by Judith Curry
Do you ever find yourself reading something by a commentator you disagree with and wanting to punch them in the face? Do you listen to people on the other side of the political debate and find yourself almost hating them?
Well, we had a lot of fun with the Republican Brain. Here is another book with some similar themes, but one that isn’t partisan. Jonathan Haidt has written a book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. From the summary on amazon.com:
Why can’t our political leaders work together as threats loom and problems mount? Why do people so readily assume the worst about the motives of their fellow citizens? In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our divisions and points the way forward to mutual understanding.
His starting point is moral intuition—the nearly instantaneous perceptions we all have about other people and the things they do. These intuitions feel like self-evident truths, making us righteously certain that those who see things differently are wrong. Haidt shows us how these intuitions differ across cultures, including the cultures of the political left and right. He blends his own research findings with those of anthropologists, historians, and other psychologists to draw a map of the moral domain, and he explains why conservatives can navigate that map more skillfully than can liberals. He then examines the origins of morality, overturning the view that evolution made us fundamentally selfish creatures. But rather than arguing that we are innately altruistic, he makes a more subtle claim—that we are fundamentally groupish. It is our groupishness, he explains, that leads to our greatest joys, our religious divisions, and our political affiliations. In a stunning final chapter on ideology and civility, Haidt shows what each side is right about, and why we need the insights of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to flourish as a nation.
Haidt also has a Ted video [here].
There are two substantial reviews of the book, from the New York Review of Books and the Telegraph, that tackle different aspects of Haidt’s theme.
From the New York Review of Books
You’re smart. You’re liberal. You’re well informed. You think conservatives are narrow-minded. You can’t understand why working-class Americans vote Republican. You figure they’re being duped. You’re wrong.
This isn’t an accusation from the right. It’s a friendly warning from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who, until 2009, considered himself a partisan liberal. In “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt seeks to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature. Politics isn’t just about manipulating people who disagree with you. It’s about learning from them.
The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others.
Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.
The hardest part, Haidt finds, is getting liberals to open their minds. And in a survey of 2,000 Americans, Haidt found that self-described liberals, especially those who called themselves “very liberal,” were worse at predicting the moral judgments of moderates and conservatives than moderates and conservatives were at predicting the moral judgments of liberals. Liberals don’t understand conservative values. And they can’t recognize this failing, because they’re so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment.
Haidt isn’t just scolding liberals, however. He sees the left and right as yin and yang, each contributing insights to which the other should listen. In his view, for instance, liberals can teach conservatives to recognize and constrain predation by entrenched interests. Haidt believes in the power of reason, but the reasoning has to be interactive. It has to be other people’s reason engaging yours. We’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we’re good at challenging each other’s. Haidt compares us to neurons in a giant brain, capable of “producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.”
Traits we evolved in a dispersed world, like tribalism and righteousness, have become dangerously maladaptive in an era of rapid globalization. A pure scientist would let us purge these traits from the gene pool by fighting and killing one another. But Haidt wants to spare us this fate. He seeks a world in which “fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means.” To achieve this goal, he asks us to understand and overcome our instincts. He appeals to a power capable of circumspection, reflection and reform.
From the Telegraph:
The human mind is divided, Haidt argues, into two parts, a rider and an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. “The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 per cent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behaviour.”
Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second, and this goes the same for intelligent and dim alike. Education and IQ makes no difference to where the elephant goes, only to how well the rider explains its actions.
Since the conscious mind’s job is to justify the choices it has made, we are prone to confirmation bias, seeing what it wants to see our, and our mind treats contradictory evidence as a threat. All animal brains are designed to create flashes of pleasure when the animal does something important for its survival, and small pulses of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the ventral striatum (and a few other places) are where these good feelings are manufactured. Heroin and cocaine are addictive because they artificially trigger this dopamine response.”
Being proved correct provides us with a dopamine hit, which is why obsessed politicos and bloggers trawl the internet looking for anything to prove them right.
“If this is true,” says Haidt: “then it would explain why extreme partisans are so stubborn, closed-minded, and committed to beliefs that often seem bizarre or paranoid. Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button, partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things. The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive.”
JC comment: I haven’t read Haidt’s book (maybe I would have more time to read if I didn’t spend so much time blogging.) But I found both reviews to be quite provocative. In terms of the climate debate, here is what I take away:
We’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we’re good at challenging each other’s. Haidt compares us to neurons in a giant brain, capable of “producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.”
Sounds like a ‘mission statement’ for Climate Etc.