We’re all handcuffed by inherited belief systems

Jonathan Haidt argues that genes and emotions have the greatest influence in forming and sustaining our beliefs. Terry Prone tests the theory

The Righteous Mind Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

Jonathan Haidt

Allen Lane, €26.40;

Kindle €14.28.

FIANNA FÁIL and Fine Gael have long had their respective headquarters a stone’s throw from each other in Dublin’s Mount Street. Coming up to a general election, many years ago, I was present at the initial briefing of the election team for one of those parties, which had booked my company to work exclusively with them for the duration of the election.

Part of the briefing dealt with what “them over there” would be dreaming up by way of an electoral strategy, and what floored me — having worked with “them over there” in the previous election — was how magical was the thinking and how childlike the stereotyping of the other side.

They were evil to the bone, were likely to come up with filthy tricks, dwelled on the dark side and had to be defeated, not just in the interests of the nation, but in the interests of humanity and the sustenance of virtue.

No shades of irony. No “we all know I’m really kidding”. What was in evidence was not just an ideological difference; a set of beliefs about the way Irish society should be and how that could be achieved. It was, in addition, a set of beliefs about other people, which went deeper than reason.

That kind of hardwired belief system is at the core of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Haidt, a social and cultural psychologist, suggests that many of our beliefs are precisely that: deeper than reason and resistant to reason. Indeed, he says, some of our political leanings are in our genes. Extrapolating from studies of identical twins reared apart, he maintains that ending up on the right or left is as heritable a trait as any other.

“Genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people on their political attitudes,” he says.

“Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less. After analysing the DNA of 13,000 Australians, scientists found several genes that differed between liberals and conservatives. Most of them related to neurotransmitter functioning, particularly glutamate and serotonin, both of which are involved in the brain’s response to threat and fear. This finding fits well with many studies showing that conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, including the threat of germs and contamination, and even low-level threats such as sudden blasts of white noise.”

What Haidt posits is predisposition rather than predestination, but he nonetheless argues that, once humans have adopted a partisan position, they will exercise enormous mental energy to defend that position, even if it is objectively illogical in certain circumstances. He quotes the seminal work of Professor Drew Weston, who, in 2004, during the US presidential election, selected 15 committed Democrats and 15 equally partisan Republicans and tested them, using an MRI scanner. He showed them slides containing quotations from George W Bush and John Kerry, each contradicting themselves, this presenting their followers with apparent hypocrisy.

“The threatening information (their own candidate’s hypocrisy) immediately activated a network of emotion-related brain areas — areas associated with negative emotion and responses to punishment,” Haidt reports, adding that the scans showed a notable absence of activity in the area of the brain where cool reasoning resides. Instead, the participants in the test demonstrated that, when they found a reason to escape from the possibility that their favoured candidate was a hypocrite, got a little hit of a particular brain chemical. This particular chemical, when made available to rats who could dose themselves by pressing a button in their cages, resulted in the rats starving to death: they preferred it to food.

“Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button, partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things. They have been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that let them escape from the handcuffs that chain them to unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive,” says Haidt.

All of which would indicate that political (and, by inference, religious) partisans constantly engage in confirmatory thought, defined as “a one-sided attempt to rationalise a particular point of view”.

It also supports the insight of David Hume, who wrote in 1739 that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

None of us wants to believe that our beliefs are other than rational, or that we engage our hearts before and instead of our brains. But then, none of us wants to believe that we are affected by what others think of us. Yet when a group of students who believed they were mavericks who didn’t care what others thought of them were tested against a group who admitted they were heavily influenced by how others saw them, the results were startling.

“Everyone had to sit alone in a room and talk about themselves for five minutes, speaking into a microphone. At the end of each minute they saw a number flash on a screen in front of them. That number indicated how much another person listening in from another room wanted to interact with them in the next part of the study. With ratings from 1 to 7 (when 7 is best), you can imagine how it would feel to see the numbers drop while you’re talking: 4…3…2….3….2,” Haidt reports.

In truth, however, the researcher had rigged it, giving some people declining ratings while other people got rising ratings. Inevitably, those who had acknowledged that they were bothered by what other people thought of them experienced a shrinking of self-esteem in response to dropping ratings.

“But the self-proclaimed mavericks suffered shocks almost as big,” says Haidt. “They may indeed steer by their own compass, but they don’t realise that their compass tracks public opinion, not true north ... ”

The central thrust of Haidt’s book is that our faith in data and reason as a method of changing attitudes and behaviours is excessive and unsupported. This meshes with the work of Drew Weston, who has been heavily critical of the Democrats in presidential elections because of their tendency to present a shopping list of inarguably logical arguments to the voter, whereas the Republicans tend to rely much more on the visceral, emotional appeal.

Haidt and Weston hammer home to politicians and their advisors that voters choose candidates because of emotional appeal allied to pre-existing preference, and that each voter then selects from available information to support an instinctively-made choice.

Haidt also makes the point that political parties may be blinded, not just to the merits of their opponents, but to relevant elements in the thinking of those opponents. Democrats in the US have, as a result, often pushed changes that weaken groups, traditions, and moral capital.

“The urge to help the inner-city poor led to welfare programmes in the 1960s that reduced the value of marriage, increased out-of-wedlock births, and weakened African American families,” he claims.

Despite an irritating level of self-reference and an even more irritating tutorial structure, The Righteous Mind is essential reading for students and practitioners of politics, education, religion and communication.


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