The Righteous Mind #2 – Tame your Elephant!


 elephant GIF

This is the the second of my series of blogs reflecting on Jon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (2012). I am starting with the first section, because there is more than enough material here for a decent reflection. The point is to try to discern how this material can be used to facilitate communication in real life and in therapy.


Section 1: Intuitions come first, strategic reasons second.

Where does morality come from? In general, Haidt observed, in the Western world, morality equates to something like – do no harm. We seem thoroughly convinced that this is the ultimate “Good” and the basis for all moral decisions we make. However, he noted that in other cultures – in fact many other cultures – purity/disgust and respect/disrespect occupy equal footing in the hierarchy of moral values, which would means that the “no harm” notion of morality is not universal, and therefore, may be need to be reexamined.

Western moral psychology has a long history.  There is the nativist (nature) perspective, represented by Hume, or the empiricist (nurture) perspective, represented by John Locke. Moral psychology has generally followed the Plato-Locke line in which Reason is the noblest virtue.  David Hume, who stated in 1739: “reason is and ought to be only the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” lost the battle. Reason was the way to the good, to morality, to truth.

In a post-Darwinian world, Haidt proposes instead a model based on the re-evaluation of the Hume in which the nativist approach is further elaborated with findings in social, cognitive and evolutionary psychology and, of course, modern neuroscience: that the formulation of individual morality and moral decision-making rests on the presupposition that reason is subordinate to the passions. This gives rise to his “social intuitionist model” – intuitions come first and reason follows to justify the affect. This model works for us as social animals within a society, and as such we care what others think. He proposes a metaphor for individual morality – The elephant and the rider.

The elephant, a lumbering, instinctual creature is our “intuitive mind”. This is where our moral intuition, our gut feelings, about what is right and wrong come from. The rider is rationality. The rider, “the rational mind”, seeks justification for the gut feelings. What is counterintuitive about this model? That reason is in service to the emotions, not to some higher truth. Elephants rule our moral decision-making. All emotion is accompanied by an affective reaction – good and bad feelings, like and dislike, are key evolutionary mechanisms. Affect is how animals choose what will perpetuate their survival – they seek what feels good and avoid what doesn’t. Our brains have the same emotional circuits as all mammals – the great expert of affective neuroscience, Jaak Panksepp (RIP) identified 7 of these. “The bottom line”, states Haidt, “is that human minds, like animal minds are constantly reacting intuitively to everything they perceive and basing their responses on those reactions. The rider will find ways to justify the viewpoint through a variety of mental gymnastics and rationalizations – and these days, through Google, where any and every viewpoint can be confirmed, often with scientific studies.

Haidt then adds the social dimension to the model of the individual’s morality making complex. He illustrates this with Glaucon’s thought experiment in Plato’s Republic of the Ring of Gyges. What if the Ring of Gyges made you invisible and you could take anything (or anyone) you wanted and nobody would ever know? Would you still act morally? Haidt says, for the most part, you wouldn’t, and that “Glaucon is the guy who got it right”. Through the results of studies, he demonstrates that in general, when given the opportunity, most people will cheat. What keeps us in line is accountability to others. Even if we profess to “not care” what others think, unconsciously, we really do. There is a deep evolutionary need for self-esteem. Self-esteem is like a “sociometer” that continually monitors your worth in relationship. Any affective drop in self-esteem triggers anxiety, which prompts us to act in a way that would repair our reputation. That after-the-fact justification the rider is doing is for the sake of the elephant’s reputation.

So, if people are not essentially reasonable, or even virtuous, how do we then, promote productive communication in life?

Haidt, states, “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason”. We must dispense with the “rationalist delusion” that reason will lead to truth and to goodness. We must see people as they are – flawed in the sense that they will more or less act lazily and selfishly if they are not accountable. However, they also have the capacity and the desire to be cooperative with members of their own tribes (as do mammals) and other tribes (basically our blessing alone). Although a metaphor for intuition and affect, elephants can be reasonable. Weighty as they are, they can be guided by reason. We want others to understand our point of view. To do so, we need to appeal to the elephant – to another person’s emotions. Despite what we believe, and despite how diametrically opposed our belief can be, we share the same emotional makeup and the common ground can be found there.

Dale Carnegie, he says, had it right. Carnegie in his wildly and consistently popular “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is the master of “appealing to the elephant” and has timeless advice for us to do the same. Elephants will be reasonable if they are approached as the emotional beings that they are. If you want to attempt to persuade someone to understand point of view, you never say, “You’re wrong” and then argue against their viewpoint. Instead, you must exercise emotional restraint and come to them with “respect, warmth, and an openness for dialog”. Haidt includes this quote that Carnegie uses in HTWFIP from Henry Ford: “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and to see things from their angle as well as your own”. While attacks may strengthen your alignment with your tribe, you must learn to empathize “across the moral divide”. Presented in a way to generate positive affect, reason can shape intuition.

What are the implications of Jonathan Haidt’s social intuitionist model for therapy?

The metaphor of elephant and rider is certainly apt in terms of the therapeutic relationship. The therapeutic alliance mirrors this dynamic as we take on the experience of our patients and function as riders on the elephant of pain, depression, confusion, ambivalence and all the human suffering the client eventually trusts us enough to expose to us without embarrassment. We gently guide this lumbering, emotional pain in a healing direction, while always remaining its subordinate. For 50 minutes at a time, we fuse ourselves with our patients so we can become the voice of reason that they often have difficulty accessing in their chaotic state, and help them make order out of that chaos.

What does it mean for us, then, to take this role of the rider on our patient’s suffering, guiding it as it slowly begins to lean in the direction of repair? It requires us to be quite aware of our own flawed human nature, our own tendencies for confirmation bias and post-hoc rationalizing of our own elephant. While we need our emotions to guide us along the critical path of empathy, we must recognize and transcend our own biases and become a rider in service of our client’s elephant. This takes practice, discipline, and an almost spiritual recension of the ego when it is necessary.

An important point for therapy that Haidt mentions is that there are two types of thought: exploratory (truth) and confirmatory (being right). Exploratory thought is the egoless state in which we take in information and determine the affect it creates (how the elephant will lean). As a lean is determined, confirmatory thought jumps right in and provides the justification for the lean after the fact. Most thought, he states, is confirmatory. To remain in exploratory mode takes considerable moral effort and self-awareness. Self-awareness through one’s own work is of course a necessary attribute therapist.

In psychodynamic work, “being curious” is key to helping the client. This means engaging in exploratory thought as much as need be, however we may be personally opposed to the moral framework of what our client brings to the table. As therapists, Haidt’s phrase “empathize across the moral divide” takes on an especially profound meaning, as to be good therapists, to be a good we must place ourselves fully and in our client’s experience and ride the elephant without falling.


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