The book, a righteous mind, by Jonathan Haidt, describes a mind that can be conceptually split into two centers of activity and decision making: a mind based on reason, and one of intuition, or perhaps feeling. This very dichotomy, while perhaps overly simplified, has been at the center of psychology and political science in many forms for years, and in this book, the author simply codifies it and forms an analogy to make it digestible and especially applicable to our everyday lives, especially for those who wish to influence others.

His theory suggests that reason simply can not work without intuition. If in the analogy, a person consists of both an “elephant,” a feelings-intuition based action-oriented center, and a “rider,” a reasoning and calm guiding leader, then one can not work without the other. He even injects some psychiatric evidence to support this. What is more impressive though is that reason is not always our guide, as common sense suggests, but reason sometimes acts to explain our in-built moral impulses, thus explaining our internal desires to others instead of actually guiding them. This supports a kind of social structure and set of media preferences that more represent a self-gratification system, in which we are not guided by reason, but use logic only to support our feelings, and therefore trap ourselves in such echo chambers as will collect info to support our existing beliefs instead of being willing to shape and change them. This seems almost intuitively correct if we look at politics: reasoned arguments and policy prescriptions may change a select core of the voting population’s minds, those small minority who are beholden to no candidate or party, or who have no firm set of political beliefs. However, the vast majority of the electorate votes based on ingrained party beliefs, or attitudes towards a single candidate and this is supported by decades of evidence. Thus likability and perceived character of politicians is often more important than their actual plan for governance, and often logic and reason are not the way to change people’s minds. Not only reason, but morality, too, are not universal but somewhat culturally and individually specific according to his claims, making communicating with others elephants, their feeling center, all the more difficult.

A head-versus-heart political campaign is the epitome, the realization of such a paradigm. That a symbol, a slogan, itself relatively meaningless, can tap into a a political undercurrent, a popular idea, and become a siphon for a large political movement that sparks deep political changes, e.g. Brexit, Trump, or other independence movements where people act based on socially constructed ideas instead of apparent material interests. This is not to say that populist or politically anti-materialist movements are inherently wrong, it is to say that the people who follow them may be willing to sacrifice the potential for material gain for something more ethereal, an impulse of the heart to so what they think is right, is best.

Thus, by finding an issue that already resonates with the voting population, driving emotional concern, and tapping into familiarity, it can be even easier to change minds. Thus, putting one’s ear to the ground is the best tool for sparking a movement, understanding the thoughts, concerns, and especially fears of voters. Identity and symbols are crucial. These associations, stories, even rumors can produce dislike for a candidate, idea or issue that will last for a long time, even if the ideas or facts behind them are debunked. This is why negative campaigning is often so effective, not always at bringing in votes, but often driving people not to vote, or to vote against something.

This knowledge, these ideas are based in psychology, a field whose findings, much like those of political science, can sometimes be hard to objectively quantify. Yet the lessons taught seem to mirror our reality so closely, it is hard to deny that they likely carry a large kernel of truth. Therefore, taking these strategies to heart may make the difference between a failed campaign, and one that is ultimately victorious.

Staff writer: Ari B


One thought on “Review: Lessons from “A Righteous Mind” (Haidt)”

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