Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Sep 28, 2009 in Politics | 50 comments

“People May Not Be Logical, But Few Of Them Are Crazy”

TED is one of the most interesting sites on the internet, and Jonathan Haidt’s talk is one of the most interesting on TED. [Thus his insight is one of the most interesting on the internet, Q.E.D.]

[Note: Sorry, I forgot to include a link to an interview that the excerpt and title are from.]

He specifically studies what different moral values people have and how it relates to their political identification and logical reasoning. I think his conclusions are far more insightful than all the talking head pundits put together.

How would you advise a proponent of Obama’s healthcare reform bill to go about persuading its opposition — or at least to turn the debate toward the actual validity of its proposals, rather than the sensationalist claims?

While it is useful to rebut charges and get your arguments out in circulation, you have to understand that arguments and evidence have little impact on people as long as their feelings tilt them against you. You’ve got to create trust and liking first, and then people will be willing to listen. People can believe pretty much whatever they want to believe about moral and political issues, as long as some other people near them believe it, so you have to focus on indirect methods to change what people want to believe. You have to get them to the point where they ask themselves “can I believe it?” about your claims, rather than about your opponents’ claims. The time to establish that trust and liking was months ago, and perhaps some of it was burned up in the giant bailouts and coziness with Wall Street. I’m not a political scientist; I can’t say why his poll numbers went down. But as a moral psychologist I can say that there’s now little that can be done to win over or calm down the town-hall protesters. They’ve formed a new gang, a new heroic moral identity of resistance.

My main suggestion is to boil the plan down to a few easy-to-understand ideas, each of which has some intuitive moral content. The compassion and caring-for-all ideas should be easy for Obama, but they are not going to win over non-liberals, particularly those like Congressman Joe Wilson who are offended by the prospect of caring for outsiders (i.e., immigrants). But Obama might have to reach beyond his moral comfort zone to bring in some conservative ideas of fairness, such as that laziness or personal irresponsibility must not be rewarded. Obama might want to consider discussing the role of lawyers, and the role of lawsuits in driving up the costs of medical care. Even if economists say that this is not a major economic factor, it is a major moral issue for many people: whiny, irresponsible patients team up with crooked lawyers to milk the system for multi-million dollar settlements. It’s outrageous, and Obama’s opponents specialize in mobilizing outrage. Opposition parties always do, and neither side has a deep respect for the truth, although I do think that the kind of populist moral outrage now being cultivated by Glenn Beck and other conservative media personalities shows the three principles of moral psychology in an unusually florid fashion: intuitive primacy, moral thinking is for social doing, and morality binds and builds. It’s very hard to combat such attacks with reasons and evidence. I hope the Obama team finds some more indirect ways to change feelings – perhaps by making progress on the economy, or by handling an international crisis well. When it comes to moral persuasion, the way to the head is through the heart.