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Jonathan Haidt and the Moral Matrix: Breaking Out of Our Righteous Minds

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Meet Jonathan Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia who studies morality and emotion. If social psychology was a sport, Haidt would be a Phil Mickelson or Rodger Federer – likable, fun to watch and one of the best. But what makes Haidt one-of-a-kind in academia is his sincere attempt to study and understand human morality from a point of view other than his own.

Morality is difficult. As Haidt writes on his website, “It binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.” And while many of us understand this at a superficial level, Haidt takes it to heart. He strives to understand our inherent self-righteousness and morality as a collection of diverse mental modules to try to ultimately make society better off.

I had the pleasure of visiting him at his office, which is currently in Tisch Hall at NYU (Haidt is a visiting professor at Stern School of Business), to speak about his background and how he came to write his forthcoming book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

“My intellectual roots,” he explained, date back to a “Woody Allen-style existential crisis during high school, which led me to major in philosophy in college.” Along with seeing philosophy as being “intellectually sexy,” he thought it might have the answers to his meaning-of-life chestnuts. But, as Haidt bluntly confessed, “it didn’t, philosophy was very unsatisfying.” What did satisfy Haidt’s natural thirst for understanding human beings was social psychology. “It was fascinating,” he reported, “I was hooked after taking a few classes as an underclassman at Yale.”

Haidt graduated from Yale in 1985 with a degree in philosophy and landed a job as a systems analyst for the U.S Department of Labor. Two years later he felt the pull of academia and began looking into grad school. “I started applying to schools in computer science thinking I would study cognitive science. But they felt all wrong to me; the buildings felt wrong and the people felt wrong. When I stepped into the psychology department at Penn everything felt right. I met interesting people and decided to apply.”

Haidt confessed that Penn was a stretch. “I had no idea what I was doing. I only applied to four schools and had no recommendations from anyone.” Fortunately for him, and eventually the field of psychology, Penn took a chance and let him in.

Haidt initially found moral psychology “really dull.” He described it to me as “really missing the heart of the matter and too cerebral.” This changed in his second year after he took a course from the anthropologist Allen Fiske and got interested in moral emotions. “Suddenly, everything turned positive, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.” He completed his dissertation, “Moral judgment, affect, and culture, or, is it wrong to eat your dog?” which explored how morality varied by culture in 1992 under Jonathan Baron and Alan Fiske. And a few years later he landed a job as an Assistant Professor of psychology at the University of Virginia where he still teaches today.

His next milestone came in 2001 when he published, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Trail,” which he describes as “the most important article I’ve ever written.” Rightly so. It has since been cited over 1100 times and mentioned in numerous popular psychology books. Most importantly, it helped shift moral psychology away from rationalist models that dominated in the 1980s and 1990s. In its place Haidt offered an understanding of morality from an intuitive and automatic level. As Haidt says on his website, “we are just not very good at thinking open-mindedly about moral issues, so rationalist models end up being poor descriptions of actual moral psychology.”

His article also gave rise to the elephant-rider metaphor, a major theme in his research that readers of his first popular book, The Happiness Hypothesis will recognize. The metaphor describes how our unconscious cognitive capacities guide and control our conscious deliberations. As he explains in the book, “the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does.” The metaphor, Haidt explained to me, “really started in my psych 101 class when I was trying to explain psychology using quotes that I had collected. I thought it would be interesting to analyze them. And so the rider and the elephant is the metaphor I came up with.”

To be sure, Haidt’s metaphor shows itself many times throughout history – Plato’s charioteer and Freud’s id, ego and super ego to name a few. But Haidt’s take is slightly different. In the last few decades psychology began to understand the unconscious mind not as dark and suppressed as Freud did, but as intuitive, highly intelligent and necessary for good conscious reasoning. “Elephants,” he reminded me, “are really smart, much smarter than horses.”

Now, Haidt is putting the finishing touches on his next big project, The Righteous Mind, which is due out in March 2012. He was motivated to write The Righteous Mind after Kerry lost the 2004 election: “I thought he did a terrible job of making moral appeals so I began thinking about how I could apply moral psychology to understand political divisions. I started studying the politics of culture and realized how liberals and conservatives lived in their own closed worlds.” Each of these worlds, as Haidt explains in the book, “provides a complete, unified, and emotionally compelling worldview, easily justified by observable evidence and nearly impregnable to attack by arguments from outsiders.” He describes them as “moral matrices,” and thinks that moral psychology can help him understand them.

To understand what constitutes these moral matrices Haidt teamed with Craig Joseph from the University of Chicago. Building on ideas from the anthropologist Richard Shweder (with whom they both had studied), they developed the idea that humans possess six universal moral modules, or moral “foundations,” that get built upon to varying degrees across culture and time. They are: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation, and Liberty/oppression. Haidt describes these six modules like a “tongue with six taste receptors.” “In this analogy,” he explains in the book, “the moral matrix of a culture is something like its cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. You can’t have a cuisine based on grass and tree bark, or even one based primarily on bitter tastes. Cuisines vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. Moral matrices vary, but they all must please righteous minds equipped with the same six social receptors.”

Next, Haidt recruited his UVA colleague Brian Nosek and graduate student Jesse Graham to create a questionnaire that measured how people of certain political parties valued (in terms of importance) five moral foundations (he dropped Liberty/oppression). The questionnaire eventually manifested itself into the website, and it has since gathered over two hundred thousand data points. Here is what they found:

This is the crux of the disagreement between liberals and conservatives. As the graph illustrates, liberals value Care and Fairness much more than the other three moral foundations whereas conservative endorse all five more or less equally. This shouldn’t sound too surprising, liberals tend to value universal rights and reject the idea of the United States being superior while conservatives tend to be less concerned about the latest United Nation declaration and more partial to the United States as a superior nation.

In addition to the project at, Haidt began reading political psychology. Karen Stenner’s The Authoritarian Dynamic, “conveyed some key insights about protecting the group that were particularly insightful,” he said. The work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim was also vital. In contrast to John Stuart Mill, a Durkheimian society, as Haidt explains in an essay for, “would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s groups over concerns for out-groups.”

“By 2007 or 2008,” Haidt described, “I started feeling like there is something to be figured out here. I thought that I might be able to figure out what morality is all about and come up with a unifying theory of this huge and buried aspect of human nature.”

The key piece of the puzzle came when he connected Durkheim with Darwin to argue that morality binds and blinds. The metaphor he uses to describe this idea is that we are 90 percent chimp 10 percent bee. That is to say, though we are inherently selfish, human nature is also about being what he terms “groupish.” He explained to me like this:

“When I say that human nature is selfish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests, in competition with our peers. When I say that human nature is also groupish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. We are not saints, but we are sometimes good team players.” This is what people who had studied morality had not realized, “that we evolved not just so I can treat you well or compete with you, but at the same time we can compete with them.”

What comes out of The Righteous Mind is initially pessimistic but ultimately optimistic. At first, Haidt reminds us that we are all trapped in a moral matrix where we our “elephants” only look for what confirms its moral intuitions while our “riders” play the role of the lawyer; we team up with people who share similar matrices and become close-minded; and we forget that morality is diverse. But on the other hand, Haidt is offering us a choice: take the blue pill and remain happily delusional about your worldview, or take the red pill, and, as he said in his 2008 TED talk, “learn some moral psychology and step outside your moral matrix.”

The great Asian religions, Haidt reminded the crowd at TED, swallowed their pride and took the red pill millennia ago. And by stepping out of their moral matrices they realized that societies flourish when they value all of the moral foundations to some degree. This is why Ying and Yang aren’t enemies, “they are both necessary, like night and day, for the functioning of the world.” Or, similarly, why the two of the high Gods in Hinduism, Vishnu the preserver (who stands for conservative principles) and Shiva the destroyer (who stands for liberal principles) work together.

Now, it’s time for us to decide – the blue pill or the red pill. Political bickering plagues the United States; both parties are unwilling to cooperate and understand the others’ point of view. Let’s hope we make the correct decision. Maybe then we can break out of our Righteous Minds.

Samuel McNerney About the Author: Sam McNerney graduated from the greatest school on Earth, Hamilton College, where he earned a bachelors in Philosophy. After reading too much Descartes and Nietzsche, he realized that his true passion is reading and writing about cognitive science. Now, he is working as a science journalist writing about philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. He has a column at and a blog at called "Moments of Genius". He spends his free time listening to Lady Gaga, dreaming about writing bestsellers, and tweeting @SamMcNerney. Follow on Twitter @SamMcNerney.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 14 Comments

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  1. 1. kloblert 1:10 am 12/9/2011

    This looks like anything but science to me.
    I actually do think that liberals are totally unfair. When I see your curves showing that liberals are more concerned by fairness than conservatives, I cannot accept that because I don’t understand the basis of it. Please define fairness because I think that this is not a simple concept which can be used blindly. For example I think that liberals are very focused on “equity” or “equality” which has nothing to do with fairness. I can debate the difference between these 2 notions on a very rational and scientific basis. I have hundred of cases where the “left liberals” show no notion of fairness in order to avoid any truthworthy debate ( aka political corectness ). If you don’t define what fairness means than the whole study is not worth more than any study which could have been made by some dictatorship authority. Sorry to be harsh but I need to be clear on this notion that you cannot claim to be a scientific magazine and carry ideological grounded studies like this one. Truth is the truth and can’t be bypassed.
    This is scarry.

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  2. 2. smcnerne 1:32 pm 12/9/2011


    If you want to know more about the moral foundations I suggest you visit, this website ( or watch Haidt’s TED talk.

    Comparing Haidt’s moral foundation theory to an authoritarian dictatorship tells me you did not take the time to understand his work. Haidt has spent years running experiments, gathering data and drawing well-reasoned conclusions about human morality. I welcome you to explain why you think his work is “ideologically grounded,” or why what he does is not science with more thought-out reasons.

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  3. 3. tetrahedral 1:45 pm 12/9/2011

    Judgments of fairness should be made by those invovled in a relationship. The relationship may be that of child to parent, husband to wife, employee to employer, or citizen to leaders. Fairness is different from justice which is usually decided on the basis of laws. Fairness can be about equal treatment, opportunity, reciprocity, even respect.
    Relationships and the environments they exist in change over time, which may result in changes in expectations, power, etc. It is not fair for a junior high student to compete agains an NBA player because there is no real chance for him or her to win. A person from a ghetto will likely decide that it is not fair that they have no access to decent education, health care or jobs when they perceive themselves as just as intellligent as someone they know from the suburbs.
    A conservative will likely decide that it is unfair that educated liberals are passing laws to protect the environment because the laws make it harder for them than it was their parents, to make a living from the land.
    Persons involved in relationships that have changed for some reason, must renegotiate what to them will be fair. Of course those in power will always have the advantage in such negotiations, but if they ignore the concerns or needs of those having less power they run the risk of resistance or rebellion. The classic example is where a parent treats a teenager as if they were still a child. Or where a King treats the subjects in his colony differently than the subjects in the home land.

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  4. 4. kloblert 5:53 pm 12/9/2011

    First I need to emphasize that my writing was based upon this notion
    which is embedded in the published graphics that
    “conservatives are less concerned about fairness than liberals”,
    not about what fairness is.
    But the question is actually the definition of fairness as if you can’t
    define it in a way that is agreed by everybody then how can you claim that
    one part of the society is less concerned by it than another part ?
    To smcnerne:
    Yes I did go to the site.
    To Tetrahedral:
    is this an attempt at a definition ( or lack of ) of fairness or an attempt
    to approach a concept which is so convoluted that no clear definition can be given ?
    Maybe this is the root of problem.
    Is fairness a clear concept or some nebulous notion which meaning varies ?
    This does not even match the explanation on the website:

    There it is written:
    Fairness/reciprocity, related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism.
    This foundation generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
    [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality,
    which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals.
    However, as we reformulate the theory in 2010 based on new data,
    we are likely to include several forms of fairness,
    and to emphasize proportionality, which is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
    “related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism….”" ????

    I can’t take the above as a definition as it relates to so many things without clearly defining

    How can one have a theory based on fuzzy concepts and definitions ?

    Then if you try to search the web for a definition of fairness you’ll be disappointed…

    But if nobody agrees on what fairness really is than how can you measure how concerned
    you are about it ?

    Maybe fairness should be defined by defining what it is not, among other possibilities:
    a) if you are fair you can’be biased
    b) if you are fair you can’t apply different rules are your discretion (cheating) ( equity )
    But would liberals agree these are two important aspects of fairness ?
    Probably not.

    So this does not seem to work either…

    Also this sentence on the web site is interesting:

    “In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality,
    which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals”
    And how is “equality” related to fairness ?
    Which equality ? Is it the liberal view of no matter what you do you should earn the same ?
    This can be considered as totally unfair by others…
    If you put equality in your “concept” of fairness then probably yes,
    conservatives are not going to be concerned because most won’t think equality with this
    meaning has anything to do with fairness.

    Aren’conservatives very concerned about fairness as it relates to justice and equity ?
    Aren’t conservatives very concerned about law and it’s uniform application ?’
    They see law as a way to implement fairness, even many laws can also be perceived
    as very “unfair” but that does not mean they are not concerned by fairness.
    They are very much concerned by their own “concept”, “vision”, whatever you
    call it of fairness..

    It maybe that different people have in fact complete different basis for morality which
    lead to completely different views of the world and hence even good and bad ….

    Some think that in order to be fair you have to establish equality which means
    putting in place help systems and biased laws that others will find totally unfair ?
    A typical example is positive discrimination.
    Some will think that this is a good thing ( helping people going to great
    universities they would not have chance to attend ) others will think it is a bad thing
    ( preventing people who could legitimitaly pretend to go based on their results)

    How can you claim that one point of vue is better than the other if you don’t have a basis
    for your moral system ?

    But once again I don’t see how you can can conclude that conservatives
    are less concerned by fairness, except if you can claim that there is a universal definition
    of fairness which does not seem to be there….

    Please indulge me.
    Explain me what I am missing here and why is this science ?


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  5. 5. smcnerne 10:36 pm 12/10/2011

    Sorry Klobert, your comment was just too jumbled and long to understand or react too. I’ll take it seriously if you are more concise and articulate.

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  6. 6. dugonearth 11:15 am 12/11/2011

    I’d like to see some discussion of his decision to drop Liberty/oppression. It’s central to political rhetoric in the U.S., but all we get is a parenthetical (he dropped it) with no explanation.

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  7. 7. smcnerne 12:44 pm 12/11/2011

    I believe that he did not have sufficient data for Liberty/oppression.

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  8. 8. tetrahedral 1:24 pm 12/11/2011

    To Klobert:
    I do not think any of the concepts studied in this survey can be defined sufficiently for scientific study. Does that mean they are meaningless? I think not. My previous posting was an attempt to indicate that “fairness” cannot be objectified. Fairness is a concept that represents a judgment by two or more people about whether an exchange between them is satisfactory. It is difficult for an outsider to “objectively” determine what those involved will deem to be fair; and it is difficult for an outsider to set a policy which everyone considers to be fair.
    I have found that when one makes a concerted effort to pin down what is meant, many concepts become fuzzy. The more closely the concept is tied to individual well-being, the more fuzzy it is likely to be because we each have a more personalized perspective on what constitutes happiness, fairness, well-being, etc.. Defining “happiness” is difficult but that does not justify abandoning a study of the concept or the experience.
    As you rightly say, conservatives (however you define them) are also concerned about fairness. The difference, as I see it, between liberals and conservatives is how important the concept is in their thinking about individual rights versus responsibilities. How does one decide what is more important; individual well-being or societal well-being? This is an age-old dispute; and it should be clear by now that the answer depends on the circumstances involved. When a society is threatened by war or disaster, societal well-being needs to be emphasized and individual well-being de-emphasized. When most of the power and wealth are held by a relative few, and large numbers have difficulty in their efforts to have a “good” life, then I think it is time to focus more on what contributes to individual well-being. Fairness, like care, is a concept which focuses more on individual well-being as opposed to societal well-being. If the majority of the members of a group or society are dissatisfied , then societal well-being is not being achieved.
    For most of us “morality” is a concept which includes fairness, as well as justice, authority, etc.; morality is therefore even fuzzier in the sense that what you mean by it is likely to be different than what others mean. As the article says, this difference is central to the dispute between liberals and conservatives. All of these concepts are useful, but we should avoid absolutes and be more careful to consider how the concepts are being applied as well as the definitions that are being used.

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  9. 9. Steve3 7:54 pm 12/13/2011

    I began thinking about how I could apply moral psychology to understand political divisions…

    Conservatives are frightened little pussy cats afraid of the unknown, the different, the unusual challenge. They are frightened of being generous, kind and caring toward the different from them.
    THAT IS WHY there is a division– they are wrong!!!

    Conservatives want to live in a bunker — liberals are adventurers, discoverers, tough rugged and handsome!!! Or if they’re female all that but inplace of handsome put … HOT!!!

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  10. 10. wmroche 1:53 pm 12/15/2011

    Bilge water. Conservatives (especially the Republican ones) profess to be so very Christian. Except they are very Christian only to rich or upper middle class people.

    When it comes to the poor they are no longer Christian. They hate the poor and those different from themselves. There is no love only hate. Theirs is a religion of hate, not love. Whenever I hear them speak, they of how they hate homosexuals, or hate poor by denying them medical care or, they hate other religions.

    They totally ignore the teachings of Jesus and adhere more to the old Testament. So they are “old Testamentians” but they are not Christians, i.e. those that follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is amazing how much the conservatives hate helping the poor especially poor people with disabilities. They reserve all the tax breaks for their wealthy able bodied friends or even for well-off people with disabilities.

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  11. 11. jimmynerveguy 11:08 pm 12/19/2011

    The study and results by Jonathan Haidt are interesting and worth noting. His six moral foundations have their basis on a dichotomy of personal traits that are influenced by: 1. How our brains/minds have evolved and are constructed (we are more than cerebral cortex); 2. what religous/spiritual creeds we hold or have been born into (liberals can also be Christians); 3. what culture/society/environment we happened to fall into. When considering right vs. wrong, there are usually intermediate positions where it might depend on the greater universal of love vs. hate (rather than an arbitrary abortion is always wrong), or how we might change with age and maturity. Life has an abundance of grays (and that’s ok) between the ying and yang, the liberal and the conservative. To break out of our “righteous minds” we might all benefit by moving to the center view (life is sacred most of the time until a misquito lands on you for blood), allow for grace (undeserved favor and care), and respect those who are not just like us with true love and empathy. Both sides of the moral/political argument should decide that there is something basically wrong with: 1. 90% effort for self-interest (chimps mourn the death of one from their group and rats will demonstrate empathy); 2. 1% having the big money and not wanting to pay more taxes or keep the government in place to care for those in real need; 3. certain groups not being willing to compromise to get the work of governing accomplished. Sadly, there will always be war, the poor, foreigners, etc., but life, freedom, sanctity and happiness are complex issues, so let’s exercise at least an ounce of reason tempered by love for the greater moral good.

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  12. 12. whatmethinks 5:28 pm 01/1/2012

    Most people barely think, how are you promoting the opportunity to expand this process to the masses outside of this exclusive bubble? Does philosophy have any value at all if billions of humans are not invited?
    Because people don’t realise that thinking can effect change they remain trapped in a Foucault experiment whilst the fortunate sit together defining & drinking wine. Use your minds to free ours. Get the children thinking, a radical idea unlikely to be popular…

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  13. 13. bucketofsquid 2:26 pm 01/6/2012

    It isn’t surprising that many of the posts responding to this article are prime examples of what Haidt refers to as living in closed worlds. Roughly 20% of our population are conservative and another 20% are liberal. The remainder are spread out between the 2 extremes.

    Since both groups are actually small minorities, they have the problem politically and religiously of not being able to relate well to the non-extremist majority. This leads to the ideological purists winning in primary elections but losing in general elections. This leads to the doctrinally pure being lousy missionaries – they can’t relate to most people.

    A person understanding this can easily bridge the boundaries of these small minorities and find common ground within the majority and even the opposing minority and move things closer to what they want. Those that fail to adapt tend to eventually die out and be replaced.

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  14. 14. klatu 2:25 pm 01/10/2012

    ‘Righteousness’ is the illusion of those who describe themselves within culture as respectable, confusing it with morality. Whatever progress humanity might have made over the time it has existed upon this planet, it has yet to achieve or evolve individually or culturally construct a state of existence that can be described as moral by any objective means or measure. That is the one constant of history and why utopian ideals, against the stream, continue to inspire. But such goals are outside the reach and potential of our species, rooted within an evolutionary past, that like a glass ceiling, limits all moral and ethical potential.

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