can be done at this late stage to heal the rifts in society. The inequalities created by the economic system are so vast and growing that discords of one kind or another are unavoidable, especially given the underlying unsustainability of the globalised system as a whole.

  8. Ekcol: what you write is “obvious” I think is simply an ideological assumption which has no basis in fact. Also, the bit about gov’t cuts being like bad parenting is a logical fallacy, because they do not concern the same type of causality.

    Praymont: perhaps what we see now is the result of misguided leftist social policies that systematically see the result of injustices where there is only a criminal mindset, which of course the left is loth to admit. Perhaps the left even approves of stealing, a spontaneous revolutionary act of redistribution at the expense of the class enemy. Just to point out that your line of argument about the hidden motivations of the people you disagree with does not make for a very interesting conversation.

  9. Hadn’t seen Ekcol’s post before. Excellent point.
    Hubert: If it were the result of misguided social policies, why don’t we see similar problems in stronger social-welfare states like the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden? Also, I don’t think that all those on the left are loath to admit that there’s a criminal mindset. Instead, they’re inquiring about how it came to pass that so many youths are growing up with a criminal mindset. The conversation will be uninteresting if it’s treated like a team sport with the Left playing against the Right, both sides being identified via some media stereotypes.

  10. Actually, these problem do happen in countries with a much stronger welfare state than Britain, e.g. the 2005 riots in France. And again, none of the looters seemed very interested in basic goods – mostly they stole electronic gadgets, which I think we will all agree the state has no reason to provide to all its citizens. As for the reasons why people grow up with a criminal mindset, that is something on which I have no expertise whatsoever. My guess would be that there is a hard core of criminals in every society, no matter how civilised, and that no public policy can change that.

    1. “My guess would be that there is a hard core of criminals in every society, no matter how civilised”

      This is a can of worms, Hubert.

      Just as “the poor are always with us”, so there will always be some people who infringe the moral framework constructed by any society.

      What is a “criminal” after all? Not long ago active homosexuals were criminals in England – in many countries they still are. In some Islamic countries it is drinkers of alcohol who are the criminals, not kiffers as here.

      The problem in present-day England is that many people are actually being turned into criminals and made sick and dysfunctional by our socio-economic system. Destruction of community and the family is so rife now that innocent children are being continually brought forth into lives of abuse. These children are being permanently damaged in mind and body, and many thousands will be incapable of living normal, productive lives, through no fault of their own.

    2. Hubert:”mostly they stole electronic gadgets, which I think we will all agree the state has no reason to provide to all its citizens”

      Whilst I agree that electronic gadgets should be low on the list of human rights, your statement, which I think the majority would also agree with, ignores what I think is the key point about inequality and oppression.

      The inequality. The unfairness.

      People like to say of capitalism, like democracy, that it’s still better than the other economic systems, but there is still no answer to the youth born into poverty and disadvantage regarding fairness.

      Why *should* Angry Youth have to work so much harder to pull themselves up in the world, when the average middle class kid has everything handed to them?

      Ipods aren’t a human right, but in the 1st world we’ve gone past that. We can’t praise the rich and their expensive toys whilst at the same time tell the poor that such things aren’t important in life.

      Think of it this way. I can waltz into a store, and waltz out again a few minutes later with the latest gidget under my arm, with no-one calling me a looter.

      The only difference is I had my old man’s credit card. How am I any more moral than the criminal youth?

      1. I had to wait for a while before answering your comment because, quite frankly, it makes me really angry. First of all, there is the selfcenteredness and the lack of empathy. Perhaps you feel there is no difference between stealing an Ipod and torching the shop or buying the damn thing, as your feelings are the same. Let me assure you that there is a difference for the shopowner. And what with the 19th century rhetorics ? This is the 21st century. Nobody is poor anymore in Western Europe, not if the word has any sort of meaning. Moreover, inequality is fair; what is unfair is not to be treated according to your merits. There is quite simply no society in which this truth does not hold. And if all this is about fairness, I fail to see how a bunch of violent louts who robbed people, burnt down homes and places of business (i.e. in a number of cases, took away people’s livelihood) and generally scared the bejesus out of the non-violent made the world a better, fairer place. Finally, if all this would be about politics (which it isn’t) in a democratic society, when you disagree with the government, you vote it out of office. If you resort to violence, you put yourself outside of the law and the social convenant, you forfeit your right to be protected against the inevitable counterviolence you have provoked. So careful there, because you might end up one day on the receiving end of the tactics you advocate.

      2. Hubert:

        Sorry, I did not mean to anger.. unless it’s the defensive anger of the proud who realises they have been wrong all this time.. πŸ˜‰

        While there is much that is objectionable in your reply —

        — most importantly your attempt to define away poverty; like arguing there is no racism against black people since slavery was abolished, ‘not if the word has any sort of meaning’ —

        — I’m going to leave it for now because you completely missed the point of my post. (My fault as the author, to be sure.)

        You mention merit, and let’s say that I agree with you. Then just what exactly has a middle class child done to merit the various privileges that she enjoys as a consequence of her economic birthright, that the poor child has not? The extra opportunities that come with wealth and status, compounded in a like community? And that is to say nothing of the actual rich. The privileges of the affluent are not trifles, so what has the child born into affluence done to merit them?

        The answer, of course, is nothing. It is simply the lottery of birth and inherited privilege. And then where is your social contract? Even assuming some real ‘social mobility’ (an especially tenuous assumption in the UK — http://www.oecd.org/document/51/0,3343,en_2649_34117_44566259_1_1_1_1,00.html), your social contract still requires these poor youth to work extra hard and devote themselves more than the average just to get even, let alone get ahead.

        I can point to my own grandparents and say, ‘Look at the life they built for their descendants, after losing everything in the Holocaust: how admirable!’. And yet, still not at all fair. Your contract asks people to accept disadvantage at random, and then toil extra hard, often for benefits they themselves will never enjoy, and more often neither will their children.

        If that was the contract forced upon me, yes, I might indeed think to renegue. From the comfort of my cushy life, I can easily claim I would never cause the harm and damage that these kids have. But then I have no reason to see the shop owners as the enemy, as part of the structure enforcing the contract that is screwing me every day.

        All the while the well off complain, “Why can’t these people just accept their lot like the rest of us? It’s not like they’re *Africa poor*!!”

      3. .. and to get back on topic..

        Hubert, do you suppose that your anger, in part, reflects the kind of view that my attempt to explain the rioters’ actions seems sinful to you, in the face of all the wrongs you feel they have committed??

    3. Hi Hubert

      Ah – I can hear your voice so clearly when I read your posts – it’s nice! I don’t agree with you though. The kids growing up in the poorer areas of Sheffield (where friends of mine taught in schools) often come from homes where the basic care has been lacking, and where they haven’t had education that equips them to articulate their objections to their community. They are angry, and don’t always know what to do with it. It doesn’t excuse their behaviour. I watched the first half of this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqA9-QGhvZs&feature=player_embedded#at=782 (vic Dougald Hine) until it got a bit shouty. There are all the opinions in there – and I wondered what you would say to those people who talk about the differences in opportunities our young people have. I’m sure you’re very busy – but if you get the time to have a look, I’d like to hear your reaction.

      Hope you’re well, by the way.

      1. It’s actually worth listening to all the way through. The boy speaking about 30.5 minutes in makes a lot of sense.

  11. Has anyone mentioned Social Identity Theory yet? It seems to me that one consequence of explanation is to reduce the difference between “them” and “us” (there but for the grace of etc..) If “they” are doing terrible things, this threatens “our” identity. But condemning without explanation keeps the gulf wide and our identity safe.

    Just wondering.

  12. History suggests that the only answer the Daily Fail would like is one that
    a) lets them scream for harsher sentences
    b) lets them blame immigrants
    c) lets them imply that the world would be a better place if Hitler had won.

    This is after all the paper that supported the nazis and has never seen fit to apologise.

  13. One thing the discussion scants is that looting breaks down the social order at a very profound level. It tends to atomize society, into mere individuals defending, and mere individuals suffering, and mobs attacking. That’s why in wartime (or other disruptions) looters are shot, when surprised on the scene. Or all society becomes infected with the mob (the chaos of many defeats in war, for example).

    Sources for this are obscure in my memory, but I can at least say they were independent reading: In World War 2, planners on both sides anticipated bombing, and prepared to discourage looting. The Brits decided, in the first instance, to suppress all media mention of actual looting right after a bombing, so that nobody got the idea looting was expectable behaviour–they hoped the common morality of “being British” would hold most people back, if looting were exceptional. Hitler, on the other side, simply announced that whoever took even a bucket from a bombed house would be beheaded (in practice, the SS just shot you, as in Vonnegut’s semi-memoir, “Slaughterhouse Five”).

    Well, the Brits can’t, now, start off with one, nor with the other. In this situation, you can do something obscene with discussions of “causality”–when the house falls, fools discuss acceleration. And is America in any better position?

    1. It’s always interesting to follow up on this type of event. According to the BBC, no less than 73% of the people who have had to explain themselves in court for their behaviour during the riots are repeat offenders. The fiction that this was some kind of political protest becomes very hard to sustain…


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