The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

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DevilsAdvocate
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The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Post by DevilsAdvocate » 29 Dec 2016, 15:23

It's been a while since I read this but the fact that one of the leaked Church videos was talking about this same moral foundations theory and the recent election results with the final breakdown of traditionally red, blue, and swing states surprising media experts and Clinton supporters as if they thought it was a forgone conclusion that she would win reminded me of this book. Basically the book claims that people's moral judgments regarding what is right or wrong is based on instinctive intuition more than deliberate reasoning and that people's minds are not really like a blank slate that can learn any moral code imaginable based on the local culture but rather people tend to prefer narratives that appeal to the following common natural moral likes and dislikes similar to the way certain flavors taste better to people than others.
  • Care/harm
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Liberty/oppression
  • Loyalty (in-group)/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation
In particular Haidt claimed that American liberals/progressives currently relied primarily on the care and fairness "moral foundations" whereas American conservatives generally relied on all of these foundations in a more balanced way and that liberals tended to think of fairness in terms of equality whereas conservatives typically thought of it more in terms of proportionality (I.E. people getting what they supposedly deserve). I do wonder how much these research results were influenced by the specific questions asked because it seems like there could be other moral foundations not described very well by any of these (truth/falsehood?) and I suspect that American liberals are also influenced by authority, group loyalty, etc. more than he claims. For example, at first they didn't have the liberty/oppression foundation and added this later after finding cases that didn't really fit with the other 5 foundations. However, I definitely appreciate that they are at least honestly trying to study how people actually think about morality instead of making too many assumptions about how they should think about morality in theory.

In the leaked Church video Gerrit Gong was presenting this theory and mentioned concerns about this contradicting Church teachings about things like conscience and the "light of Christ" and possibly being used as an excuse to deny personal accountability in some cases. Personally I think things like this should be some of the least of their concerns related to these research results because I think this theory actually does a fairly good job of explaining exactly why claiming God was behind the handbook exclusion policy, the way Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage, etc. will not work very well over the long run. Basically some Church leaders act like there is practically no limit to the mileage they should expect to get out of claiming God said so and that's that but in reality authority typically only appeals to people as long as it is perceived to be valid and we have already seen many cases where it quickly loses any influence over Church members like flipping a switch as soon as they doubt the existence of God or the Church's claimed special connection to God and claiming that God is supposedly responsible for things that offend too many people's natural sense of morality often simply results in them dismissing this claim because it doesn't really make sense to them.
"Truth is what works." - William James

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Re: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Post by LookingHard » 17 Jan 2017, 06:23

I have this book sitting on my desk. I have 2 in queue before it. It is motivating me getting to finishing the other 2 so I can get to this one. I really want to read it.

I have become very interested in "how the mind works." I love the "Your not so smart" podcast and I bought the 2 books from that author and plan on not just reading them, but actually studying them so I can memorize things like the common fallacies and terms like "gaslighting."

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Re: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Post by hawkgrrrl » 17 Jan 2017, 15:14

The Righteous Mind is one of my favorites. I also liked the Happiness Hypothesis. I've blogged about Haidt's work many times:

https://wheatandtares.org/2015/02/03/ex ... disbelief/

https://wheatandtares.org/2016/05/10/belief-vs-faith/

https://wheatandtares.org/2014/06/17/ka ... -on-trial/

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Re: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Post by DevilsAdvocate » 24 Jan 2017, 08:20

hawkgrrrl wrote:The Righteous Mind is one of my favorites. I also liked the Happiness Hypothesis. I've blogged about Haidt's work many times:

https://wheatandtares.org/2015/02/03/ex ... disbelief/

https://wheatandtares.org/2016/05/10/belief-vs-faith/

https://wheatandtares.org/2014/06/17/ka ... -on-trial/
I read these articles on the wheat and tares site but to be honest I'm not sure Haidt was really trying to say that this "elephant and rider" metaphor applies to all or even most beliefs in general; to me it sounded like he was mostly talking about a subset of specific thoughts, intentions, etc. that are automatic such as typical moral judgments as opposed to conscious and deliberate thought. For example, these researchers asked people if it would be wrong for a man to have sex with a chicken from a supermarket before eating it to try to prove the point that most people will automatically feel that this would be wrong.

Then they followed this up by asking them to explain why it was wrong precisely because that is typically much harder for people to do in a very logical and convincing way in this particular case. In fact, Haidt claims that people will often come up with post-hoc justifications for snap judgments that were already made and did not depend on these stated reasons to arrive at in the first place. All that makes sense but if you look at something like the amount of scientific/technological progress that people have made in just a few thousand years then does that really look more like a product of the rider or elephant in this metaphor? Similarly, in an example like people losing faith over the Book of Abraham translation issues I don't see why animal (non-verbal, subconscious) instincts would be needed to play much of a part in people drawing the conclusion that this doesn't help the credibility of Joseph Smith's claims about being a prophet.

If anything it seems like the low-level animal instinct would be for many Church members to give the Church's story the benefit of the doubt because that is the pre-conceived bias and it is inconvenient or painful for many of them to seriously question their existing beliefs. But even some apologists that tried to defend the Church for years eventually changed their minds after thinking long and hard about some of these details and what they mean. To say this is like an elephant going where it wants to go seems like a real stretch. Where I think the elephant explanation would come into play would be something like Joseph Smith marrying women that were still married to other men because in theory why couldn't God command people to do whatever he wants for whatever reasons? But to many people it just sounds wrong (intuitive moral judgment).
"Truth is what works." - William James

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Re: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Post by hawkgrrrl » 25 Jan 2017, 13:30

Devils Advocate: I think reading Charles Taylor's A Secular Age has an interesting twist on this idea. He talks about secularists being "haunted" by belief, and also that there is a worldview, an underlying set of assumptions, associated with secularism that goes unacknowledged. It's part of what he calls a subtraction story (which he says is not accurate) - that the secular narrative we assume is that if we strip away the superstition and illogic and church abuses of religion, we'll be left with "reality" (hence, the term "subtraction story"). But what he says is that there's still something in the basement, even of an atheist, that they haven't examined. There are these underlying beliefs and assumptions that haven't really been examined.

To me, that is similar to the elephant and the rider. Like you, I wouldn't specifically apply it to any one factual claim (or a set of them). Science, facts, research, all these things matter. The elephant and the rider is really about motives, unconscious assumptions, worldviews we take for granted, values--those types of beliefs (not factual ones). The elephant & the rider is about the post hoc justification process. The elephant goes where it goes, and the rider explains it. The rider isn't guiding the elephant.

Although, hey, as we've seen this week, alternate facts are apparently a thing for some folks. If you don't like real facts or find them challenging to your faith or political views, just make up new ones and explain away why the real facts are liberal biased or worldly.

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Re: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Post by DevilsAdvocate » 28 Jan 2017, 11:38

hawkgrrrl wrote:Devils Advocate: I think reading Charles Taylor's A Secular Age has an interesting twist on this idea. He talks about secularists being "haunted" by belief, and also that there is a worldview, an underlying set of assumptions, associated with secularism that goes unacknowledged. It's part of what he calls a subtraction story (which he says is not accurate) - that the secular narrative we assume is that if we strip away the superstition and illogic and church abuses of religion, we'll be left with "reality" (hence, the term "subtraction story"). But what he says is that there's still something in the basement, even of an atheist, that they haven't examined. There are these underlying beliefs and assumptions that haven't really been examined.

To me, that is similar to the elephant and the rider. Like you, I wouldn't specifically apply it to any one factual claim (or a set of them). Science, facts, research, all these things matter. The elephant and the rider is really about motives, unconscious assumptions, worldviews we take for granted, values--those types of beliefs (not factual ones). The elephant & the rider is about the post hoc justification process. The elephant goes where it goes, and the rider explains it. The rider isn't guiding the elephant.
I don't doubt that intuition, snap judgments, spontaneous emotions, un-provable assumptions, etc. play a significant role in the way people actually think and the real-life decisions they make and I definitely don't think it would be a very worthwhile or realistic goal to try to eliminate this entirely in favor of supposedly purely "logical" thought. In fact, I think there are generally good reasons why people's minds work this way and it has actually served them well more often than not. My main point is simply that I don't believe this elephant and rider analogy is universally applicable to what we actually see in terms of human behavior and beliefs; basically it looks like it applies to some cases much better than others.

I see this elephant and rider metaphor as mostly just a simplified model Haidt found to be a useful and memorable way to try to explain the basic idea that not all thoughts are consciously controlled because some of them are automatic. For example, Haidt said that, "psychopaths reason but don't feel" and "babies feel but don't reason" to specifically make the point that these are two very different ways of thinking and that morality depends more on automatic feelings that are innate (not learned) than conscious reasoning because when the normal innate moral feelings are defective but the conscious reasoning ability is fine the moral results are ugly. So far the two main examples I have seen Haidt use this metaphor to explain are first automatic moral judgments and second a lack of willpower where people consciously think they should do one thing but end up doing another.

But even in these cases he doesn't completely discount the rider (conscious reasoning) altogether but instead described it as something along the lines of the elephant (intuition, emotions, initial motivation) automatically leaning a certain way but that the rider can still sometimes manage to steer the elephant in a different direction. How else would you explain all the cases where people actually do demonstrate the willpower to go against what they feel like doing? In fact Mormonism itself at this point seems like it is often about strict discipline to not just do whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it. And these are cases where it actually makes sense why the elephant (automatic thought processes) would have an initial preference but not all beliefs, including many religious beliefs are automatic at all, some of them are clearly learned and/or arrived at in a conscious step-by-step thought process.

For example, why would the elephant care one way or another whether the rider believes the earth is round or flat other than perhaps providing a mild curiosity to know the truth? Things like that look like they are almost entirely a job for the rider (conscious thought) to figure out. So the explanation of the elephant already automatically wanting to do something and the rider making excuses for it after the fact like a lawyer certainly makes sense when the actual decision was not based on the rider's stated reasons in the first place but this explanation doesn't make nearly as much sense in cases where the consciously acknowledged reasons really do make all the difference between holding one belief over another because without these reasons the beliefs are completely different and typically stay that way until the underlying reasons to believe one thing over another change the whole equation.
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Re: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Post by Reuben » 29 Jan 2017, 07:54

I have exactly the same problem with the elephant/rider metaphor. The way I'd change it is to allow the rider to train the elephant. Some things take longer to train the elephant in than other things.
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Re: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Post by LookingHard » 29 Jan 2017, 09:18

I am only 1/2 way through the book (maybe I will finish it today). I do think you can't take the metaphor farther than it applies in life.

The point I take away from this is that it is the natural way the mind works. By being aware of it is probably the only way we can override it. In fact I have to keep reminding myself that this book isn't talking about "all those others that can't see how they are often riding the elephant" - it is talking about ME and the MAIN point is for me to become more aware of this within MYSELF and only secondly to understand it in others. When I remind myself of that, I realize times where I have overcome just explaining what the elephant is doing and actually start commanding the elephant to go a certain way - even when it is mentally/emotionally hard. And I think the main thing I learn when trying to apply it to others is patience with them. Not to get political, but it applies in how I view those that voted for Trump. I have talked with a few (even close family members) and they were fearful about their job security. That drove everything as to why they voted for Trump (at least that is how I am reading it). It helps me understand why they were so critical of Bill Clinton's indiscretions, but waive off issues raised with Trump. It helps me be more patient with their decision.

So in my mind I would caution not to throw the baby (how this often applies to ME) with the bathwater (exceptions where I have been able to override the elephant).

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Re: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Post by LookingHard » 29 Jan 2017, 12:29

I just hit what I think is a very interesting part about on page 101.

The setup for the statement is that a researcher, Drew Western, was using an fMRI machine in 2004 to look at how the brains of highly partisan folks (some from both parties) reacted to bothersome messages, but then had something that could solve the contradiction of the bothersome message. One example was
Mr. Bush sang the praises of the Enron CEO Ken Lay
This statement by Mr. Bush was given before Enron imploded, but the study was given after Enron had infamously gone down in flame. The next statement was,
Mr. Bush now avoids any mention of Key Lay, and is critical of Enron when asked.
I admit I had the thought when I read that of, "Sounds just how the church usually just tries to ignore past issues and hope they fade from memory. I almost fell off the Elephant while thinking that.
Then a bit of what could be a resolution
People who know the President report that he feels betrayed by Key Lay, and was genuinely shocked to find that Enron's leadership had been corrupt.
Western summarized that for a staunch republican in this study, this last statement really "felt" good and he states
Once Western released them from the threat, the ventral striatum started humming - that's one of the brain's major reward centers. All animal brains are designed to create flashes of pleasure when the animal does something important for its survival, and small pulses of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the ventral striatum (and a few other places) are where these good feelings are manufactured. Heron and cocaine are addictive because the artificially trigger this dopamine response. Rats who can press a button to deliver electrical stimulation to their reward centers will continue pressing until they collapse from starvation.
Western found that partisans escaping from handcuffs (by thinking about the final slide, which restored their confidence in their candidate) got a little hit of that dopamine. And if this is true, then it would explain why extreme partisans are so stubborn, closed-minded, and committed to beliefs that often seem bizarre or paranoid. Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button, partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things. The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive.
This made me think about apologists that just seem to revel being an apologist to the point where it makes me almost want to vocally exclaim, "REALLY! I mean REALLY????"
Then I try and look at myself. One thing I have notice lately is I am too absorbed in all the many times you can find church leaders hiding truths/changing talks/not delivering the whole story. I could feel it was a bit addicting and I suspect it was my mind trying to prepare for the pressure I am going to get as I come out about my unbelief a bit more over time. But there is absolutely part of me that knows throwing these facts (as I see them) isn't going to change other people's mind. But I still felt driven to keep reading and documenting them. I guess that is my "pressing the lever for an electrical stimulus to my reward center." But I am trying to back away from spending so much time and mental energy on this activity.

I think I feel the only way I can stop being just riding the elephant is to keep focus/questioning/introspection on me and why I am doing/saying/feeling things. It is hard and I CONTINUALLY want to just equate what I read to others odd behavior.

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Re: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Post by DevilsAdvocate » 04 Feb 2017, 10:43

One of the most interesting things to me about this book and how it applies to the LDS Church is the fact that the majority of American Church members are conservatives that typically vote Republican. For example, in a recent Pew survey 70% of self-identified Mormons either identify with or lean toward the Republican party which was higher than any other religious group in the poll including the Southern Baptists and various evangelicals. By contrast, 44% of American Catholics identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party versus 37% Republican and 19% independent which was about the same as all US adults on average.

Maybe this difference is mostly a product of more diversity among Catholics and more of them living in large cities where the Democratic Party is more popular on average whereas the highest concentration of Mormons are in traditionally red states like Utah, Idaho, and Arizona where the majority have voted Republican for decades. But looking at these research results where purity/degradation, in-group loyalty/betrayal, and authority/subversion were not nearly as important to American liberals as they were to conservatives in their surveys it certainly makes sense why LDS Mormonism would not appeal to liberals nearly as well as conservatives given the heavy emphasis on prophets speaking for God and strictly upholding traditions like the WoW, chastity, garments, etc.

And now we are seeing many ex-Mormons and disaffected Mormons that especially dislike the treatment of homosexuals and women in the Church because they see it as unequal, unfair, and oppressive. For example, hawkgrrrl mentioned the excommunication of Kate Kelly and John Dehlin in one of the articles on the wheat and tares site where it looks like the main reason they were excommunicated was liberal activism and pushing for change in a church that mostly wants to stay the same. Not too long ago there was an article about Harry Reid in the Salt Lake Tribune and he said something to the effect that the hardest part of being a Mormon Democrat was dealing with fellow Church members and some of them actually wrote letters to his local leaders saying he shouldn't get a temple recommend.

Reid was a convert and I have a hard time believing that someone like that would be nearly as likely to join the Church nowadays as back when he joined the Church. Is there really much of a place for Democrats in the Church at this point? Haidt actually called the Republicans utilizing more of these "moral foundations" a "conservative advantage" and that Democrats could do a better job appealing to all these foundations than they have so far. But looking at the Pew results of 44% that already lean/identify Democrat versus 37% Republican and 18% independent, it doesn't look good for the Church if it doesn't appeal very well to about half the population at this point based on putting so much emphasis on things that don't really resonate very well with American liberals/progressives and in some cases are actually viewed as a strike against the Church in their minds.
Last edited by DevilsAdvocate on 06 Feb 2017, 09:58, edited 1 time in total.
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