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Jonathan Haidt

December 16, 2015 by Cathleen Fracasse

Jonathan Haidt


Jonathan Haidt's research focuses on the psychology of morality. He is Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. On his website at NYU, Haidt says: My research in recent years focused on the moral foundations of politics, and on ways to transcend the “culture wars” by using recent discoveries in moral psychology to foster more civil forms of politics.

Research and Publications

Much of Haidt's research has explored the foundations of moral judgment, and the different criteria against which liberals and conservatives form opinions. As he describes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Haidt uses the analogy of the rider and the elephant (established in his previous work, Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom) to form the basis of his research.

In the analogy, Haidt describes the two different aspect of our cognition: elephant as our intuitive cognition, and the rider as our reasoning cognition. The elephant is large and is effectively in control, but can be effected by the rider. When faced with a decision, our elephant begins to lean in a direction instantly, and, as a result, the rider is prone to a similar leaning. It's difficult for our rational mind to override our intuition, but not impossible.

Haidt's research uses a set of Moral Foundations, and identifies the degree to which Americans who identify as conservative, MoralFoundationsListing.jpgliberal and libertarian align their beliefs with these foundations. The point of this research is not to define any one type of moral foundation alignment to be better than another; it is, rather, to develop a more meaningful understanding of why people who may have otherwise similar life experiences may vary drastically in their political leanings. Haidt posits that the foundational leanings of individuals are largely inborn; we needn't fight about our native moral foundations, but we must learn to respect and accept our diversity and use our understanding of one another to find common ground.

What's the Benefit to Big Tent Nation?

Haidt's research is of interest to Big Tent Nation in several important ways. First, it facilitates an understanding of the opinions held by others, giving us a basis from which we can listen with a more clear understanding of how their approach may differ from ours. At Big Tent, this is critically important as we work to bring citizens from across the political spectrum to engage on issues essential to our national prosperity.

Second, by pointing out the human tendency to respond intuitively first, with rational thought following behind, we are encouraged to wait before acting on our initial knee jerk reaction. As our members work towards action on our Priorities, discussions may become heated. Opinions will differ on how best to move towards change, and members may wish to focus on different aspects of problems and their solutions. By taking these differing opinions as more information - and an opportunity to reframe our own thinking - we can more effectively and efficiently find our way forward. As Haidt states in The Rational Mind, "We make our first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm our initial judgments. Yet friends can do this for us, giving us reasons and arguments...that sometimes trigger new intuitions...".

Much of Haidt's research (and the research he cites) tells us that we as individuals don't do a very good job of seeking and identifying rational, objective truth. We come with deep biases (of which we are often unaware), and our nature is to seek information that confirms those biases. However, Haidt's research points out that the development of trusting, diverse groups can solve this problem: "...if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it's so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to...produce good public policy." This is our intention for Big Tent Nation - that we recognize our shared fate as citizens of the United States, and that we welcome a diverse membership that will work towards the solutions that have been ignored or shunned through partisan politics.

Selected Bibliography

Graham, Jesse, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek. "Liberals and Conservatives Rely On Different Sets of Moral Foundations." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [H.W. Wilson - SSA] 96, no. 5 (2009): 1029.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

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