Why Does The “Other Side” Seem So Horrible?

by | Nov 2, 2020


The results of the election might be in doubt for days or weeks. Humans don’t deal well with uncertainty, so emotions may flare. With that in mind, today’s IFOD provides a dose of understanding drawn from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Why Reasoning Doesn’t Work

Don’t you hate it when you are discussing an issue with someone who has different views and none of your facts or reasons why your view is correct hit home? They don’t seem swayed a bit by the obvious things you are telling them? (And, by the way, they feel the same way about you and your refusal to be swayed by them.) What’s the deal?

According to Prof. Haidt, our minds are divided “like a rider on an elephant” and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. In this model, the elephant represents our emotions and intuition and the rider is our strategic reasoning. This metaphor illustrates the concept that our beliefs and views of the world are largely subconscious and deeply ingrained. Our intuition and emotions can be thought of as our elephant. Our reasoning serves our intuition, meaning that our conscious, reasoning mind uses its resources and energy to justify and explain why we believe what we believe. The rider has little or no control over the elephant. That means that if we talk to the rider — the reasoning party of a person’s brain — we’ll have no success.

Another way to think about this is with respect to a dog and its tail. The dog’s body is its intuition/moral beliefs and the tail is its reasoning mind. “Moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog. You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.”

The lesson of thinking about the intuitive vs. reasoning mind this way is that if you want to change someone’s mind you have to talk to their elephant. Turning someone’s elephant takes time and is hard. We are social creatures and requires nudges from other elephants in our social group, not analytical reasoning.

The Six Flavors of Moral Reasoning

Conservative and liberal elephants believe different things according to the Moral Foundations Theory pioneered by Prof. Haidt. The gist of the theory is that there are six categories of moral reasoning and liberals only value three of them while conservatives value all six. This difference leads to a liberals and conservatives viewing right and wrong from totally different perspectives. The six categories of moral reasoning are:

1. Care/Harm. This category is how sensitive we are to suffering and need.

2. Fairness/Cheating. This foundation is how sensitive we are collaboration and altruism. It makes us want to punish cheaters.

3. Liberty/Oppression. This one is about how we dislike people and institutions who restrict our liberty and freedom. It relates to hatred of bullies and oppressors.

4. Loyalty/Betrayal. This category relates to how sensitive we are to signs that another person is not a team player. It relates to trusting and rewarding our own group. Patriotism and self-sacrifice are part of this moral foundation.

5. Authority/Subversion. This category relates to how we respond to and seek signs of rank or status. It recognizes the need for social hierarchies for the functioning of groups. It supports the idea of leadership and followership.

6. Sanctity/Degradation. This category is related to the evolved trait of feeling disgust and avoiding contamination. It recognizes that certain things are sacred, such as symbols like a flag or a cross. “It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).”

There are two big differences between liberal and conservatives: (1) Liberals mainly just value the first three moral foundation categories, and (2) how liberals and conservatives judge the first three is different.

Here’s a chart from The Righteous Mind showing how liberals vs. conservatives feel about five of the six moral foundations (note that #3, Liberty/Oppression was added to the theory after the study):


This data shows that liberals strongly value care and fairness, but largely reject loyalty, authority and sanctity. Conservatives, on the other hand, value all of them, but don’t value care and fairness as much as liberals do. Additionally, what liberals view as care and fairness differs from conservatives. While liberals often view fairness as equality, conservatives view fairness as proportionality — people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute.

Note that there is no right or wrong here — just differences between how both sides view morality.

The Elephant and the Moral Foundations

Putting the two concepts together — the elephant and rider metaphor with the six moral foundations — explains why the two sides seem to talk past each other and make no sense to each other. The moral foundations theory explains that liberals and conservatives view the world through different moral lenses. That leads each side to think the other isn’t moral and doesn’t value what is important.

When we talk with someone from the other side we present our reasoning to the rider — which is futile. The way to change someone’s mind is to nudge their elephant. To do that, try bridging differences and making the other person feel like they are in the same group as you are. Point out similarities (we’re both Americans, we both value our country and institutions, etc.). We are social creatures who value groups — nudging an elephant is most effective in the context of what their group is doing. Then talk to the other person in terms of their system of values. A liberal talking to a conservative might want to acknowledge the importance of loyalty and social structure. A conservative talking to a liberal would be most effective focusing on care. The key is to find emotional and social connections.


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