I had just dropped my daughter off at high school a few months ago and was gliding gingerly on snow-covered roads toward the intersection. I looked to my left and saw a car approaching the same intersection at what seemed a rather unrealistic rate of speed if it hoped to negotiate the turn that its flashing signal light indicated it was attempting to make. The car predictably began to slide, its teenage driver frantically (and fruitlessly) cranking the wheels as far as they would go. The car mercifully slid just past my driver’s side door and the crisis was averted.
The image of this wild-eyed teenager trying to coax her unruly runaway steed away from the precipice of calamity stuck with me though. It reminded me, naturally, of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. This is a book that I think should be required reading for anyone who spends time on social media. Particularly people who like to go to war over ideas on social media. This is a book for our cultural moment, if ever there was one.
Haidt, a moral psychologist who has spent years studying how and why people come up with their moral judgments, has come up with this memorable image of an elephant and a rider. Most of us assume, he says, that our moral convictions are the result mostly of rational thought. We deliberate over positions, we come to conclusions, we refine these ideas with dialogue and further reflection. Yes, emotions and intuitions and natural reactions play a role in how our ideas are formed and in how we express them, but mostly our ideas are about proper cognition and reasoning.
Haidt’s studies show that we have this pretty much exactly backward. Our intuitions and emotions and reactions play by far the largest role in how we form, maintain, and articulate moral judgments. Reason plays a role, to be sure, but it is a small one. Our reasoning is useful in providing post-hoc rationale for what our emotions and intuitions have already decided, it can modify and direct our emotions (slightly), it can form justifications for what we want to be the case. It can do all of these things reasonably well, if we are diligent and pay careful attention. But reason is still just the rider on the elephant of emotion and intuition.
Of course anyone who spends any time at all on social media—particularly over these last few years—will recognize that Haidt’s hypothesis seems to fit the empirical data quite well. I can’t count how many times over the last few years I’ve heard someone (from the left or the right) tell me, usually after spending some time on social media, “There’s just no arguing with people like that! Facts are useless!”
Indeed. We retain this illusion that if we could just get people to see the pure, unvarnished truth that—as luck would have it—we happen to possess in its fullness, they would be convinced! But human beings are a bit more complicated than that. We are more than cognition machines. We are driven by instinct and fear and emotion and love and hate and suspicion and past experiences and anxieties and delights and who knows what else besides. These form the bedrock of our convictions. Reason just comes in the back door to tell us a story about why we’re right.
And so perhaps we need to re-evaluate how we think about ourselves and our neighbours, and how we talk to one another. Slinging facts and insults and insults masquerading as facts at one another (online or in person) in the hopes that we’ll change the minds of all those idiots who disagree with us probably isn’t the most useful strategy. Making snap judgments to bolster our views or interpreting every new piece of data in ways that reinforce our preferred ideologies probably isn’t the most helpful way forward. When we do these things, our collective discourse quickly comes to resemble a bunch of out of control teenagers frantically trying to keep the emotional car on the road or a herd of elephants careening around the room with their riders dangling perilously off the sides.
The first step, as always, is to become a bit more self-aware, a bit more honest, and a bit more humble. We’re probably not as rational as we’re pleased to think we are. Our views probably don’t represent the conclusions that all reasonable, clear-thinking people would embrace if they only had the brains and the laudable moral character that we do. There are stories that we tell because we want them to be true, not necessarily because all the facts point in that direction all the time. There are some stories that we refuse to tell (or admit into our broader narrative) because they aren’t convenient for us, because they don’t serve our interests well, because we have too much personally invested in ignoring them. This is who we are. We might as well admit it.
And we might consider taking some of Haidt’s own advice:
If you want to change someone’s mind about a moral or political issue, talk to the elephant first. If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch—a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed.
Talk to the elephant. Yes, this is almost certainly the best place to start because the riders are just barely hanging on.