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Books: 'The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics'

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan April 28, 2012

Editor's note: From time to time, we interview authors about books we think would be of interest to our readers. (See a previous installment here.)

Sometimes we wring our hands over the extreme partisanship in Congress, on cable TV and all over the Internet. But if we’re honest with ourselves, at least some of us find that partisanship appealing: We’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys, and it’s up to us to expose them for trying to destroy the country.

That dynamic might not be healthy, but it is real. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt set out to find out why. In his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt draws on psychology, anthropology, history and philosophy to find answers to questions like: Why does it feel good to demonize the other side? Where do we get our beliefs about politics from anyway? And is there any way liberals and conservatives can learn to get along?

Haidt reaches some surprising conclusions. Our political beliefs, for example, are at least partially genetic. We’re programmed to make judgments about certain values: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty. Liberals are particularly concerned with care and fairness, conservatives act on all six.

Haidt’s ideas aren’t just theories, though. He bolsters them with empirical research conducted around the world, in which he asked people from many walks of life how they make moral decisions. For example, would you kick a dog in the head for a $1,000? No? How about for $1 million? What if you were in a foreign country, would you be willing to say something bad about your nation on a radio program for that amount?

Haidt recently spoke with PolitiFact about some of the ideas at work in his book. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

One of the main ideas of your book is that political sentiment is partially learned, but partially innate. How would you describe the influence of nature and nurture when it comes to politics?

The most important thing to realize is we’re not blank slates at birth. We don’t start off with nothing in our heads, and then get imprinted entirely by our environment. There’s something in our heads on the day we’re born, and then we grow up and make choices. Like whom to be friends with — whether you become a jock or a goth, whether you hang out with the more conventional kids or the more anti-establishment kids. This isn’t random. If you have a personality predisposed to liberalism, you might gravitate more to the artsy crowd or the anti-establishment crowd. And then those peers will affect you, and they will give you values, and you will copy them.

But even if you have a brain predisposed to liberalism, you might end up with some conservative friends or find inspiring conservative role models who could be very influential on you, and that could send you down a different track in life.

So your temperament is not your destiny. It’s just a starting point; it launches you in a particular direction. But life is complicated, and people take twists and turns.

You draw on the philosophy of David Hume, who said reason was the servant of the passions, that we decide what we think and then try to rationalize it.

We don’t even decide what we think, we just feel it. It’s like when you look at a person. You don’t decide if that person is attractive or not, you just respond within a tenth of a second. And if someone asks you why, you might say the strong chin and very symmetrical eyebrows. I mean, you can come up with reasons. But those aren’t the reasons you decided.

Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report has had a long-running joke about "truthiness" and deciding things with his gut. Was he right after all?

Truthiness is exactly right. I’ll be on the Colbert Report on May 2, and I hope to bring that up. It’s funny, of course, when he says it. But yes, we mostly go by truthiness. If you have high IQ, you’re really good at finding post-hoc arguments to support your feelings of truthiness.

Does this make political conversations pre-determined, maybe even pointless?

Only in certain circumstances. For example, let’s say you’re on the Internet and having an anonymous discussion with someone else using fake names. There’s no relationship, no accountability, and you’re simply arguing over, say, whether what President Obama did was constitutional or not. Then yes, that’s totally pointless.

But fortunately, that’s not what most conversations are like. If you have a relationship with someone, it’s a different story. Let’s say you’re at a dinner party. It’s a very convivial atmosphere, and you’re sharing food, and this person tells you why he’s upset with Obama. Then you might be able to listen. In that case, if you’re in a sufficiently good mood, and you’re tied to the other person through friendships, you might be able to see things from another perspective.

We need other people to challenge our confirmation bias, our habit of searching only for evidence that confirms our beliefs. We can think better when we have people disagree with us. So I don’t think political conversations are pointless at all.

In recent years, there’s been a surge in politics fact-checking, like at PolitiFact. Is this still valuable work if people primarily use intuition to decide political issues?

It’s actually very valuable, because accountability is really important. In the book, I talk about the work of Phil Tetlock, a leading researcher in the study of accountability. He found that we can reason well when we know the audience is interested in the truth and will hold us accountable for what we say. So under very special circumstances, we can reason well. But, more generally, we behave when we think someone is watching, and we will reason carefully if we think someone is checking our reasoning.

In a world without fact-checking, we’d have even more ridiculous statements than we already have.

As you write in your book, you’ve moved from being a self-described liberal to a centrist. What ended up appealing to you about conservatism?

The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are conglomerations of interest groups and commitments to particular laws and donors and special interests. Neither party represents a clean and clear ideological philosophy.

What I found interesting is the strand of conservatism that runs back to the 18th century, especially the writing of Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and David Hume. These folks talked a lot about the need for institutions and structure and order, to constrain and guide human activity. They thought that if you knocked down all the structures, you’d get chaos. This continues with Emile Durkheim, the sociologist, who was actually a liberal, not a conservative. But his observations on the importance of authority and order, to combat "anomie," or normlessness — I thought as an empirical fact, he was right. More recently, there’s Thomas Sowell, who wrote a wonderful book called A Conflict of Visions.

The converse of those ideas would be something like John Lennon’s song Imagine: "Imagine there’s no countries ... nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too." That’s a dream that many on the left have, but it would turn into a nightmare if you tried it on a large scale. You can do it on a commune, or you can do it at Burning Man, which is a temporary community. But you couldn’t have a large, diverse society without order, structure, constraint. So the anti-authoritarian streak on the left is just not practical. It’s going to create utopias that will fail very quickly.

With all of that said, I really dislike today’s Republican Party, because as far as I can tell, their most passionate commitment is to low tax rates on the very rich.

You write that to change gridlock in Washington, we need to change the environment in which politicians work. It’s hard to imagine how that can happen. Any ideas on this?

There’s a group called, and they have a 12-point plan. One I like the most is changing the calendar to encourage Congress to stay in Washington three weeks at a time, so that Democrats and Republicans might actually see each other at social events, as they used to before the 1990s. Polarization in the U.S. public has increased in the last 20 to 30 years, but only a little; while polarization in Congress has increased a lot. I think things got a lot worse in the 1990s in Congress. Some of those things can be undone.

But there’s also a generational issue. The "greatest generation" was unusually cooperative. They fought World War II together, and they were the most public-spirited citizens we’ve had in many generations. When they became congressmen and worked in government, they had a decency and ability to work together that is historically rare.

That generation was replaced with the baby boomers, probably the most polarized generation in many generations. Their foundational experience was fighting each other. Those who were on the left by disposition let their hair grow long and used that as a tribal badge to figure out who was anti-establishment, anti-war, anti-racism. Then there were the clean-cut young men and women who thought that what the hippies were doing was disgusting and disloyal.

My hope is that the younger generation –– the Millennials –– will be less polarized.

Your books seem aimed both at an academic audience and a general audience. How did you thread that needle?

I’m an intuitionist. I believe we’re basically intuitive creatures. So there’s no way I’m going to simply lay out evidence. Standard academic books lay out arguments and evidence as though the person on the other end is a brain in a vat. And if we were brains in vats, or computers, that would work. But we’re not.

The mind is better thought of as a story processor than a logic processor. So I try to tell stories whenever possible. In The Righteous Mind, I intertwine the story of my research with the story of my own de-conversion from liberalism to centrism. I keep the main text as a story, and I speak as one would speak to another person, saying, "Here’s how things seem to work, and here’s a vivid illustration of it, and here’s a study that showed it." And then in the footnotes, I give all the stuff that an academic would want. My goal, though, is to get across ideas in a way that’s fun and memorable and easy to understand.

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Our Sources

Interview with Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, 2012

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More by Angie Drobnic Holan

Books: 'The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics'