The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics

By Jonathan Haidt

Although this book makes a detailed argument for why conservatives and liberals think the way they do and is particularly appropriate for study during an election year, the basic tenets of Haidt’s theories are applicable to how any group of humans form their moral codes and preferences. This is particularly relevant to information operations as we seek to understand not just what people think, but why they think it and how they will act upon their intuition.

Haidt frames his argument – which is formed from both theories of psychology and sociology – around three principles:

  • Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. For this argument, he uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant. The elephant is a person’s emotional intuition, while the rider is logical reasoning. When we approach a topic, the elephant already begins to lean a certain way based on our feelings about the issue, and the rider can only justify why the elephant is going that direction (making that decision, believing that argument). The elephant is generally not moved by logical reasoning or factual arguments.
  • There is more to morality than harm and fairness. Moral codes are more complicated than just the “golden rule” or achieving equitable outcomes. Haidt compares the righteous mind to a tongue with six taste receptors. Arguments built on multiple “taste receptors,” are generally more palatable and desirable, just like a meal that is salty, sweet, and crunchy. From this he derives his Moral Foundations Theory which argues that there are at least six psychological systems that comprise the foundations of most moral codes. Five are outlined in the chart below, the sixth is Liberty/Oppression, which guards against the accumulation or abuse of power, wealth, etc.
  • Morality binds and blinds. Moral codes also bind humans together in groups, which can be both good and bad. The metaphor here is that human beings are 90% chimp and 10% bee. Individuals constantly compete with the other people in their group, just as chimps do for food, habitats, etc. This can raise some of the more ugly characteristics of human nature as people compete for resources – wealth, notoriety, power, etc. But the most successful groups are those that, like a bee hive, are cohesive and work toward a common goal. This allows humans to be incredibly altruistic, but usually just to members in our own group. This may explain why soldiers will go to war overseas to protect (American) families, but feel little obligation to protect (Afghan) families abroad.

Haidt also raises the issue of narratives. He argues that people find themselves attracted to political teams that share moral narratives; once they accept a particular narrative they become blind to alternative moral worlds. Groups that can build the strongest narratives – particularly if they can appeal to emotions derived from moral foundations – are more effective at attracting members and motivating people to act.

I have a personal example of this; although I have been interested in refugee relief issues for several years, I was motivated to start planning my post-Army career after seeing the tweet and corresponding facebook post below:

For me, the tweet immediately raised feelings of anger and disgust because a person could have so little regard for vulnerable people, human life, and America’s history of being a safehaven for those in need. The Facebook post, by contrast, affirmed the sanctity of life, the need to protect those in need even at personal cost, and the appeal to a system of loyalty to people who share the same view. I realize, however, that those who already identify with the conservative team, will likely find the tweet more appealing because it appeals to more “taste receptors.” They will want to avoid harm (danger that comes from terrorists), disgust (poison candy), fairness (refugees shouldn’t get a free ticket to America), subversion (refugees will change the American way of life), and loyalty (we need to protect America from danger). The fact that the odds of being killed by a refugee in America are 1 in 3.6 billion (Nowrasteh, Terrorism and Immigration. A Risk Analysis) will not persuade a conservative who likes this tweet.

So what to do? Haidt counsels that if you want to change someone’s mind, you have to first see things from their angle and empathize. This is difficult, but necessary. He references Dale Carnegie and his advice to avoid confrontation: start in a friendly way and convey respect, warmth, and openness before stating one’s own case. Asking people why they believe something is a good start to understanding. It is also easier to shape someone’s intuitions if the argument is coming from someone they respect, admire, or love. The moral of the story is to be a genuine, curious, empathetic leader if you want to build a cohesive team and weaken the pull of your adversaries.

Follow Up:

  1. How can we understand a society’s moral foundations in order to form more comprehensive and effective narratives? Who in the gov’t would be responsible for gathering this information?
  2. Is it possible to understand a foreign society since we can barely understand our own?

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