The Righteous Mind

"Politics and religion are both expressions of our underlying moral psychology, and an understanding of that psychology can help to bring people together."

- The Righteous Mind, page xiv

Jonathan Haidt opens The Righteous Mind by invoking Rodney King’s question, “Can we all get along?” From there, using research representing a wide range of fields including psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, anthropology and behavioral economics, he dives deep into all that lies behind this deceptively simple question.

How do we develop our sense of morality? What is the relationship between the rational and the emotional—what role does intuition play in morality? What dominates our morality—the individual or the collective? Why do different people (especially liberals and conservatives) hold such a vastly different sense of what’s right and what’s wrong—and why are each sure that they are right?

This is a book full of exciting ideas, fascinating studies and great writing. Most of the way through the book I found myself reading aloud to anyone willing to listen! Here are just a few takeaways—things that struck me as meaningful.

The Golden Egg

Golden Egg: The biggest takeaway from the book

Morality is broader than we think

"Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices. This makes it very difficult for people to consider the possibility that there might really be more than one form of moral truth..."
- The Righteous Mind, page 130

When western liberals think about morality, they tend to consider only a couple of different dimensions (what Haidt calls “matrices”), specifically whether something causes harm and if it’s fair. Haidt argues that these are just two of six “matrices”—and that the people (western liberals) who focus on these two are in the vast minority globally. He uses the metaphor of taste receptors and the palate of tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, etc. to suggest that there is an equally rich palate of considerations that go into whether people consider something moral.

The “candidates” for these receptors or matrices are: care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Put this together with what you will momentarily read about in GEM #1 and you’ll realize that our moral intuitions—especially if we are not western liberals—are likely to also be formed because of a sense of disloyalty or loyalty, respect or disrespect of authority or as either upholding or degrading sanctity. If you happen to be a western liberal (in full transparency, a category I fit into perfectly,) you’re far more likely to focus only on whether something causes harm—or whether something is fair or just.

By ignoring the palate of moral receptors, Haidt claims that western liberals don’t understand what makes others, unlike them, tick. At the same time, conservatives, who tend to operate with a broader moral palate, might underestimate the depth of conviction around care and harm that drives the liberal mind. The mix creates for distrust, misunderstanding, and partisanship.

Haidt also points out that western liberals are the outliers—strongly suggesting that liberals must see the broader palate to have greater influence in political discourse.

Gem #1

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

Intuition first—reason second

"If you want to change people’s minds, talk to the elephant first."
- The Righteous Mind, page 57

One of Jonathan’s Haidt’s best-known metaphors, first explored in a previous book and expanded here, is that of the elephant and the rider. This book expands and deepens that metaphor. The mind is divided into parts—the rider being the “controlled processes” and the elephant being the “automatic processes.” The rider evolved to serve the elephant.

This means that when we have a moral intuition (our elephant at work), we will quickly engage the rider to justify that intuition, to provide reasoning for it. Our analytical justifications are there to explain what we intuitively sensed. It’s hard to get us to change our minds with reason and analytical arguments. And, we’re so good at this that our riders will work diligently to justify any position that our elephants take.

The way to change minds and influence people is by speaking to the elephant first.

Much of what we do, in day to day life, is precisely the opposite. We argue and reason with the rider—and very little changes and shifts. While I’m still working on what it means to talk to the elephant, I’m sure that the first step is recognizing the power of the elephant and seeing my own elephant and rider at work.

Gem #2

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

We are both chimp and bee

"An organization that takes advantage of our hivish nature can activate pride, loyalty, and enthusiasm among its employees and then monitor them less closely."
- The Righteous Mind, page 275

Experiments have shown that human toddlers are able to succeed on challenges that are social in nature where chimps simply can’t—while, with tasks that are not social in nature, the chimps and toddlers achieve similar results. In fact, humans veered from other primates when they developed “shared intentionality”—the ability to share a task—to truly work together. This was the beginning of “groupishness.”

While we are 90% chimp—meaning that we are very much shaped by competition leading to looking after our self-interest—we are 10% bee. Bees are “ultrasocial” and we, too, have an ultrasocial overlay. Our ultrasocial nature was shaped by competition of groups with other groups. In order to survive we had to transcend our selfishness and turn on the “hive switch” at which point we entered an “all for one, one for all” mind-set—where the good of the group trumped the good of the individual.

We can use this recognition that we are not just chimp, but also bee—for good. Organizations are often run on the underlying premise that people are all chimp—after their self-interest alone. We design systems of carrots and sticks to get the results we want. We don’t tap into our social nature to create organizations that in which “hivish employees work harder, have more fun, and are less likely to leave the company.”

Haidt offers practical suggestions here that include creating a sense of common values and identity, give people opportunities to play together (literarily to move together,) and to focus on creating group—not individual—competition.

My favorite books are the ones that challenge things I assume are true and help me see the world I live in through different eyes. In particular, Jonathan Haidt’s book helped me see opinions and views that I typically reject—especially those grounded in moral intuitions—with greater openness.

I hope that what I’ve shared here has interested you enough to explore his work more deeply on your own—and find your own GEMs. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you think about the GEMs I’ve shared. What surprises you? What intrigues you? What challenges you? Let’s talk.

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Ronni Hendel-Giller

ABOUT Ronni Hendel-Giller

Ronni Hendel-Giller has been passionate about leadership since she was a teenager. She's worked in non-profit and for-profit leadership positions—always with an eye to guiding others to realize their leadership potential...
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