Jonathan Haidt wows FSU: Professor Jonathan Haidt speaks about morality to a full house at the Student Life Cinema on Sept. 11

Written by Elena Novak, Contributing Writer

Imagine there’s an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. At its present rate, it will make impact in the year 2022. The human race is doomed; however, there is one controversial solution: raise taxes and cut spending. This would fund a project designed to divert the asteroid’s path.

The harrowing scenario began New York University Stern School of Business professor Jonathan Haidt’s speech addressing FSU students and the Tallahassee public on Sept. 11. His speech, entitled “The Righteous Mind: How morality binds us together and tears us apart,” was delivered to a filled-to-capacity Student Life Cinema on Tuesday evening.

Those who came late to the event were directed to an overflow room, where the lecture could be viewed on a projector screen.

There is no known asteroid bent toward destroying mankind; Haidt made it up as an experiment to gauge the audience’s willingness to implement measures that might go against their political views if it meant saving the world. The majority said they would. (Read the whole article online at FSView.)

Giving new meaning to the old adage “the elephant in the room”

Six years ago a group of liberal and conservative Tallahassee leaders – who somehow enjoyed enduring across-the-aisle friendships despite enduring political disagreement – started an audacious civic experiment. They were frustrated by the divisiveness of the political dialogue nationally and its increasingly negative impact on local decision-making. And they were nervy enough to think they could fix it.

“The experiment” is now called The Village Square, named after Albert Einstein’s reflection on America’s first nuclear energy debate: “To the village square, we must carry the facts… from there must come America’s voice.”

In the good company of Mr. Einstein, we were doing some Grade A wishful thinking when we decided to elevate facts as central to our mission. Facts, after all (and especially in the internet age), are ripe for motivated cherry picking and human beings are nothing if not motivated cherry pickers.

Using the central metaphor in Civil Politics’ founder Jonathan Haidt’s forthcoming The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, with a founding charter on facts, The Village Square had decided to talk to “riders” on their “elephants.”

Jon writes:

“The mind is divided like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant… The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”

An encyclopedic volume of facts can drive any particular complex issue – hard for mere mortals (with children, bosses and a mortgage) to absorb. So instead, people make decisions intuitively (and based on others around them), then settle on a set of “facts” that support the decision they’ve already made. “The Righteous Mind” offers overwhelming scientific support for the driving force of “post-hoc” rationalization in our mental processes.

I now suspect our original conservative and liberal friends were unconsciously deluding ourselves that The Village Square would convince our wayward friends on the opposite side of the aisle of the ultimate correctness of our own political views. That didn’t happen.

Instead, in the process of rolling up our sleeves together in common work, we had accidentally put ourselves in the company of a very different group of elephants than our usual herd. That is what has changed everything – including (ironically) allowing us to be naturally affected by a broader range of facts.

Now when our “elephants” lean in the direction our minds choose instinctively – we choose a different direction than we might have without these new and unique relationships. Using Jon Haidt’s construct, in the process of aiming our efforts at what doesn’t work – talking to the rider – The Village Square stumbled on what does work: We changed the path of the elephant.

Jon on Bill Moyers earlier this month:

“…If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”

Do we still talk to riders? Sure we do. Riders matter, as servants of the elephant. Riders need good ideas to talk to other people, and try to influence them. But the ingredient essential to our success has always been that we speak to elephants.

More soon on how you get 4 ton pachyderms into a room…

(Photo credit: Cody Simms)

Differences in liberal vs. conservative brain stucture found

A British study released Thursday in Current Biology further supports theories that there far more to political difference than just who we vote for. It’s already been shown that there are differing levels of brain activity in the amygdala and upper brain cortex in liberals and conservatives, but apparently there is also a difference in the size of each part of the brain. Conservatives have more brain mass in their amygdala, the region of the brain associated with fear. Liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex which is associated with managing uncertainty and conflict. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether the political bent affected the size of the brain region or if the brain differences started the whole shebang. It continues to be our assertion that it’s understanding where people are coming from – differences in brain and all – that makes all the difference in having a constructive civic dialogue with them.

An editorial comment: I’ve seen this fascinating study quoted in publications with a liberal bent with the subtle undertone of superiority, but it’s important to realize that fear can be a pretty useful intuition in all sorts of situations (read Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear). Fear can lead to appropriate levels of caution in situations requiring thoughtful action. Fear can save your life. Our speakers last week – Matt Motyl in person and Jon Haidt by Skype – both likened conservatives to the brake and liberals as the gas. Both pretty dang important in how the car functions, eh? So thumbs down on the “we’re smarter than you” line of argument, even if it’s politely covert. Respectfully, that’s part of what’s gotten us where we are, where conservatives know to their core that there are ways that we’re messing up badly in our culture and liberals want to know what degrees earned them the right to make the assertion. Plus, there are some things that require a little certainty and can’t just hang forever in limbo. This is not to mention the broader basis for moral reasoning among conservatives that Haidt & Motyl’s studies show (a topic for another day).

But a take-home lesson for conservatives might be that it’s worth submitting some of the fear mongering served up with stunning regularity to win your vote to a little fact-checking. Your brain is a handy tool for a fear that is real, but might be at risk of being hijacked by the demagogues for fears that simply are not.

I wonder if it’s possible for us to stop hating the differences between us and start appreciating them as a tool in civic decision-making? Our childish squabbling is about as ridiculous as arguing whether the gas or the brake pedal is most important in driving a car. And a stunning number of us seem to be arguing to just get rid of one the pedals.