Decoding the Tribal Psychology of Politics

January 31, 2012

The Chronicle Review:

Jonathan Haidt is occupying Wall Street. Sort of. It’s a damp and bone-chilling January night in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. The 48-year-old psychologist, tall and youthful-looking despite his silvered hair, is lecturing the occupiers about how conservatives would view their ideas.

“Conservatives believe in equality before the law,” he tells the young activists, who are here in the “canyons of wealth” to talk people power over vegan stew. “They just don’t care about equality of outcome.”

Explaining conservatism at a left-wing occupation? The moment tells you a lot about the evolution of Jonathan Haidt, moral psychologist, happiness guru, and liberal scold.

Haidt (pronounced like “height”) made his name arguing that intuition, not reason, drives moral judgments. People are more like lawyers building a case for their gut feelings than judges reasoning toward truth. He later theorized a series of innate moral foundations that evolution etched into our brains like the taste buds on our tongues—psychological bases that underlie both the individual-protecting qualities that liberals value, like care and fairness, as well as the group-binding virtues favored by conservatives, like loyalty and authority.

“He, over the last decade or so, has substantially changed how people think about moral psychology,” says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University.

Now Haidt wants to change how people think about the culture wars. He first plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry’s failure to connect with voters in 2004. A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”

In March, Haidt will publish The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon). By laying out the science of morality—how it binds people into “groupish righteousness” and blinds them to their own biases—he hopes to drain some vitriol from public debate and enable conversations across ideological divides.

Practically speaking, that often means needling liberals while explaining conservatives and religious people, and treading a fine line between provocation and treason. Haidt works in a field so left-wing that, when he once polled roughly 1,000 colleagues at a social-psychology conference, 80 to 90 percent classified themselves as liberal. Only three people identified as conservative. So hanging out in his lab can jar you at first. You’ll be listening to his team talk shop over boar burgers and organic ketchup in Greenwich Village, and then you think—Waitdid Haidt just praise Sarah Palin?

Indeed. “She’s right,” he says, that “it’s not left-right so much as it is the big powerful interests who control everything versus the little people.” And National Review? “The most important thing I read” to get new ideas. And Glenn Beck? “A demonizer,” says Haidt, but one who has “a great sense of humor, so I enjoy listening to him.”

Meanwhile, though Haidt still supports President Obama, he chides Democrats for a moral vision that alienates many working-class, rural, and religious voters. Though he’s an atheist, he lambasts the liberal scientists of New Atheism for focusing on what religious people believe rather than how religion binds them into communities. And he rakes his own social-psychology colleagues over the coals for being “a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering” and for making the field’s nonliberal members feel like closeted homosexuals. (See related article, Page B8.)

“Liberals need to be shaken,” Haidt tells me. They “simply misunderstand conservatives far more than the other way around.”

But even as Haidt shakes liberals, some thinkers argue that many of his own beliefs don’t withstand scrutiny. Haidt’s intuitionism overlooks the crucial role reasoning plays in our daily lives, says Bloom. Haidt’s map of innate moral values risks putting “a smiley face on authoritarianism,” says John T. Jost, a political psychologist at NYU. Haidt’s “relentlessly self-deceived” understanding of faith makes it seem as if God and revelation were somehow peripheral issues in religion, fumes Sam Harris, one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism and author of The End of Faith.

“This is rather like saying that uncontrolled cell growth is a peripheral issue in cancer biology,” Harris e-mails me. “Haidt’s analysis of cancer could go something like this: ‘Sure, uncontrolled cell growth is a big concern, but there’s so much more to cancer! There’s chemotherapy and diagnostic imaging and hospice care and drug design. There are all the changes for good and ill that happen in families when someone gets diagnosed with a terminal illness. … ‘ Yes, there are all these things, but what makes cancer cancer?”

Other questions: What made Haidt go from a religion-loathing liberal to a faith-respecting centrist? And as the 2012 election approaches, will anybody listen?

Researchers have found that conservatives tend to be more sensitive to threats and liberals more open to new experiences. By biology and biography, Haidt seemed destined for the liberal tribe. He grew up in suburban New York as a secular Jew whose mother worshiped FDR. He attended Yale in an era when President Ronald Reagan was routinely mocked on campus. He relishes new adventures like interviewing Hindu priests and laypeople in India, a project that stripped away his hostility to faith and exposed him to a broader palate of moral concerns, such as community and divinity…

Read it all.

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