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Why They Won’t Listen

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Posted on Mar 24, 2012
Jon Olav (CC-BY)

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, believes intuition—not reason—guides people’s behavior, and with his new book, “The Righteous Mind,” he wants to teach you how to better sell your politics. —ARK

Sunday Book Review in The New York Times:

To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The funniest and most painful illustrations are Haidt’s transcripts of interviews about bizarre scenarios. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.

The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.

To explain this persistence, Haidt invokes an evolutionary hypothesis: We compete for social status, and the key advantage in this struggle is the ability to influence others. Reason, in this view, evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn. So if you want to change people’s minds, Haidt concludes, don’t appeal to their reason. Appeal to reason’s boss: the underlying moral intuitions whose conclusions reason defends.

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OzarkMichael's avatar

By OzarkMichael, March 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm Link to this comment

I find it interesting that Truthdig heads the article with the title: “Why They Wont Listen” when it is about how all people dont start off with listening and reasoning.

In other words, Truthdig pushes the foibles of human nature over to conservatives, thus creating two tiers of humanity, with the Leftists above it all.

A far better title for this article would be “Why We Wont Listen”. A universal “we” that invites introspection and reflection. Instead you push the fault upon the hated class with your usual prejudice.

I have maintained on the website for 4 years that there is only one human nature. As long as you think you are above it you will keep failing, and you really do deserve to fail.

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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, March 26, 2012 at 10:53 pm Link to this comment

I would be more interested in questions about “Is it right to…” which may challenge obvious pre-conceptions.

Also, is this really science or just fun???

You can easily design an experiment to try to prove a point in such complicated matters if you are clever enough, but is it really worth anything???

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By tolstoy, March 26, 2012 at 4:58 pm Link to this comment

Leading us to the question of whether we can follow reason at all versus what we intuitively believe (presumably not involving reasoning) as with 2 plus 2 = 4 scientifically. But if a person believes 2 plus 2 equals 5 that person’s moral (what he/she believes is right) reasoning will cling to the falsehood no matter how many times the fallacy is demonstrated.

In short (in what seems a laboring of the obvious but is presented as some kind of profound scholarship in this article), people make decisions based on conditioned feelings which come to them not by reasoning but emotional sources, as with propaganda.

So to say we can get somewhere by appealing to another’s moral intuition sounds like mother saying “be a good boy/girl.” We’re likely only to argue successfully to a conclusion in terms of what is already taken for granted, no reasoning involved whatever.

This prescription manipulates and is essential to advertising and conformist behavior. Is this what Haidt is getting at?

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By MondoBizarro, March 26, 2012 at 10:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

While cultural cognition is an interesting emerging field of study, it’s regrettable
that some of the more simplistic and flatly false ideas coming from its
adherents are fast becoming memes in political punditry.

two examples:
1) The false dichotomy of hierarchical/individual vs community/egalitarian. I
submit that one can’t champion hierarchy and individuality at the same time.
They are opposing ideas. Hierarchy demands that you put the individual desires
of your superiors over that of your own.

Ask yourself which political ideology allows the most freedom to the most
number of individuals?

Is it one in which a few elite do what they will while 99% of the people are kept
in conditions of “salvary”, or is it one in which the idea of equality of
opportunity is taken seriously as a way to spread success far and wide?

Is it one in which all must bow before the idols of economic status and religious
intolerance, or is it one in which all are encouraged to pursue happiness as they
define it?

Is it one in which all individuals are cast in a rigid hierarchy defined by the
powerful, or is it one in which we relate to one another as equals despite our
differences or social status?

Every time you hear the word “individuality” spoken by a conservative,
substitute the word privilege and you will understand everything.

2) The idea that conservatives are more loyal than progressives. The real
difference here is where one places one’s loyalty. Conservatives tend to place
their loyalty in individuals, especially strong leaders and authoritative figures.
Progressives tend to be loyal to ideas and principles, even when such loyalty
appears to contradict the short term interests of the group. Chris Hedges’
lawsuit against Obama’s domestic terrorist laws are a case in point. You will
rarely find a conservative who will buck the trend of the tribe for the sake of a

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By hawkDU, March 25, 2012 at 8:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As the political evolution of the United States progresses it seems inevitable that the Right, superior in its ruthlessness and focus, will complete its strangulation of representative democracy.

When it does, ‘unnatural selection’ and the survival of the fittest will have failed the democratic political organism - the economy, societal framework and international relations. It is difficult to imagine this occurring without the death throes of tyrannical response and violence.

This is analogous to the biological, evolutionary mistake of homo sapiens which has allowed us to dominate all other species, and thus threaten with our rapaciousness and technology, not only ourselves but the entire biosphere.

The fossil record is filled with species which failed, which reached a dead end. In politics this is the Right whose policies have ended democracy, in biology it is homo sapiens that evolution has failed. As Ronald Wright noted: we became clever before we became wise.

In the evolution of U.S. politics the several fatal ‘genetic defects’ are evident. There is the blatant corrupting force of money in an already flawed electoral system; there is the hypocritical linkage of antiquated religious beliefs with faux nationalism and there is the corporate media - like a damaged nerve which prevents the pain signals from getting through while triggering the release of hormones that send ‘fight’ signals to the limbic system. This defect also continually signals the body (politic) that its centre is actually its left.

And, as has been noted by many, the one defect that will likely do us - and every other living thing in - is the ‘sabre tooth tiger’ response which prioritises immediate threats above more collectively dangerous but more distant, slowly gathering ones.

In this era of huge technological impacts, exploding population and dwindling resources the successes of Conservatism are most unfortunate. If ever there were a time for radical changes it is now. If ever there were a time for urgent action it is now. Instead the leaders of the world, in Copenhagen, for instance and later Durban, effectively place the fate of Earth’s biosphere in the ‘too hard basket’.

Those with the money and the political power either have not done their homework and their calculations correctly or they just don’t believe or care that their own line of DNA could soon reach an unnecessary, untimely and particularly miserable end. Gated communities or the floating cities proposed for rich Libertarians will not shelter their offspring from the end of biology.

Our defect ridden political evolution is linked to our biological one and unless there is a positive ‘mutation’ soon both will dead end - answering the most perplexing variable in the Drake equation designed to estimate the number of advanced civilisations in the galaxy: “How long does a civilisation persist after it
invents technology?”

In our case, tragically, the answer may be - not very long.

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By gerard, March 25, 2012 at 7:32 pm Link to this comment

Non-compassionate Liberal:  “Conservative” speaks straight to the idea of
conserving things as they are; the opposite of changing things.  Why would
people want to keep things the same?  Because (for any of a number of reasons)
they FEAR that change will destroy, waste, take away something they have and
find valuable.
  And “Progressive” implies that things if changed might be improved, and
therefore change is not to be feared but encouraged, which, of course, is
automatically threatening to “conservatives.”
  If we think of all the by-roducts of these two opposing notions, we can find
many things to quarrel about and only a few that would engage cooperation of
the two opposing thought patterns based on common beliefs and interests.
  Not that cooperation for mutual interests is impossible; just that it itself
involves change.  And the more persistence is devoted by each “side” to
preserve its own beliefs, the more difficult cooeration becomes. Each must
therefore be forced by troubling circumstances to come together and work for
common goals.  Takes time and many kinds of social education and skills.
The common tendency is to “fight things out” instead, which often drives ideas
farther apart and causes more heat than light.
  Techniques in using non-violence or alternatives to violence have been
discovered and used successfully, but they are not commonly known because,
for one reason, it is easier for a ruling segment of any population to control all
others if the others can be kept divided and lacking in awareness of similar
needs. Why else would the “teaching” of nonviolent reconciliation be “suspect”
as dangerous, subversive,  widely propagandized (even ridiculed) as
“impractical, impossible or naive”?

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By RHONDA, March 25, 2012 at 4:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

gerard, thank you.  I had such a headache after reading
this, I could barely think.  So it was an emotional
reaction.  I agree, this conservative value of yielding
to authority really creates problems for everyone.  And
don’t get me started on Family Values!  The patriarch
and the Old Testament values never will lead to a
caring or moderate world view.

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Non-Compassionate Liberal's avatar

By Non-Compassionate Liberal, March 25, 2012 at 12:29 pm Link to this comment

“What’s natural [for conservatives] is . . . rallying together as Americans against a foreign threat.”

True.  But maybe we wouldn’t have these foreign threats if we didn’t continue to bomb the crap outta so-called enemies and their friends and families.  Can these loyal (conservative) Americans grasp this logic AND MORALITY?

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By balkas, March 25, 2012 at 11:17 am Link to this comment

yes, you’re right by me in saying that haidt does not ask where people get their beliefs [to which they cling oh so
tenaciously, i may add]
and i am fond of repeating that if one knew everything [let’s back track a bit: no one can know everything; but
sufficient onto the day is rigor thereof] about our thinking about social issues/our behavior, but did not know
cause for it [or at least looked for] one might as well know nothing.
our thinking is caused by thinking of other people. natch, how you think/behaveit depends what one is fed.
if a child is fed god bless america, america the great, we are a great nation, land of the free and the brave/most
civilized/just, etc., one is not gonna see and still less acknowledge ocean of ills that US did to blacks, indigenes,
and many ‘alien’ nations.
ok, i could have skipped everything i said about this topic and just noted these two facts:
1. thinking causes thinking
2. let’s no blame victims [of false to fact thinking]

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By Oceanna, March 25, 2012 at 10:25 am Link to this comment

The problem is that people don’t listen enough to their intuitions and instincts. 
Much of American politics is actually counterintuitive and conflicts with
“commonsense.”  For example, devastating and murderous invasions are
supposed to have humanitarian benefits for the targeted country, like the
elimination of Sadam Hussein or the promotion of Democracy.  Or the increased
surveillance, control and witch hunts against Americans are framed as
necessary for their protection as opposed to the obvious—that we need
protection from exactly what’s being inflicted on us by our own government. 

Actually, intuition like critical thinking is an anathema to control.

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vector56's avatar

By vector56, March 25, 2012 at 10:18 am Link to this comment


I think I understand where you are coming from and I too feel your frustration with this “compartmentalized” compassion. Just as the TV ads tell us what we should buy, popular media (corporate media) dictates who (what group) we should empathize with. As I said before, the dead bodies of Middle Eastern children have been piling up like cord-wood, and very few tears have been shed. Imagine a living breathing child being “ripped” apart by the awesome weapons we are so “proud” of.

I understand Haidt’s point that most already have their opinions on most subjects and only debate to justify what they already believe, but Haidt failed to ask where they got those restricted set of beliefs to begin with.

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By balkas, March 25, 2012 at 9:04 am Link to this comment

what about haidth’s: why won’t they listen?
but haven’t they listened enough already by the age of, say, 10.
oh yes, they have! and they already knew by that age all there is to
be known or was worth knowing.
and now haidth blames the sheep for not listening! and he presents
his ‘teachings’ as enlightenment!
never let go of that old ruse: blame the victim and not victimizer!

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By balkas, March 25, 2012 at 8:54 am Link to this comment

in US, racism is taught. hatred towards some ideologies, is also taught.
take communism, eg. if your a vietcong and a communist, US soldier is actually proud to kill you.
communism is evil. every school child knows that. but when a “dirty commie” even dares kill an american, well that’s just to much
to bear.
if you’re a pashtuni muslim and a poor villager, you’re worthless to an US soldier and if you’re in soldier’s way, you get killed, pissed
discrimination—from which the racism and meritocracy arise—is being taught in media, schools, tv, movies, most books; because
the ruling class needs very badly deep divides and dehumanized people.
no dehumanization of children, no wars, exploitation, meritocracy, subhumaness, supremacy, etc.

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By elisalouisa, March 25, 2012 at 8:20 am Link to this comment

Thanks ARK for this excellent review by William Saletan.

“He figures that if voters like Republican messages, there’s something in Republican messages worth liking. He chides psychologists who try to “explain away” conservatism, treating it as a pathology. Conservatism thrives because it fits how people think, and that’s what validates it. Workers who vote Republican aren’t fools. In Haidt’s words, they’re “voting for their moral interests.”

One of these interests is moral capital — norms, prac­tices and institutions, like religion and family values, that facilitate cooperation by constraining individualism.”

Very good point and topic I might add.

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By balkas, March 25, 2012 at 8:17 am Link to this comment

haidth: “intuition—not the reason, guides human behavior”.
however, we do not know what intuition means to haidth or anyone else. in fact, i have no clue what haidth meant to say with the above
but do see that he’s splitting the thinking into two separate entities: intuition and rationalization—or reason, as he calls the latter.
yet, when one reasons [tries to justify one’s behavior via rationalization] or intuits, one is using one’s head—or to make it crystal clear,
one thinks and uses words to describe what one thinks.
i suggest that what we call intuition and reason are just aspects of one entity: the thinking; alas, much influenced by how we feel.
thus, if we feel alienated from, say, black people and a white person kills a black person in cold blood, and one has negative feelings
towards blacks, it’ll cause quite different linguistics [rationalization, reasoning, intuitions, or giving reasons] about such killing than if
black person would gun in cold blood a white person.
thus, previous conditioning also plays a role in how one feels, thinks, and in what one says.
killing, one million iraqis, hardly budges most people’s feelings and if you say this to an american, you may not get a word out of himher
about it.
and most likely 90% of americans may resent you for bringing it up.
since american child is imbued with negative feelings towards ‘backward’ aliens and own inferior citizens, the child will continue to feel
negatively towards, say, palestinians, blacks, pashtuns, iraqis, regardless what the facts are when such people get killed by a superior
person, people or a country.
eg, lest look at the rationalization such as this: my country is at war! note that hardly an american would say: i and my country are at
war, we are waging a war. most of the time most [or perhaps all] americans say that it is the govt which is waging a war.
they’‘ll talk like that because they do not feel responsible.
so, what they talk about is actually their feelings: feelings of innocence when americans wage wars. intuiting-reasoning does not just
happen—it is caused and the cause of thinking and then using language, is solely our feelings.
so, if haidth leaves out the feelings and previous learning out of our evaluating, he cannot proffer us an elucidation.

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vector56's avatar

By vector56, March 24, 2012 at 7:19 pm Link to this comment

On a personal level I have often wondered how a soldier can drop Napalm or White Phosphorous on other peoples children and go home and hug his on off-spring? There must be some kind of “compartmentalization” going on where the act is considered “part of the job” and “spun” in such a way as make it humane?

Classic example would be Obama and most of our corporate media; their hearts poured out to the 17 year old child who was gunned down in Florida, but not a tear was shed for the 16 year old murdered by drone.

It is not just the right who play these “heart/head” games; the left indulges as well.

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By kerryrose, March 24, 2012 at 6:23 pm Link to this comment

Jeremy Rifkin, author of Empathic Civilization, has another way to spin the same idea of ‘it’s natural not to care about Darfur, but to care about your local PTA.’

Rifkin says that ‘tribe’ identification is one step in evolving empathy, along with ‘nationalistic’ identification, and ‘religious’ identification.  It is more ‘natural’ because it is less evolved according to Rifkin.

Extending empathic identification has changed as civilization evolves.  ‘Tribe’ identification is a couple of steps ago.  Empathy to the biosphere- our entire natural world is what Rifkin sees as our ultimate destination.

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By gerard, March 24, 2012 at 2:46 pm Link to this comment

“The hardest part, Haidt finds, is getting liberals to open their minds. Anecdotally, he reports that when he talks about authority, loyalty and sanctity, many people in the audience spurn these ideas as the seeds of racism, sexism and homophobia.”
  Just one of probably many sweeping generalities that depend upon what question was asked, and how.
The gross speculative quality of the statement sets my “liberal, rational” teeth on edge! For instance:
  One of the main reasons why “liberalsls” suspect the conservative loyalty to authority - even the sanctity being offered up to authority - is that authority is so large a proportion of our massive problems these days.
  Deference to authority in matters of socially harmless habituation is one thing; deference to military authority, as just one example of error, becomes increasingly deadly as it involves larger and larger numbers of individuals. It is more than high time such traditional deference to military authority is questioned and curbed.
  As to loyalty and sanctity toward other types of social authority (tradition, historic persistence etc.) all such authority tends to deter, even prevent invention, creativity, the intervention of trial and error as a logical and expedient method of experimental social problem-solving.
  Example in point:  The current worldwide attempt toward learning to substitute nonviolent resistance for violent revolution. If present experiments are thwarted, violence will very likely become “inevitable” whereas that was not at all the actual or inevitable case.
  It is at this point more than any other that I have trouble understanding and dealing with the “reactive” mind-set of political conservatism. Most conservatives I know will say they don’t like (“approve of”) wars, for instance, but invariably they see no other possibilities, and get sucked in.
In fact, they do not even think to suggest eliminating the most horrendoug weapons of mass destrulction volutarily in order to reduce the mayhem. Instead, we have the “ticking clock” for decades!
  In these heady studies, who has addressed such simple, yet crucial points?

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By double standards/glasshouses, March 24, 2012 at 2:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

These conclusions are flat out false in many cases and in particular in regard to the war on terror and all wars in general.  The right wing position is that we have to kill them over there so they won’t come over here.  They refuse to see that the more innocent non-combatants we kill the more they hate us and seek revenge.  It doesn’t take an emotional genius to figure out what is right and wrong there.
Like Obama the author wants to accommodate the right wing extremists without a fight.  I don’t want to understand the Rick Santorum’s of the world, I understand quite enough already.  The Tea Party?  What needs to be understood about people who tell the president to go back to Africa where he belongs?

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