As the war against COVID-19 wages in hospitals, government offices, and empty streets, a different battle is being played out in the news, on social media, and in our minds and hearts.
Early insights show that citizens in the US differed in how they would personally act on COVID-19 based on their political leaning, with Democrats more likely to take the virus seriously compared to Republicans. In China, the country of origin of COVID-19, a suspected propaganda campaign is now at play to rewrite history in favor of China, even claiming that the US may have been the first source of the virus. In the Philippines, those critical of the administration’s efforts to combat the pandemic made #OustDuterte a trending topic, while those supportive of the President retaliated with #OursDuterte.
Nowhere are these issues more divisive than on social media. One visit to Facebook, for instance, would bring an avalanche of content supporting two opposing sides. Each side uses facts, fiction, quotes, misquotes, pleas, expletives, analogies, fallacies, CAPITAL LETTERS, emojis, gifs, memes, or (worse) even some personal harassment. Yet no matter how hard each side tries to win the other, very rarely is anyone coaxed to convert.
For those hell-bent on presenting facts, trusted sources, and credible experts’ opinion, the debate can be even more frustrating. It’s almost as if people no longer listen to reason. Why is that?
The Righteous Mind
When making a decision, we often see ourselves as rational beings. Compared to our fellow primates, the way we assess things in this world – what school to go to, what car to buy, which political candidate to support – is informed by maximizing utility, weighing costs and benefits, and assessing how each decision fits into our life’s plan.
Are we truly that rational though? In the book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt strives to answer the question, and while presenting a rich tapestry of information from numerous fields, he argues: No, we’re not really that rational.
The Elephant and Its Rider
If we think ourselves as rational, then the obvious thought process would be that, first, we weigh reasons and then we make a judgment. Haidt disputes this, saying that the opposite actually happens.
In a series of experiments done to ask respondents to make a moral judgment on a set of “harmless-taboo scenarios” (e.g. whether they would drink juice dipped with a 100% clean, lab-sterilized cockroach), Haidt and his team studied not only how respondents reacted (e.g. whether they agreed or expressed disgust) but also how they reasoned out their decision. As they prodded people to explain why they think the way they think, they found out that:
“People were making a moral judgment immediately and emotionally. Reasoning was merely the servant of the passions, and when the servant failed to find any good arguments, the master did not change his mind… Moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made.”
Reasoning did not come before judgment; it came after.
Haidt likened this process to an elephant and its rider. The elephant represents the entirety of our emotions, moral judgments, intuitions, and instant biases, while the rider represents reason. The elephant is way more powerful than its rider. Thus, the rider usually can’t control the elephant; the elephant moves first and the rider simply comes along.
In Haidt’s own words, he shares, “The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.”
How Does the Elephant Decide Where to Go?
But if the elephant is responsible for our decisions and moral judgments, how does it decide where to go?
Haidt gives a variety of elements, often interacting with one another, to answer this question. According to decades of research in social psychology, our elephants can be influenced by the following.
- Affective reactions are instant feelings of positivity or negativity that tells us whether to approach or harm something. For instance, we have a tendency to instantly like things that are more familiar – which is why advertisers spend billions on posters and commercials both online and offline.
- We care a lot more about how other people think of us than we admit. This simple factor could quickly influence our decisions, such that we end up acting differently when we know other people are watching.
- Our judgments are like babies we want to take care of, hence we are susceptible to confirmation bias. We seek the facts that confirm our prior judgments, and not those that negate us.
- In moral and political issues, we are more “groupish” than selfish. Once we identify with a group that has a certain belief, we want to protect our group by protecting that particular belief.
Beyond these elements, Haidt also discusses a theory backed by his own extensive research and studies on morality.
What is morality? Is something moral because it is fair to myself or to others? Is something moral when no one is harmed? What if something I deem to be morally correct is not morally correct for someone else? These are questions philosophers and scientists have debated for centuries, but The Righteous Mind provides a different perspective.
To Haidt, a human judges something as moral not only because it is harmful or fair to him/society. Morality, he posits, is like taste. If our tastebuds evaluate tastes on five dimensions – sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, and savoriness (or “umami”, as the Japanese call it) – then the way we perceive morality could be the same. And in Haidt’s studies, these “moral taste receptors” are:
- Care/Harm – We are intuitively wired to protect and care for others, particularly for those close to us – children, relatives, and those we identify as part of our group.
- Fairness/Cheating – We want to be fair so that people will be fair to us, too. This “reciprocal altruism” is basically our intuition of karma, and if someone cheats on us, then they violate that.
- Loyalty/Betrayal – We’re built to want to belong to a group, and we get angry at those who betray our groups or who threaten the existence of our group.
- Authority/Subversion – We recognize that authority within our group comes with its benefits, but we also have a tendency to rebel or subvert that authority when the relationship no longer seems beneficial.
- Sanctity/Degradation – We tend to hold things sacred, while some things automatically disgust us.
- Liberty/Oppression – We tend to want liberty for ourselves, and we act against forces and figures that seek to oppress us.
Each of these receptors, Haidt argues, evolved in response to certain adaptive challenges as humans sought to create cooperative societies. Though humans have a built-in capacity to perceive all these “tastes”, both our genetic make-up (“nature”) and our environment, peers, and experiences (“nurture”) push us to have stronger perceptions of certain receptors than others.
As an example, Haidt shares how Americans who tend to become Democrats and Republicans can be wired differently. From his studies, he found that those who typically vote Democrat have stronger receptions of Care and Fairness (i.e. they want a fair, compassionate world) while those who vote Conservative typically score higher on receptions of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity (i.e. they want a society that’s structured, are protective of their group/nation, and hold more things and values to be sacred).
With this evidence, the process of adopting a political opinion is not a reasoning process wherein I, a voter, base my political decisions on facts and competencies of candidates. I, a voter, because of how I’ve been wired by my “nature” and “nurture”, will make a political decision on what feels right then I’ll come up with reasons later. On the surface, it feels like an intuition or a snap judgment, but underneath, it’s our moral taste receptors operating the elephant.
And reason, the rider, just comes along.
The Elephant and Its Herd
“Happiness comes from between. It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself.”
The final aspect presented in The Righteous Mind talks about how each human is Homo duplex (a view introduced by sociologist Emile Durkheim): on one hand, we are individuals nursing our own needs and desires, but on the other hand, we strive to become bigger than ourselves, to become part of a whole.
Thus, our elephants don’t operate alone; they tend to work in herds.
To appease our need to be part of a whole, we ascribe to different identities where we are grouped by nation, ethnicity, religion, economic class, political party, profession, chosen sports league, favorite band or artist, e-sport community, and school or university. This love for group tends not to be universal is parochial and limited, and we will do many things to support and protect our group.
Haidt perfectly summed up this all too familiar reality when he wrote, “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”
Given this understanding of our elephants, of morality, and of the nature of Homo duplex, how can we better “work it out” with those who don’t agree with us or who are different from us?
Haidt shares a few ideas:
- The elephant can be influenced, but it won’t be easy. By reflecting on our own decisions and intuitions, we can painstakingly nudge the elephant to go on a different direction. Often, these painful nudges will be brought about by new experiences, new people, and new attitudes towards openness and acceptance, which is why our sense of morality can be defined by the kind of education we have, the kind of content we consume, the diversity of people we meet, and our own awareness of how fallible our judgments can be. This makes a powerful case for reviewing and improving our policies on education, media, diversity policies, and more.
- When we want to convince others, we need to address their elephants, not their riders. Appealing to reason alone is often ineffective. Haidt gives a brilliant example of a person who exemplified appealing to elephants:
“Dale Carnegie was one of the greatest elephant-whisperers of all time. In his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie repeatedly urged readers to avoid direct confrontations. Instead he advised people to “begin in a friendly way,” to “smile,” to “be a good listener,” and to “never say ‘you’re wrong.’ ” The persuader’s goal should be to convey respect, warmth, and an openness to dialogue before stating one’s own case.”
- Empathy is a two-way street. You need to understand what makes other people think the way they think, and in response, you also have to truly listen and be willing to place your own judgments under a microscope. It’s not easy to have this kind of openness over different divides, but it’s not impossible either.
- Groups are important, and a diverse set of competing groups that can coexist makes society better. If a nation is theoretically made up of individuals who have no way to seek higher meaning, then they’d be more vulnerable to tyrannical narratives – such as those from a dictator.
- We need to have a better understanding of moral psychology in our own societies. In the Philippines, for instance, it would be helpful to assess why Filipinos make political decisions while touching on the different moral receptors. Such discussions can help us seek solutions to address increasing polarization and lack of understanding across political lines.
The pandemic has sadly intensified many of our existing divides. It’s a stressful, anxious, and uneasy time for everyone, and such times and emotions can be used as fuel by violent extremists, despotic governments, and other malicious figures to advance their own agendas.
If we want a citizenry that can think more independently, critically, and rationally, then we have to understand that most of us, most of the time, will not be able to think independently, critically, and rationally. We – and our judgments and decisions – are a product of our evolution, our biological make-up, our education, our experiences, our biases, our groups, our emotions, and our dreams. Before we seek to know and understand others, we have to know and understand ourselves first.
COVID-19 has taught us many things, and one of those things is our need to work together. No single nation or group can address this pandemic alone, and these types of problems will not stop with COVID-19. An incoming global recession, increasing inequality, climate change – it will take the collective work of millions of elephants (and their riders) to create, implement, and sustain solutions.
Haidt ended his seminal book with a quote from an interesting figure, and I’ll do the same:
“Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”