A while back I did a couple of posts on the care and feeding of young rationalists. Though it is not new, I recently found a truly excellent post on this topic, in Dale Mcgowan's blog, The Meming of Life. The post details a survey carried out on ordinary citizens of Hitler's Germany, searching for correlations between style of upbringing, and adult moral decisions. 

Everyday Germans of the Nazi period are the focus of a fascinating study discussed in the PBB seminars and in the Ethics chapter of Raising Freethinkers. For their book The Altruistic Personality, researchers Samuel and Pearl Oliner conducted over 700 interviews with survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe. Included were both “rescuers” (those who actively rescued victims of persecution) and “non-rescuers” (those who were either passive in the face of the persecution or actively involved in it). The study revealed interesting differences in the upbringing of the two groups — specifically the language and practices that parents used to teach their values.

Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely than rescuers to have been raised in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify “reasoning” as an element of their moral education. “Explained,” the authors said, is the single most common word used by rescuers in describing their parents’ ways of talking about rules and ethical ideas.

For anyone interested in rational and ethical upbringing, I really cannot recommend  Meming of Life  strongly enough.

 

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Another thing to have in mind is that in the contemporary culture, qualities such as "open-mindedness," "questioning authority," "free-thinking," etc. are universally hailed as ideals, to the point where implying that someone lacks such qualities is considered a serious insult, and is a frequently employed tactic for character assassination. Thus, people endeavor to obtain recognition from others that they have such qualities, and get angry when someone suggests otherwise.

However, like any human culture, ours also has its strong taboos and norms that it's unwise to question, let alone flaunt; to them the respectable label of "free-thinking" doesn't apply. So, what gets labeled as "free-thinking" in our culture may be the real thing, but it may also be a cargo-cult imitation thereof, whose real purpose is signaling respectability, not revealing truth, and where tacit agreement exists not to extend skepticism and criticism to truly sacred taboos. Humans being what they are, we would expect to get much more of the latter, and this is indeed what we see. Thus, I'm extremely skeptical of anyone trying to publicly extol his own, or even someone else's "free-thinking" as a virtue.

Moreover, in any society, including ours, it would be extremely unwise -- even if it were possible -- to raise your kids to be out-and-out fearless free-thinkers who will throw themselves against every third-rail taboo and sacred cow they come across. It would ruin their life prospects. The way things seem, however, it's impossible to have that much direct influence on your kids' character anyway, except to the extent that you can control the peer groups they socialize with -- which is another thing that makes me skeptical of the above quoted work.

[-][anonymous]13y 25

I know about three people who actually have been raised to be free-thinkers. They've turned out quite successful -- two are scientists, one has shaky career prospects but great internal resources.

The key, though, is to be free-thinking plus practical. If you're a free-thinker, but constantly shocked and unprepared to confront people who aren't, you're going to get in trouble, because you'll be unaware of the social and personal costs of your actions. You won't know how to pick your battles.

The difference between free-thinkers and non-free-thinkers is that the free-thinker actually perceives it as "I'm picking my battles, I'm not fighting City Hall this time" while the non-free-thinker gets an instant aversion signal from every unpopular choice. It's more in your own best interest to be a practical free-thinker than a non-free-thinker, because you can pick your battles. That means that when you really value something -- more than you value social approval -- you can actually achieve it. It's a better optimization procedure than listening to the blind aversion signals.

Also, practicality is a thing parameterized by your goals. There are goals where the most effective action is to "fight city hall" - even though you are certain to lose. All civil rights wars were won that way.

it would be extremely unwise -- even if it were possible -- to raise your kids to be out-and-out fearless free-thinkers

Teach them to hide it.

The extent to which you can control the peer groups your kids socialize with is quite large. Some religious sects, for example, control that socialization very tightly. The wisdom of such an approach is debatable, but it's definitely possible. A hybrid approach might be to influence (rather than strictly control) the peer-selection process and also attempt to immunize your kids to the worst aspects of their peer culture.

torekp:

The extent to which you can control the peer groups your kids socialize with is quite large.

Yes, but you have only so many possible peer groups to choose from; it's not like you can custom-design one. Ultimately, your kids will internalize the norms and taboos dictated by their peer group, and your attempts to question them will make you look stupid and obnoxious in the kids' eyes. Until of course they grow up (which happens extremely late in our society by all historical standards).

Some religious sects, for example, control that socialization very tightly. The wisdom of such an approach is debatable, but it's definitely possible.

Most people do it, not just religious sects. One of the main things (if not the main thing) that motivates people to work hard is to be able to afford to raise their families in places where their kids' peer groups will inculcate respectable middle-class values and attitudes. Religious sects are different only in that they want to eliminate some influences that pervade the mainstream culture (including the youth culture) today, and which are considered more or less OK by most other people. Typical middle-class people are instinctively horrified by the though of their kids being exposed to a peer group that espouses underclass norms, just like members of religious sects are horrified by the prospect of their kids being exposed to norms hostile to their sect. In both cases, the fears are absolutely justified if you share their respective assumptions on what the kids should turn out like.

As for the amount of attention poured into the control and oversight of kids' activities and peer groups, I'm not at all sure that modern helicopter parenting, which has become the de facto standard for middle classes, is any less intensive in this regard than the parenting practiced by members of strict religious sects.

A hybrid approach might be to influence (rather than strictly control) the peer-selection process and also attempt to immunize your kids to the worst aspects of their peer culture.

Sadly, this is often the equivalent of tilting at windmills. The kids' blind conformity and fanatical adherence to their peer group norms, and their fervor to ruthlessly punish and ostracize their peers who fail to live up to them or who end up assigned low status according to them, is rarely matched by even the most fanatical and close-minded adults. This problem is exacerbated today by the fact that in the contemporary culture, the adulthood is delayed far past the ages at which kids were expected to join the world of adult society and adult norms in the past.

Sadly, this is often the equivalent of tilting at windmills. The kids' blind conformity and fanatical adherence to their peer group norms, and their fervor to ruthlessly punish and ostracize their peers who fail to live up to them or who end up assigned low status according to them, is rarely matched by even the most fanatical and close-minded adults.

As Bongo said, "teach them to hide it". That is, let them know that they can outwardly go along with peer group standards while inwardly reserving judgment, or holding a different judgment. Also, teaching kids social skills (primarily, how to make friends) allows them to participate in multiple, sometimes overlapping groups. That will enhance the ability to reserve judgment, first on what the groups differ on, and later also on what they share.

Part of the point of teaching independence of thought is so that it can lead to independent action, so there's got to be more than going along while thinking your own thoughts.

Sure, but there's usually nothing wrong with conforming to an unwritten teenage dress code (for example). As SarahC said, battles should be picked carefully.

Nazi Germany seems an atypically bad place to be obedient, so it's not clear the lesson applies in general.

But the idea is that without rational thinking skills, you have no way of knowing whether you're in a typical or atypical place to be obedient.

Imagine there was once an atypically good society that collapsed, and it turns out that all the people who brought it down happened to be freethinkers. Does that mean we should raise children to be obedient rather than freethinkers?

The important question is: are freethinkers brought up in our society more likely to go in the ‘right’ direction against the status quo? The example in the OP is only weak evidence for this, because its a lot easier to find moral actions ‘less evil than Nazis’ than ‘more evil than Nazis’.

The important question is: are freethinkers brought up in our society more likely to go in the ‘right’ direction against the status quo? The example in the OP is only weak evidence for this, because its a lot easier to find moral actions ‘less evil than Nazis’ than ‘more evil than Nazis’.

This criticism would be valid if the study considered someone who neither opposed nor actively supported Nazi crimes as a 'rescuer'. But since the Uncommitted are filed as 'non-rescuers', the study does indeed single out the free-thinkers' tendency to go against the status quo.

Furthermore, the fact that the crimes of Nazism are considered among the most repugnant in history is only weakly relevant. As long as the society-encouraged activities are sufficiently offensive that in the lack of supporting propaganda they would be suffer universal condemnation, the more important trait is that the consequences for pursuing an unconventional morality were far harsher under the Nazi regime than in most other situations - and one had little personal gain to find there as well. This danger strongly ties anti-Nazi activity to a sense of personal moral duty.

If freethinking is a prerequisite for going against the status quo, and practically anything is better than the status quo, then don't be surprised when people behaving better than the status quo are all freethinkers. The fact that freethinkers went in the 'right' direction against the status quo is unremarkable* to the extent that the status quo was 'wrong'.

As for freethinking causing better morality: here is a freethinker who acted under a sense of personal moral duty, facing harsh consequences for little personal gain.

I'm not saying we shouldn't bring up freethinkers - just that in isolation, this study doesn't make make the decision a slam dunk, despite the superficially impressive "21 times" figure.

*EDIT- Potential ambiguity: By unremarkable I mean the evidence provided by the study shouldn't have much of an effect on your prior of 'freethinking makes better citizens'. I don't mean it as "of course you'd expect freethinkers to be better citizens!".

Ah, I misunderstood you: I thought you were suggesting the possibility that free-thinkers wouldn't be motivated to rebel at all without a sufficiently offensive status quo, not that they might do it in an unexpected direction.

Regarding Kaczynski, while he's certainly an example of society-unfriendly morality, I suspect we would still be a lot better off if everyone had the willpower to go that far, if necessary, in pursue of their concept of greater good. In other words, the damage Kaczynski did arose from the combination of zealous nonconformism and a deeply flawed analysis of his environment. But if you gifted everyone, at least in the First World, with the same zealous nonconformism, they would on average pair it with an analysis not nearly as twisted as that presented in the Manifesto. The result, I think, would be a world with a lot more conflict but also with a dramatically improved rate of progress.

For Your Own Good is an account of the extreme emphasis on raising obedient children in the generation before Nazi Germany.

There are a lot of quotes from popular books on child-rearing-- the fact that they were popular when the whole emphasis was on breaking the child's will suggests that something odd was going on with the parents who wanted to believe them.

They should go to Rwanda and see if they can replicate their findings.

from the linked article:

Ethicist Jonathan Glover applied the same questions cross-culturally, looking at the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda in addition to Germany, and came to the same conclusions. Dictating a set of authority-based rules turns out to be the worst thing we can do for ethical development — yet we are continuously urged to do exactly this because it feels ever-so-decisive and bold.

This doesn't make any sense. Chaotic massacres perpetrated by fired-up raging mobs and undisciplined armies are very different from bureaucratically planned and systematically organized mass killings such as those done under the Nazis or Bolsheviks. While I can see some sense in asking how authoritarian aspects of culture and upbringing were relevant in cases of the latter sort, it's entirely misleading to lump them together with the former. If the quoted summary is accurate, the described work is likely just bullshit tailored to support the author's preconceptions.

My mom grew up in Nazi Germany. She said that people then thought obedience was the most important thing in a child, even before the Nazis.

But I wouldn't infer from studies of Nazi Germany that we emphasize obedience too much, enough, or too little, today.

PS - Sample size?

Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely than rescuers to have been raised in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify “reasoning” as an element of their moral education.

Quite interesting. Though it seems 21/22 is P(obedience emphasized|non-rescuer); I'd be curious to know P(non-rescuer|obedience emphasized), considering that the proportion of obedience-emphasizing families is probably a lot higher than ones with more humanistic parenting in the first place (I'm guessing). Do we know the priors for that? Do they specify what proportion of the families they studied emphasized obedience?

(Great quote at the end of that post: "In short, instead of doing what feels right, I humbly suggest we try the approach that appears to, uh…work.")

Actually... isn't what we have P(obedience | non-rescue)/P(obedience | rescue) = 21?

What we probably want is something like P(rescue | obedience)/P(rescue | non-obedience)

Thanks, interesting pointer. Provides some nice counter weight to all those lamenting the lack of obedience in today's kids (still I'd say they have a point as well)

The study cited (about the German jugend) is interesting, but also a bit unsatisfying: that is, many, many years after the fact, self-reporting about something where all kinds of feelings of guilt, pride etc., are involved. Also, care should be taken to apply the lessons of a quite different, authoritarian society to today's much more open, cosmopolitan world.

It'd be great if they did some thorough survey of the people that participate in some of today's 'Stanford prison experiment' re-enactments.

The prison experiment is generally not reenacted. It was hideously poorly designed to start with and the results weren't even clearly interpretable in a useful fashion. Milgram type fake electric shock experiments can still be done (although some people have argued that they are unethical). I don't know if this sort of thing has been tested for in those experiments, but I'd predict that you would actually not get a substantial result of this sort. The reasoning behind my prediction is that child rearing has become less obedience driven in the US in the last few years but the breakdown of proportions willing to shock people to (and to what extent) has remained roughly constant since Milgram's initial experiments. If parenting forms matter we'd expect to see a decline in the fraction of people willing to severely shock in Milgram set-ups.

Edit: Thinking about this slightly more. We'd need to be careful about the exact experimental setup since going through with a Milgram electric shock experiment might make people answer questions about morality and upbringing differently than if they had not. But there's also the problem that asking people such questions before hand might alter behavior as well. So there really should be three groups tested: A standard Milgram set-up, a set where they are asked the relevant questions before hand, and a set where they are asked afterwords. If we see a lot of difference in how the two groups asked about their moral upbringings respond then that would suggest that the Oliner study isn't reliable.

Thanks -- interesting read. There have in fact been a couple of re-enactments; for example, see Wikipedia. But, as you suggest, the Milgram experiments could be used as well. In either case, doing some in-depth analysis of the participants would be very useful.

Have you read Milgram's book, Obedience to Authority? He does some analyses of the participants in various versions of his experiment (as well as explaining why the experiment isn't unethical).

Thanks for the link -- I'll put it on my reading list. For some reason I only know Milgram's work from secondary sources.

Also relevant here are the Asch conformity experiments ; they also show the tendency of most people to conform, without the dramatic effects used in the Milgram experiments.

[-][anonymous]13y -1

Thanks -- interesting read. There have in fact been a couple of re-enactments; see (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment)[Wikipedia] for example. But, as you suggest, the Milgram experiments could be used as well. In either case, doing some in-depth analysis of the participants would be very useful.

Provides some nice counter weight to all those lamenting the lack of obedience in today's kids (still I'd say they have a point as well)

I think such lamentations rarely take the form of "my children always want to know why they should do as I say! I wish they'd just blindly obey". More like "my children blindly dismiss everything I say! I wish they'd just blindly obey" :P.

On the other side, I'd be extremely surprised if one could find evidence of a generation in which parents didn't complain about their children's misbehaviour.