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The Flag and the NFL

In 2016 Colin Kaepernick precipitated both widespread protests across the league and huge controversy by kneeling during the pre-game national anthem, protesting police brutality and discrimination in the USA. To his supporters he was highlighting racial injustice, to his detractors he was ‘disrespecting the flag’ – a beloved symbol of national pride and unity.

With the horrific death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a fragile truce – seemingly exchanging league money for social projects in return for an end and to protests – is under threat. This week New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees reignited this controversy in light of the horrific death of George Floyd. In an interview with Yahoo Finance, Brees’ made clear he wouldn’t welcome players kneeling during the anthem, as a show of the players’ revulsion at Floyd’s death. This immediately ‘drew’ an angry response from across the league, indeed from Brees’ own team – possibly most notably Malcom Jenkins. Into this explosive mix (perhaps not surprisingly) Donald Trump has added his voice in opposition to protest whereas the league itself under renewed pressure from players has dropped its opposition to peaceful protest during the anthem - a remarkable political and financial risk for a organisation with highly influential team owners previously hostile for toward these kind of protests.

In this post Tom Kelly is going to talk about one of the factors in the NFL flag controversy that has largely been overlooked, the psychology of the people involved.


Psychologists have long been interested in morality. Since at least the 60s they’ve tried to understand our thoughts and feelings about moral issues and I’m hoping to show how one theory, the Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) helps understand the bitterness of the flag controversy. MFT suggests there are at least 5 foundations of morality; 1) harm, 2) fairness, 3) loyalty to ingroup, 4) respect to authority, 5) purity (most easily understood as moral and physical sanctity).

According to MFT how individuals value these categories impacts how they see right and wrong. In this context, those who are favouring the right to protest, are prioritising the first two categories (they’re protesting a lack of fairness, and alleged police brutality) whereas those who feel kneeling is disrespectful are endorsing the other three (they see a lack of respect to the ‘national [and possibly team] ingroup’, the authority of the state, and the sanctity of the flag). In short this is a classic failure to see eye to eye. So at this point you may be wondering, why apply this model to this problem? Well one reason is that it has been used to investigate people’s broader political perspectives and, in the context of this argument the results are very interesting.


When comparing Liberals to Conservatives, Haidt and Graham found that Liberals were primarily concerned with harm and fairness, whilst Conservatives consider all five equally. Think of a classic ‘Liberal’ social policy, e.g. inclusive marriage. Chances are the argument in favour of this policy will boil down to “It would be unfair and/or harmful to this individual/group if we don’t do things differently”. Now think of the conservative counter-arguments, whilst these may be more diverse, some will work like this: “We shouldn’t change how we do things, we’ve always done things this way, there is value in the way our parents and their parents did things”. This second argument refences the foundations of loyalty and authority (depending on the context, as in equal marriage, it could also reference sanctity). To a liberal, this conservative counterargument borders on morally irrelevant, to a conservative these considerations are at least as important as harm and fairness.

Another way of thinking about this is that to a conservative, things like marriage, the police and the holders of political office have an intrinsic moral value. To a liberal these things should only be valued in as far as they represent institutions that ensure harm and fairness norms. Conservatives value these things in and of themselves, liberals value these things only if – in their terms – they deserve it. As I hope you’ve noticed, this maps very neatly to the flag controversy.

Now at this point it’s vital to make one thing clear, having more ‘Moral Foundations’ isn’t better and it’s not worse. MFT seeks to describe what the basis of human morality is, it’s not stating what it should be. MFT allows us to describe the problem, both groups are (from the other’s perspective) undervaluing core aspects of the moral world. Those who think kneeling an appropriate protest are (in the eyes of their opponents) undervaluing the three ‘Conservative’ values; those who oppose the such protests (in the eyes of those protesting) aren’t caring about the more liberal values of care and fairness nearly enough whilst (at best) being distracted by irrelevant considerations.

Disclaimer - It's worth noting that not all those supportive of taking a knee will be liberals, and not all who think it’s an inappropriate protest will be conservatives, that’s just too simple a pattern for human behaviour! - I’m applying a broad tool to a general pattern.


So now there is the messy question, from a psychological view: who’s right? Honestly, thinking about this as right and wrong misses the point. Both sides have views derived from deep convictions based on foundational aspects of moral reasoning, reinforced by political preference. Even if one side could be “proved” to be objectively wrong, it would likely prove hugely difficult to convince them of their error. So, what that point of this analysis? Well even if I can’t say who’s right, I can at least use another established psychological model to suggest how to think about this issue.

For regular readers of this blog I’m at risk of re-explaining something you’ll have seen hundreds of times… The Dual Processing Model, which helps psychologists think about thinking. The basic concept is that humans have two ways of thinking, System 1 is fast, intuitive and approximate. System 2 is slow, deliberate and precise. System 1 is brilliant but flawed, System 2 can help deal with those flaws but is usually too lazy to do so. To borrow from Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, System 2 is ‘the bit part player in human thought that thinks it’s the star’. Most of what you do according to this model is intuitive, its System 1, but if you had to describe “thinking” you’d probably talk about how you reason, use logic or consider arguments, these are some of System 2’s jobs.

So what’s this got to do with anything? Well, most of your thoughts and actions are an exercise of System 1 which is a brilliant machine for jumping to conclusions – that’s why it’s so fast. Often these conclusions will be correct but sometimes, because System 1 isn’t big on ‘thinking things through’ it can be led astray. Even when System 1 comes up with an answer that’s wrong System 2 is (usually) more interested in justifying what System 1 told it was right rather than starting again from the beginning.

This feature of dual processing is especially true when we start talking about our moral convictions. After all, when we’re talking about something as simple as right and wrong, you don’t have to think things through right? But, as we’ve seen, MFT has shown that different people have different moral foundations, and in this case, the foundations are more or less in a ‘perfect storm’ type conflict. This means that if we leave System 1, both sides are at risk of denouncing or demonising the other side even though, as we’ve seen, they’ve both got a point. In short, much of the explosive character of this dispute could just be from System 1 being upset by its moral preferences being offended.


So how do we resolve this? Some people will simply be more inclined to use their System 2 more regularly than others. For the rest, looking at this issue, no matter your perspective you have to try and stop and think about the other side’s view. Now, much like moral foundations in general terms, there’s no ‘right’ system. Both have vital uses. If you had to stop and think about every little thing you did day in day out, nothing would ever get done. System 2 would suffer from paralysis by analysis, but if you never stop and think, well your System 1 can get misled, exploited even. Whilst I would argue quite strongly in general terms that there is no right way to think, just like there’s no right set of moral foundations, I think there is possibly a right way of resolving disputes about morality. When it comes to this kind of controversy, a conflict of different moral codes, System 1 is simply ill-equipped to deal with this kind of problem. System 1 is likely to be mad simply that someone else has a different view. In simple terms, the best way of resolving, or at least deescalating controversies like this is to stop and think, in depth, about the other side’s view. Why do they think what they think? Where you see disrespect will they see a determination to achieve fairness? Where you see the need to care for others' lives and rights will they see you betraying a beloved symbol of national pride? Both sides' perspectives are based on deep moral foundations. ‘The other guy’ isn’t some monster for having a different view. Your System 1 may be angry at ‘those heartless monsters’ or ‘those bleeding heart liberals’ but your System 2 needn’t be. In situations like this its fine to disagree with someone without disliking them. Indeed, when moral codes conflict like this, that’s not just a good outcome, it’s possibly THE good outcome we should always aim for. So now that we’ve reached that moderately uplifting conclusion, I’ll leave you with two thoughts. One, Colin Kaepernick has been out of the league since the 2016 season – but his shadow off the field is arguably greater than his impact ever was on it. Two, after some initial encouragement Drew Brees apologised, a lot. And that’s possibly where the lesson is, but one that applies to all sides of all moral disputes. For issues like these, there’s no harm in taking a few moments to stop and think.


Click here for reading a preprint of a paper looking into take a knee controversy and moral foundations.


Behavioural Science

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