Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Battle Between the Ears: "The Righteous Mind"

The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Jonathan Haidt
Pantheon Books, NY  (2012)
419 pages

You hear it everywhere now, in those discussions at the water cooler at work, in the line at the coffee shop, on the news, at dinner, at parties:  “I don't understand how everything has gotten so vicious in politics."  "Why can't they ever agree with us on anything?"  "Why do they have to be so nasty?” 
“There should be some way to have a civil conversation and get agreement somehow.” “Can't we just get along?”

Yet, in those same conversations, we hear “they were the ones who screwed things up, [people, that is, belonging to the party that's not ours] and we're just trying to fix it.” “Why can't those idiots [those that aren't me and mine] understand why what we believe is so crucial?” “Aren't they listening to anything the other side says?” “What are they using for brains?” “They are morally bankrupt” “They are all just [insert insulting name here] trying to get what they want.” “We are the ones trying to make things work.”

What is there in our psychology that makes us so sure, regardless of which side we are on, that we are absolutely right and the “other side” is wrong, and that we should never compromise? What is going on between our ears?

That is the question that Jonathan Haidt attempts to answer in his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a visiting professor of business ethics at New York University's Stern School of Business.” He was recently (2008) thrust into the limelight with a talk given for Creative Commons' TED program, which has been widely quoted around the internet.

I was very interested in doing this review because of the title of the book, but when I looked up the author and found the talk, I was completely fascinated by how it was parsed by both the left and the right. Each side took offense to something he said, rallying to defend their position and claiming he was dumping on their preferences. Or they took something he said that reflected badly on their party and insisted he was supporting the other side. In fact, he was attempting to find a way to understand why we choose to pick sides, and defend them so vigorously, in the first place. This was very interesting, and I definitely wanted to hear more.

Haidt is a professor of psychology, so don't expect this to be a sound-bite based, quick and dirty review of our foibles. There is hard research here (even more difficult as it requires constructing survey questions that don't lead people one way or another, not an easy task), from determining how early in life moral intuitions are created, to how tribes are formed, to why certain taboos and mores were created and brought into the moral matrix, to which elements in our political environment embrace which moral matrices.

One of the most difficult parts in the book, I expect, for both parties to hear, is Haidt's analogy of how we react to things around us: The elephant and the rider.     The elephant is the instinctive reaction, the rider is the intellect.   It probably would have been safer to say the dinosaur and the rider without bringing up the image of the logo from the GOP -- conservatives find it difficult to find their image associated with blind instinct, and liberals want nothing to do with the elephant.  Studies (and he quotes a great many, although for those of us not in the field, a few more titles would have been helpful) have shown that we react instinctively first, and then use our brains to construct reasons for why we reacted.

If we think about it for a minute, why else would hit-and-run campaign ads work? When we use our reason, we know that those ads are created by groups of media specialists who know how to push our buttons, but we still react ... and in surprisingly consistent ways.

There have certainly been some articles talking about how tribal things are getting, but little has been done to look at why.   Haidt claims that the answer lies in “moral intuition,” the sense of right and wrong that comes, not from the reasoning faculties, but from the instincts embedded in the elephant.  He identifies 5 areas from which moral judgements are generated and how they got there, and, no great surprise to many of us, they differ in ways that actually line up to how people choose their politics. One of the main themes in the book is “morality binds and blinds.” It holds us together yet makes us blind to other viewpoints.

We know that the “hot buttons” for Democrats are different from the buttons for Republicans, and that those buttons are pushed when it's time for some misdirection from some other political activity going on (switching the focus from spending and the budget to abortion, for example, or from military spending to immigration policy or welfare), at which point we see whole segments of the civic conversation shifting like a school of fish to follow the new discussion. Why does this work? Because a moral intuition has been triggered.

How do we know when we cross those lines into someone's moral intuition zone? Can we actually have any fruitful conversations when the elephant can't or won't listen?

Haidt mentions some studies that trigger controversy, as when he references an article explaining that most studies in psychology are done on a small segment of the world population described as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), and that those studies have generated the standards for early studies in moral psychology, yet their thinking is substantially different from that in much of the world. Since these populations tend to be more liberal, calling them WEIRD certainly sets off an instinctively negative response from the left.

Other moral matrices are out there, and their responses are very, very different. He suggests 5 (and later in the book, 6) elements that seem to form the foundations of morality: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation, and Liberty/oppression. There are extended discussions here which are very educational, but I don't have the space to discuss them in this review. Let's just say that those which are most important to you tend to form your particular moral matrix.

Emotions also reside with the elephant, explaining why we find such heated conversations on those topics that push the moral intuition trigger. We've all seen folks switch arguments and rationalizations over and over again to reinforce the same emotional thread “this is wrong and here's another reason why.” The elephant goes and the rider follows, coming up with any and all arguments to justify the elephant's strong reaction to something it considers outside the pale. Which is why all those late night political conversations rarely, if ever, really change people's attitudes. The elephant doesn't care about the rationalizations. It knows that something is morally wrong by its lights, and no amount of conversation can sway it. How does it know? Those intuitions came to some degree from genetics and from the culture and life experience of the person, and every person is actually trying to “do the right thing for the right reasons.”

Morality is the core of the “teams” that we belong to, political, social, and spiritual. We are “groupish” because of our moral foundations, and depending on which elements of our moral foundations are foremost (what causes us to experience disgust, righteous anger, or fear), we choose our teams to match. Haidt goes on to discuss how these elements are all active in partisan politics.  In fact, there is even some evidence that "Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive" because winning points for your moral matrix actually releases dopamine in the brain.

Now, I've made a point of refusing to review anything that I see as blatantly partisan, and what I find amusing (and somewhat depressing), is the way folks, from both sides of the aisle, depending on their political persuasion, pick things out of these studies to use as ammunition against the party they don't belong to.

Haidt is as even-handed as I think is humanly possible in pointing out areas where one side or the other has trigger points that help or harm them, so I consider this book one that everyone should read to get some kind of personal awareness of how their moral foundations are working their way into day to day politics (and how the campaign strategists are pulling these triggers whenever possible to garner votes and support for positions, as well as to change the subject when it seems useful). This will make it easier to recognize when our elephant is being steered. 

If we take the time to find out which moral intuition buttons we, ourselves, are unintentionally pressing, we may be able to find ways to have political discussions and make political decisions without seeing the other side as evil. This would be a great stride forward away from our current state of “bipolar politics” where compromise and even simple civility are no longer possible, and we might actually be able to see others as trying to do the right thing as they see it, and gain a bit more respect for those who disagree with us.   If  it does nothing else, it will give us hope that there may be a life beyond hyper-partisanship.

This is a book that needs to be read and discussed by anyone interested in politics, or for that matter, interested in understanding their own strong reactions to other people's views. It has the highest rating I can give: 5 stars.


  1. Jonathan Haidt's new book is so broad in its scope that I can only comment on one aspect: the relationship between conscience and morality. He says that political (secular) and religious views of morality frequently divide people. Many of us may have both in intuitive and learned behavior. In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a chapter called "Duel of the dual." Here are four paragraphs from it:

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned."

    The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion lists some interesting historical observations on the word. Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not. The moral dilemma is when these two views conflict.

  2. As usual in human life, we can get along great for long periods of time with one another up until the time that we conflict on core values. The question that we have not been able to resolve is, how do we manage to resolve those conflicts in ways that are still honorable? I don't think Haidt is the final word on this topic, but I think the book is a good way to start thinking about how we can deal with our responses to the "evil other" view that we consider wrong, without resorting to force/violence or shunning/prejudice methods. If we can't our troubles will continue long into the future.


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