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

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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 www.YourMorals.org, 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 www.YourMorals.org, 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 edge.org, "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.

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

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