Talking to Elephants

In a my last blog I presented some key insights from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haidt suggests that an apt metaphor for our moral intuition is an elephant, a very smart elephant, but nonetheless a beast driven by instinct. Moral reasoning, the elephant’s driver, oftentimes thinks they’re in control. But in fact, the rider evolved to serve the elephant, not the other way around. Haidt suggests our rider usually acts as our in-house press secretary, defending though not formulating our moral positions.

Haidt further suggests that when we do manage to change a moral position (that is a change in our moral intuition – the elephant), it is almost always via personal interactions or through emotionally compelling stories. Moral reasoning by itself simply doesn’t work. To change hearts, we must speak to the elephant.

The pattern for how Person A might influence the moral intuition of Person B is shown in Haidt’s figure below.

Figure 1: A model for effective moral persuasion (Haidt, 2012).

Two things from this figure should jump out at you.

First, notice that the figure describes a conversation. Though passing through the reasoning centers of the brain, it’s a conversation between the elephants. And most importantly, it’s an actual conversation – both people are talking, and both are listening.

People’s moral intuitions are not changed by simply refuting their arguments. If we come from a position of moralistic righteousness, confirmed in our own minds as well as those in our tribe as the correct position, we will fail to cross the moral divides that separate us. We must have a true conversation. Says Haidt:

The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.

The second thing to notice is that the auto-conversation between Person A and his or her self is far less effective (shown with dotted lines between A’s rider and A’s elephant). This is because Haidt’s research (and others) indicate that people have little ability or even inclination to change the intuition and judgments of their own elephants. Haidt remarks:

We make our first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgments. Yet friends can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: they can challenge us, giving us reasons and arguments that sometimes trigger new intuitions, thereby making it possible to change our minds.

I’m of the opinion that the first step in learning to speak to elephants is to examine our own elephants through a bit of (difficult) self-reflection. Let’s start with one of Haidt’s observations.

Haidt repeats a label that others have used to describe most of us and the people we interact with: “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic” – WEIRD. He points out that even within the West, Americans are WEIRDer than Europeans and within the US, the educated upper middle class are the WEIRDest of all.

The point of this distinction is that those of us who are WEIRD tend to view the world as full of separate individuals rather than relationships. Correspondingly, the moral foundations that we rely on tend to emphasize those that reflect individual autonomy. Those of us who are not so WEIRD view the world through the lens of relationships, inter-personal interactions, and community. Our moral positions tend to reflect that difference. Though we all share the same moral foundations, the emphasis we place on each and how we apply them to the behaviors of ourselves and others are different.

We WEIRDos also tend to get stuck in the deficient auto-correcting mode of Person A (dotted lines in Figure 1). By failing to adequately value our interactions with others, we can all too easily get stuck in a self-fulfilling cycle of reasoning that fails to be judiciously challenged.  

Modern channels of instant communication also make it increasingly difficult for our political elephants to communicate with each other. In a time long, long, ago many disparaged the soundbites of television news. We were appalled at the plethora of political discourse that was crammed into 30-60 second soundbites. But our modern avenues of communication through tweets, memes, and Facebook argumentation make that length of time now seem like an eternity. The time we seem to be allotting for even a modicum of reflection and discussion – not to mention civil discourse – seems to be rapidly evaporating.

We should add to this problem the increasing number of code words that have entered our political discourse – words meant either to instantly trigger responses from our supporters or to ridicule those of our opponents. [I would have preferred to call these trigger words, but the word trigger itself has even come to be a code word in some circles.]

Soundbites are now measured in milliseconds.

The framers of the US Constitution, even as they sought to create a political system that would protect us from tyrants, also understood the dangers of tyrannical mob rule – tyranny of the majority. Our republican form of government was constructed, in part, to allow for more interpersonal interactions, more time to consider alternative points of view, and more time for our elephants to have their conversations.

Though I embrace and applaud rapid widespread modern communication, in many ways it may be undermining productive political discourse.

Reasoning is not likely to provide the pathway out of this conundrum. I’m not at all sure what will. What I do know is that the instant communication toothpaste is now out of the tube, and there’s no good way to put it back in. What we can do, though, is change our own behaviors.

We can work to better understand those who disagree with us. We can be more open to changing the intuitions of own elephants. We can call out those who disrespect those who oppose them. We can refuse to be drawn into the drama of those who insist on bad behavior. We can work to refrain from the use of code words and memes and rational arguments that only seek to reinforce our point of view or that of our tribe.

We can seek out those with similar attitudes who are willing to engage us in real person-to-person conversations.

There is so much more to say on this topic. Stay tuned.

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