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The Intuitionist: A Citrusy Conversation with Jonathan Haidt

"I’m trying to help people cross morally charged fault lines, but my book has something in it to offend everyone."
July 16, 2012, 7:41pm

The first thing Jonathan Haidt did, upon my walking into his office at NYU, was to offer me a choice of three cans of soda: Diet Coke, seltzer, and Fresca. I chose the Fresca. "Ah, Fresca," he said, "far and away the most refreshing diet drink." There's something about Fresca that reminds me of Haidt. He's a deep thinker, a social psychologist who studies how people think and feel about morality, but as a self-identified “intuitionist” his ideas about human nature come like cool splashes of water. They’re bracingly commonsense, almost citrusy.

A few months ago Haidt put out a book on moral political psychology called the The Righteous Mind. In it, he asserts that we "feel" morality. Reason doesn’t run the show, he argues, it acts as an agent for our gut, our intuitions. The metaphor Haidt uses is that of a rider on an elephant: If you're on an elephant, you have some ability to steer, but if the beast gets spooked and decides to go right, it's going to go right; if it decides to go left, it’s going to go left. It's an elephant and you're a fraction of its size and you're not going to stop it, so you might as well go with the flow. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Evolutionarily speaking, the flow often works in an effort to bring out the best in us: to help us organize, suppress selfishness, innovate, survive, and thrive. But it can also lead to political partisanship. Certain groups of people, the theory goes, lean harder towards certain “moral foundations” as a result of born-in traits and social upbringing. And in order to truly understand how the other side thinks, you first need to know how it feels. You need to become an elephant whisperer.


Haidt handed me my Fresca. I cracked it open and took a seat, and we chatted for a while about his research and what it might be able to tell us about the shit show that is modern American politics.

VICE: Rodney King died recently, God rest his soul. You begin your book by citing his call to civility: "Can we all get along?" But some people seemed to bristle at the argument you present in it, the idea that the gut rules the mind. What’s behind that?
Jonathan Haidt: There are a number of morally charged fault lines out there. There’s the left/right fault line, there’s the religious/secular fault line, and there’s the rationalist/intuitionist fault line. I’m trying to help people cross those lines, but my book has something in it to offend everyone. For people who think that their moral positions are carefully reasoned, to then be told that they in fact flow from gut feelings, that can be threatening. Also, some people are committed to helping others reason better. They’re actively trying to change the way people think. I think you can do this, but I think that indirect methods are more powerful.

Right, you can’t just pound people over the head with facts. But you touched on it for a second there: You don’t think your findings preclude the possibility of functional political dialogue.
This is one of the main misunderstandings of my work. People think, “Well, if it’s gut feelings, and those come from evolution, then how can anyone ever change their mind?” As if evolution built into us our attitudes about nuclear power and the deficit. But if you look at my model of moral judgment, it’s mostly composed of reasoning links. Reasoning is designed to be given to other people. We do change minds, but we change them more by triggering other intuitions than by forcing a logical reappraisal.


You were on The Colbert Report. He’s someone who’s always talking about “the gut.”
Right. Truthiness.

What I find interesting about him is that while he clearly leans left, he also seems to have a bit of right in him. It’s like he understand the right’s intuitions better than most liberals. Is it possible to have conflicting moral elephants?
Certainly. Our moral judgments are often constructed on the fly, and we’re very capable of having conflicting views about any particular issue. I mean, abortion is a wonderful example. It’s like a Necker cube. You might be very concerned about a woman’s right to control her own body, but then you look at one of those high definition ultrasound images and you begin to feel that something is wrong here. What I’ve found is that people who are from one particular moral background and have changed to another are in a sense bi-lingual. When I talk to liberals who were raised in conservative households, as many were, they typically understand what I’m saying very easily. They recognize all the conservative appeals to loyalty and authority. It’s one thing to understand it, it’s another thing to endorse it.

Something I’ve been hearing lately is that the left/right boundaries are beginning to break down for younger Americans like myself.
I think that’s true. There’s been an enormous shift to the left on social issues over the last 50 years, on civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. And there’s something of a shift to the right on economic issues. That is, the idea of the welfare state has long been under attack from the right, and it has some internal problems and sustainability problems that are really becoming clear, in Europe and here too.


So what will this mean in regards to younger voters?
Young people are extremely important, not so much because they vote now but because you want to get their loyalties. They’re going to be voting in the future. One thing that’s complicating this is the debt. We’ve known for decades that we’re building up debt, and we’ve been saying for decades that we shouldn’t pass this on to our grandchildren. Until now, it’s just been an abstraction. But now it’s really clear. People in their 20s and 30s, they are the grandchildren. They are the first generation that is going to pay in a lot more than they will ever get out. An economic historian named Niall Ferguson recently gave a talk in which he said, “If young people today understood what’s going on with the debt, they’d all join the Tea Party.” Nobody knows how we’re going to pay this off. We’re going to have to raise taxes and drastically cut spending, but one party refuses to raise taxes and the other refuses to do more than marginal cuts to spending. Young people should be quite angry.

OK, dumb question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. How is it that the right seems to kick so much Democratic ass?
They have a couple of built-in advantages. One of them is that they do group loyalty better than the left, and that’s one of the foundations: loyalty/betrayal. One of the items on the moral foundations questionnaire at is: “It is better to be a team player than to express yourself?” And conservatives endorse that more than do liberals.


It’s partly personality. In any family the children have a spread of personality traits. Your personality is not similar to your parents. Your physical appearance is similar, but personality comes from a scramble of genes. So some kids just end up with more of the conservative temperament, some the liberal temperament.

What we have in America now, for the first time in history, is a perfect split in personality. In the past, the parties have been split by region, by industry. Are you for high tariffs or low tariffs? Are you for manufacturing or farming? But since the 1970s all the psychological liberals are in one party, the Democrats, and all the psychological conservatives are with the other. And this means that the people in the other party really are different and have traits that you really don’t like. This makes it much easier to demonize. So the left thinks the right is a bunch of conformist fascists who value loyalty above thinking for themselves, and the right thinks the left is a bunch of selfish individualistic, hedonistic, atheistic traitors. And that’s where we are.

Great place to be.
Ha, yeah, it’s a great place to be with two gigantic meteors heading towards us: global warming and the debt crisis. And one side says, “Look there’s a meteorite!” and the other side says, “I don’t see that one. Oh my God! Look! There’s a meteorite!”

You said in your book that the left, unlike the right, is often hampered by its failing to appeal to a broader set of moral foundations than “care” and “fair.” How’s Obama doing on that note?
Well, from reading Dreams from My Father I think he is extraordinarily perceptive. I think he understands conservatives very well and he can speak to them if he wants to. On the campaign he had moments when he showed he understands the authority of a father and the responsibility of a father. And those are really winning messages in this country. But there’s a very widespread dissatisfaction on the left with the fact that he was so eloquent during the campaign, but then when he made it to the Oval Office he neglected the rhetorical duties of president. I mean, what he inherited when he went to Washington, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But I do wish he kept up with the need to be telling a coherent story to the nation. He seems to have focused on what’s happening in Washington, and gave up the rhetorical high ground to the Republicans, who have been crafting a very powerful negative story about his stewardship of the economy.


Even if he had kept up the rhetoric, would he have been able to overcome some of the more tribal elements at play, like race?
There is certainly a percent of the electorate that is so hostile to African Americans that they would never vote for him, whatever he did. But I’m an intuitionist, and the way I think about race is this: A lot of people, most white people, and even a lot of black people, have an instant intuitive flash of negativity towards African Americans. This is based off research with the Implicit Association Test. But that’s just a push. There are also lots of pushes to the positive. Most people like Obama. Even though the economy is doing badly he still is personally liked. He got something like 55 percent of the vote, including a very large number of people who have a negative amygdala reaction to black people.

Some point to the fact that he’s losing the working class voters and say it’s because he’s black.
I think there’s some truth to that, but again, race is a force that has to be factored in with everything else. So for the great majority of these working class voters, they are winnable.

OK, fair enough. Final question:Is there a place for social scientists like yourself in politics?
Oh yeah. PhDs and psychologists are being hired on both sides. The business of election campaigns has been getting ever more scientific in recent years. It used to be much more seat-of-the-pants, you know, “seasoned veterans going with their guts.” Now, because there’s so much money at stake and since the measurement techniques are better, massive amounts of data are being collected on voters. It’s as with investing. If you can get a very slight edge by using data you’ll do it, and so both campaigns are doing that.


But could it be used for evil, in a way? Could it divide people more than bring them together, which is the hope of your book?
Elections are zero sum games and each side is using this kind of research to beat the other. I expect they’ll use research like mine to get an advantage, but what I really want for the book is for citizens to read it and to understand that the other side is not stupid and evil.

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