Book of the Month #2: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

'the righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion' by jonathan haidt

'It felt good to be released from partisan anger. And once I was no longer angry I was no longer committed to reaching the conclusion that righteous anger demands.' 

- Jonathan Haidt

"A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it."

I know, pretty gross, right? But is it morally reprehensible? How you respond to hearing that story could say a lot about what kind of person you are. Liberal, educated Westerners are likely to give a nuanced response - recognising the man's right to do what he wants so long as he doesn't hurt anyone. But if you're not from that particular group then chances are you probably think it's morally wrong for someone to have sex with a chicken carcass and then eat it. For these people some actions are wrong even though they don't hurt anyone.

This is just one of the moral dilemmas featured in Jonathan Haidt's riveting book 'The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion'. In it Haidt, a social and cultural psychologist, explores how we develop our moral beliefs and tries to understand why the views of others can seem so illogical. It is, in essence, an examination of why societies become riven by polarised political and cultural beliefs. Haidt's message is clear: we must work harder to break free from our cultural silos and learn to understand the worldview of others or risk terminal division that will harm us all. 

It's a message that's particularly pertinent to those tasked with the communication of research and ideas, especially when it comes to engaging people with sensitive issues, like climate change and human genomics. How can we expect to engage people successfully with such culturally delicate subjects if we've made no effort to see the debate from their point of view?

Haidt's book is brimming with fascinating ideas, drawing on the work of other great psychologists and philosophers, which he uses to draw out his own original conclusions. It goes without saying that to fully appreciate Haidt's arguments you'll need to read the book in full but here are just a couple of snapshots of the kinds of ideas he raises.


Moral Taste Receptors

Just as humans have five taste receptors on each taste bud of the tongue (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury/umami) we also share a set number of moral taste receptors that affect our judgement of certain people and scenarios. And just as some people and cultures prefer certain types of food over others, despite having exactly the same receptors as everyone else, we also have different preferences or tolerances when it comes to moral judgements. The five candidates that Haidt picks are care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity and he argues that each of these are evolutionary developments, hard-wired into most humans because they have served a specific purpose, e.g. the care/harm foundation that 'evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children' and now makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need.

Rider and the Elephant

In describing how the human mind works and the role of intuition vs reasoning, one of the abiding analogies that Haidt uses is that of the 'rider and the elephant'. The elephant being our automatic processes, including emotion and intuition, and the rider being our controlled processes, e.g. reasoning.

We like to think of ourselves as very rational creatures, who make moral decisions having weighed up all the evidence before us, but the truth is that our brains evaluate everything in terms of potential threat or benefit to the self. And often the elephant part of our brains makes those decisions so fast that we're barely even conscious of them having been made.

This applies to all sorts of thinking, including our political beliefs, and once the elephant has made its snap, intuitive decision and headed in a certain direction it's up to the rider to come up with a post-hoc moral justification for that response, or in the words of Haidt, 'our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth'.

How do Haidt's ideas relate to the communication of research?

'Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say'. 

Those of us involved in the communication of research in science and the social sciences often feel that we're dealing in pure facts; that we're somehow impervious to the knee-jerk, gut responses that govern other aspects of everyday life. But that's simply not true. Scientists and academics are just as tribal as everyone else and this hive mentality will often affect how they engage with the public, especially when it comes to addressing issues that are culturally/politically weighted.

It's all too common to see off-hand dismissals of the views of people who don't conform to the consensus position on things like childhood vaccines, without any attempt to understand why people might hold those positions. This is an unhelpful approach that does nothing to further the debate.

What can we do to make things more constructive?

Again, distilling Haidt's powerful arguments into a single idea does the book absolutely no justice but in an effort to end this post on a helpful and upbeat mood I'll give you one of the small, achievable ways in which he says we can help break down cultural and political boundaries. 

He suggests that in order to open your mind you have to 'open your heart first'. If you can engineer at least one friendly interaction with a member of the "other" group then you'll find it easier to listen to what they're saying and you might even be able to see the contentious issue in a new light. That doesn't mean you have to agree with them but your disagreement will likely become more respectful and constructive.

I'll leave you with one final Jonathan Haidt quote from the book, written in reference to his own move away from tribal liberal to someone who tries to see situations from both sides:

It felt good to be released from partisan anger. And once I was no longer angry I was no longer committed to reaching the conclusion that righteous anger demands."

Now, isn't that an outcome we could all benefit from?

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Peter Barker is the Director of Orinoco Communications, which he started in 2016, having spent over ten years working in broadcast television as a documentary producer/director. 

He specialises in the digital communication of research in science, the social sciences, humanities and arts.