Beware Sacred Cows

We often think we are immune to a cognitive bias if we are aware that it exists, and understand why it happens. But in fact, general awareness is usually quite insufficient to eradicate a bias; you have to put effort into particular cases to make headway. (For example, each new generation greatly underestimates how far we are from AGI, even when they know the prior record of bias.)

Psychologists reviewing our book Elephant in the Brain said that our main thesis, that we are often ignorant of our main motives, was well known in psychology, and thus not news. But our news was applying this known fact to ten big areas of life, wherein area experts had mostly ignored this possibility. General facts are often not applied to particular topic areas.

Most everyone has heard the phrase “sacred cows”, and understands that it suggests a bias, most likely resulting from a hidden motive. But I’ll bet most still usually fail to actually avoid this bias. Thus it seems well worth reviewing the nature of this bias, and seeing what it suggests about many particular application areas. In this post, I’ll just review the phenomena itself.

First, here is a table, based on recent polls, on relative sacredness for 16 ares of life:

As you can see, while traditionally our ancestors saw religion as most sacred, today that area is ranked number five, below family/friends,sex/birth, nature, and education. Note also that we treat many things as pretty sacred, but that these likely have varied a lot across societies.

We know of many correlates of perceived sacredness. (See this summary article, for example.) Let me organize these correlates around five major themes of sacred things and activities:

THEY ARE VALUABLE – Sacred things are special, often long lasting and sometimes eternal. They bring us awe, joy, and other ecstatic experiences, not disgust or revulsion. We revere, venerate, and respect them, and see them as much larger than ourselves. We prioritize them, sacrifice to connect to them, aspire to connect better, and often dedicate places and things to them. Our “priests” who are especially associated with each sacred area gain unusual prestige as a result.

THEY UNITE US – Views on what is sacred bind us into groups, and we often use group rituals and stories to learn and affirm this. We are each emotionally attached to and committed to these choices, and we pay substantial costs to signal these commitments. Doing so is seen as pro-social, and we feel more equal within our group regarding our sacred areas, than re other areas of life.

THEY ARE IDEALIZED – Sacred things are seen as suffering less from the usual defects of ordinary things. They less often decay or break or have misleading appearances. They are more pure, clean, long-lasting, and are sometimes said to be eternal, ultimate, perfect, and at the core of existence. (Much of this is consistent with sacred things being far, not near.) When homogeneous is good, then they are more like that, but when uniqueness is good, then they are more like that. We are less often forced to choose between different sacred goods, as they less conflict with each other.

THEY ARE SHARPLY DISTINGUISHED – Sacred things are said to “transcend” our physical or animal natures, and are contrasted with ordinary messy everyday life. They are “set apart’; the sacred and mundane are not to be mixed together, and we should not make tradeoffs that sacrifice any amount of the sacred for more of the ordinary. Thus sacred things should not have money prices, and we should not enforce rules that promote other things at the possible expense of the sacred.

WE MUST FEEL NOT THINK THEM – The sacred commands our emotions, (e.g., love, devotion, fear) more than our rational thought. It is associated with flow, wherein we act with less conscious control. Our desire for the sacred is said to be “for itself”, so we can’t see deeper causes. The sacred can’t be well understood cognitively, and is said to not fit well with self-interest, competition, or with our usual kinds of calculation and analysis. It is to come automatically and authentically. It is hard to measure progress toward sacred goals. We are not to think we made it, even by convention; it is fully real and it transforms us.

We can plausibly understand all of these themes as resulting from this core function of the sacred: it unites groups. After all, if we are united via a shared value, then that needs to be an important value. And our shared commitment to a value is likely enhanced by idealizing it, and by discouraging calculating thought about it. However, we don’t want to discourage everyday practical thought. So by drawing a sharp line between the sacred and the mundane, we can limit how much our thoughtlessness regarding the sacred infects our practical choices.

The last three themes of sacredness above seem to risk biases. Societies have varied greatly in what they consider as how sacred, and most consider many things to be sacred. But these areas of life are probably not actually that idealized or sharply distinguished, and thinking and analysis does likely help to manage them. So treating these areas of life as if they were otherwise likely induce biases.

Yes, gains from group cohesion may be worth paying the costs of these biases, but these costs do seem likely to be real and substantial. In fact, on reflection it seems to me that many of the most powerful insights I’ve come across in my life have resulted from treating sacred things as if they were mundane, for the purpose of analysis. I thus have to suspect there are many more such insights to be found.

FYI, here are a few psych study results on the related concept of “awe”:

“in all clear cases of awe: perceived vastness, and a need for accommodation, defined as an inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structures” (more)

“dispositional awe-proneness, but not dispositional joy or pride, was associated with low Need for Cognitive Closure … and increased emphasis on membership in “universal” categories in participants’ self-concepts” (more)

“awe can result in a diminishment of the individual self and its concerns, and increase prosocial behavior” (more)

Added 6Aug: Here is a two more themes re correlates of sacred things and activities:

THEIR EXPERTS ARE “PRIESTS” – When some folks are seen as having expertise in a sacred area, those experts tend to be seen as more prestigious and are trusted more to act for the general welfare, instead of acting selfishly. So we prefer then to have more self-rule with less outside oversight, to run related orgs, and to have more job security. We thus more dislike for-profit orgs in such areas, relative to non-profits and government agencies. We are not supposed to resent such priests being unequal with us, as differences between people regarding sacred areas are said to count less toward problematic human inequality.

THEY INFUSE OBJECTS, SPACES, & TIMES – Sacred activities done with or at objects and spaces can make those things into reminders and invokers of those sacred activities, after which their use can strengthen any such rituals. Same for special days or hours. Such things are then treated with the care and reverence accorded to sacred activities. Nostalgia is comfort from remembering things, places, or events infused by the sacred.

Added 28Aug: Maybe another correlate of the sacred is that either all of us, or very few of us, are entitled to have an opinions on it. We all feel entitled to have opinions on friendship, love, art, religion, and politics. But very few are entitled to opinions on science and medicine. Non-sacred subjects are more in the middle, with folks more entitled to opinions in proportion to the efforts they take to learn a subject. The common element seems to be that little thinking or analysis is required by ordinary people when all or none of them are entitled to an opinion.

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