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APRIL, 2019

‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’ by Jonathan Haidt.

Six evolutionary moral principles that provide a unique insight into how we form our beliefs. Excellent starting point for understanding the core preferences an audience may have.

The following are my notes on ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion‘. What I record is a reflection of my own interests as much as the content of the book. The longer my notes the greater interest I had in the book. 

I found the book unputdownable but, I was in a library when I read the book. I would therefore classify the book as ‘quiet space appropriate‘ e.g. it should be read in an environment in which interruptions are few and far between. Though easy to read the book requires a high level of concentration. 

Who is in control, rider or elephant?

Rider and the Elephant:

Traditionally we have perceived the rider to be in control of the elephant. But, look at the size of the elephant compared to the rider. Should the elephant wish to go another way to the rider’s instruction, the rider has little option but to go along on the ride. Rider is not in control, he serves the elephant. Rider: Represents conscious reasoning, stream of words & images of which we’re fully aware Elephant: Takes on 99% of mental processes – they happen outside of awareness but govern most of our behaviour. Selfishness: Darwin viewed cohesive and coherent groups nearly always beat groups of selfish individuals. Haidt: Our minds are 90% self interest (chimp), 10% hive (cooperative). We have primitive minds with hivish (think bees) overlay.

“The perfect way is only difficult for those who pick and choose. Do not like, do not dislike; all will then be clear. Make a hair breadth different and heaven and earth are set apart. If you want the truth set before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worse disease.” Sen-Ts’an

Antonio Damasio Brain damaged patients (ventromedial and pre-frontal cortex), left with no emotion. Felt nothing no joy or pain, had no drop in IQ. Every emotion every moment felt the same. Should you murder your parents or not? Such questions unable to answer. This is the triumph of reason, which is supposed to eliminate dreadful circumstances and foolish counsel. Clearly reason needs passion, needs emotion.

Traditional views of reason and emotion

Plato: aim is rationality. Hume: Emotion drives rationality. Jefferson: Both rule like two roman emperors, governing two parts of the empire, when one drops off the other takes over.

Which does moral reasoning require?

Task Load Experiment: Ask people to hold seven numbers in their head. If performance suffers with a task then that task requires controlled thinking e.g. reasoning. If not then it is an intuitive, emotion, automatic response. When people are asked to make moral judgements they do not suffer from talk load, therefore moral decisions are intuitive.

Judgement and justification are separate processes

  • Seeing that = triggers a response
  • Reasoning why = conscious reasoning (easily disrupted by cognitive load).

Cognition and emotion are not separate

Cognition is simply information processing. At a high level it equals conscious reasoning. At a low level it equals visual perception and memory retrieval. Moral emotions are kind of moral intuition but most moral intuition is subtle so does not rise to level of emotion.

Rider evolved from elephant because it did something useful for it

Rider can see into future and learn new technology but, most importantly the rider acts only as a spokesperson for the elephant. It does not really ever know what the elephant is thinking. It is highly skills at fabricating post-hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done. It acts like a full-time PR agent.

If you want to change people’s minds use 3 and 4 (see Fig. 2.4) to talk to their elephant.  Dale Carnegie said to use 4, the social persuasion link to prepare ground before attempting to use 3, reasoned persuasion.  

“If there is one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.” Henry Ford

This is easier said than done as our minds shift easily into combat mode. Rider and elephant fend off attacks. This impresses others but not the mind of opponents (if they’re in combat mode). Empathy is the antidote to righteousness.

Intuition has primacy

Example: You run into someone you’ve not seen for years, you know instantly if you like them or not but take much longer to know how you know them or who they are.

  • Almost everything we look at triggers a tiny flash of affect.
  • Familiar things are tagged as good = exposure effect. The basic principle of advertising, Robert Zajonc – show people same image several times.


Alex Todorov found more attractive you are the lighter the prison sentence and higher the chance you’ll be acquitted.

Political competency: Voters shown image of unknown politician and asked how competent they are. Voter’s preferences were mirrored in electoral outcomes two in three times.  

“Human minds, like animal minds, are constantly reacting intuitively to everything they perceive… intuitions come first.”

Bodies guide Judgement

When deciding what to think about something we look inward at how we’re feeling. If the feeling is good then we decide we must like it. If the feeling is unpleasant then we must not like it. Example: Moral survey undertaken and fart spray released. In this situation the people questioned gave a harsher response when spray released.

The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt Andrew Tollinton Book Notes, fart spray image

Babies feel but don’t reason

Babies are like puppies and recognise people that are or, are not nice to them. Therefore their capacity to evaluate individuals on the basis of social interactions is universal and unlearned.

Moral reasoning without moral intuition is bad.

Rider is like a lawyer

Rider will do as a client asks but sometimes pushes back to make client revise judgement.

“Main way we change minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We’re terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our beliefs… When discussions are hostile, the odds are slight.” Haidt

Affection, admiration, the desire to please another person, the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find truth in the other person’s argument. The elephant rarely changes direction in response to the rider objecting. But, it is easily steered by the presence of other friendly elephants (the social persuasion link) or by good arguments given by riders of those friendly elephants (reasoned persuasion link).

We can change our mind without the influence of other people, depending on which victim/friend, argument we’re thinking about at the time.

Time: Elephant is more likely to listen to rider if given more time.

Delusion of reason

Plato: Aspired to perfectibility of reason, he argued it’s our original nature but it has been corrupted by passion. If we control this the God given rationality will shine through. But Haidt says Plato was wrong.

Glaucon was right!

“Reason is not fit to ride; it was designed to seek justification not truth.” Haidt

Glaucon suggests you should make sure everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time. If enacted bad behaviour will equal bad consequences.

Appearance is usually far more important than reality in the social world. 

Philip Tetlock: Experiment, people given a problem to solve. Half people told they need to explain their reasoning and the other half not. Left to on devices people are lazy, make errors and rely on gut feeling. When people’s work is reviewed they are more systematic in their thinking and self-critical. They’re less prejudice and more likely to revise opinion in the face of evidence.

To optimise conditions one needs three things:

  1. Ensure before the task is shown let people know they’ll be accountable.
  2. The views of those to whom people will be accountable are not known.
  3. Let people think the reviewers are well informed and like accuracy.

The UK MPS expenses scandal is a good example of the abuse of power when not held accountable.

“Tetlock concludes that conscious reasoning is carried out largely for the purpose of persuasion, rather than discovery. But Tetlock adds that we are also trying to persuade ourselves. We want to believe the things we are about to say to others.” Haidt


Mark Learly: We are always measuring our value as a relationship partner; when needle drops it triggers an alarm and behaviour changes. Psychopaths are the only people known to not have a sociometer.

Confirmation Bias

David Perkins: People asked to think about social issue and assess two arguments, for their view and against. They remembered many more arguments for than against. When he compared fourth year students to graduate students he found no difference in this approach. Schools do not teach people to reason thoroughly – they select people with higher IQs, who tend to generate more arguments.

Honest and plausible deniability

Take a slip of paper and told the value of the paper. Go next door and receive more money than the value of the paper, because the cashier recipient misread the paper. Only 20% of people pointed out the error. But, when cashier asked if the sum was correct 60% people pointed out the error.

Being asked directly removes plausible deniability.

Majority of people cheat

“When given the opportunity many people will cheat. In fact, rather than finding a few bad apples weighted the average, we discovered the majority of people cheated, and they cheated just a little bit. They cheated only up to the point where they themselves could no longer find justification that would preserve their own belief in their honesty” Dan Ariely Predictably Irrational

If you combine invisibility and plausible deniability most people will cheat. The lawyer/rider is so good at justification it convinces you that you have the same level of virtue as before.

If you swap must for can you have motivated reasoning.

The search engine Google means you have available support for any belief immediately.

We can support almost anything that supports our team. In matters of public’s opinion people ask not what is in it for me but what’s in it for my group. This shows a badge of social membership. Our politics is groupish not selfish.


Rationalist Delusion

One of the most long lived delusions in the western society: The delusion that reasoning is our most notable attribute. We believe it should bring us more power and rise us up!

Plato to Kant: Ability to reason well causes good behaviour, belief that reason is the royal road to moral truth.

But, philosophers found to be more more moral than others. The same amount of late book returns and fines within the ethics section of a library.

“Anyone who worships truth should stop worshipping reason.” Haidt

Reasoning does not help us find truth. In the context of discussions with other people reason helps us engage in:

  • Arguments
  • Persuasion
  • Manipulation

Skilled arguers are not after truth, but after arguments supporting their views. Why? Because confirmation bias is a built in feature of people and not a bug that can be removed. Expertise in moral reasoning does not improve behaviour.

Gut feelings are often great for consumer choice and interpersonal judgement but, it’s bad for public policy, science, law etc. We must be wary of individual ability to reason.

Each individual is limited like a neuron.

Great at summing up whether input to dendrites is right to fire a pulse along its axon but, alone it is not very smart. However, put people together with others and you get a brain, emergent system much smarter and flexible than individuals.

Individuals are not good at truth seeking, particularly where reputation and self-interest are at play. It’s therefore key to have intellectual diversity if you wish to find the truth.

No one is ever going to devise an ethics class that gets people to behave ethically afterwards. Classes are for riders and they’ll use new information to serve their elephants more effectively.


  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrial
  • Rich
  • Democratic

West see the world as objects, I am happy, sad etc

East see world as relationships, I am a father, a partner etc.

(View Kitayama et al 2009 for more information).

In non WEIRD countries the needs of groups and institutions come first.

Haidt’s 6 Receptors

Morality is like cuisine, an accident of environment and history but not so flexible anything goes.

Two attributes running x to y axis across each other:

Axis X empathiser: Identifies with other’s emotions, thoughts and responds with appropriate emotion.

Axis Y Systemetiser: Analyses system variables to derive rules that govern the system.

Psychology = how the mind actually works not how it ought to work. Therefore, use observation, which is better than empathy.

Humans are bipedal, tool using, large brain evolves animals.

The brain of the human is pre-wired not hardwired.

“Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises. ‘Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable, it means organised ‘in advance of experience.” Gary Marcus

Receptor #1 CARE

  • Adaptive challenge: Protect and care for children
  • Old trigger: Suffering, distress, neediness, expressed by one’s child
  • New trigger: Baby seals being clubbed to death, cute teddy bears
  • Emotion: Compassion
  • Virtue: Caring, kindness

Care/harm principle responds to cuteness of a child with big eyes, well proportioned, balanced face. Brain responds to these patterns. 

We care about violence toward many more classes of victim today than our grandparents did in their time e.g. we now care about the clubbing of seals. 

Conservatives are strong on local.

Liberals are strong on universality. 

Receptor #2 Fairness

  • Adaptive challenge: Two way relationship benefit
  • Old trigger: Cheating, deception, cooperation
  • New trigger: Faithfulness, think broken vending machine
  • Emotion: Anger, gratitude, guilt
  • Virtue: Fairness, justice, trustworthiness

 We all care about fairness but there are two different kinds:

  1. The left considers fairness as equality
  2. The right think of fairness as proportionality

Receptor #3 Loyalty

It matters to both sexes but:

  • Males lean toward teams and coailtions
  • Females toward two person relationships

Koran does not say to burn the Jews but to burn the apostate – those that abandon Islam. In Dantes Inferno the centre is reserved for treachery.


Receptor #4 Authority

Failure to detect signs of dominance and then respond accordingly often results in a beating. Authority is not the same as hierarchy and power and exploitation. It’s about fulfillment of obligation and not having chaos. 

  • Adaptive challenge: Beneficial relationships within hierarchies
  • Old trigger: Dominance and submission
  • New trigger: Bosses, respected professionals
  • Emotion: Respect, fear
  • Virtue: Obedience, reverence

Receptor #5 Sanctity

Neophilia, attraction to new things. Neophobia, fear of new things.  

  • Adaptive challenge: Avoid contaminants. 
  • Old trigger: Diseased people, waste product.
  • New trigger: Taboo ideas
  • Emotion: Disgust
  • Virtue: Chastity, temperance

Receptor #6 Liberty

Operates in tension with authority. We recognise authority as legitimate in certain contexts but, we are weary of leaders unless they have first earned our trust.

We’re vigilant for signs they’ve crossed lines into self-grandisement and tyranny. 

Liberals are not good with retribution. They gives narrower rage of grades when marking papers. Conservatives are more willing to reward best students and punish worst. 

Conservatives Versus Liberals

 Democrats in US aim their slogans at the rider, Republicans aim their slogans at the elephant.

Conservatives define fairness as proportionality not equality. The move from egalitarian hunter to property base and sedentary life equals hierarchy of inequality. 

Reactance: Feeling you get when told you can’t do something by an authority figure and you want to do it even more strongly. People don’t suffer oppression in private, the rise of the dominant motivates individuals to unite as equals and resist, restrain and possibly kills oppressor. 

“People are obsessed by their reputations….. My goal is to show you that morality is the key to understanding humanity.” Haidt


Group selection creates group reated adaptations. It is not far fetches, and it should not be a heresy to suggest that this is how we got the groupish overlay that makes-up a crucual part of our rigtheous mind.

Wihin 30 generataitons wild foxes bred for tameness become unmistakenly domesticated.

Human’s dual nature:

  1. Selfish primate
  2. But long to be part of something larger, more noble than ourselves.

“I believe it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self-sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy.” World War Two veteran

“We have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves. That ability is what I’m calling the hive switch.” Haidt

The Hive Switch

The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt Andrew Tollinton Book Notes, Emile Durkheim

For Durkheim ‘social facts’ are not irreducible to the individual, there are two sets of social sentiments:

  1. Individual to individual: Honour, respect, affection, fear. Autonomy and personality left alone. 
  2. Social entity as a whole: Society to society. Inter social. Part of whole, follow their actions, subjected to their influence. 

Group rituals generate: 

  • Passion
  • Ecstasy
  • Collective effervesence


“The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of expectation.” Durkheim

Humans are pulled fully but temporarily into two realms:

  1. Sacred: Self disappears and collective interests predominate
  2. Profane: Ordinary day-to-day where most of us live, concerned with wealth, health, reputation but, nagged by sense there is somewhere, something higher and nobler.

We can turn on the hive switch in the following ways (no need to be in a group):

  • Awe in nature:  ‘There is more in man than breadth of his body.’ Darwin. Awe equals vast, makes us feel small and need for accommodation. Makes people forget themselves, feel part of a whole.
  • Hallucination: LSD. Transformative and spiritual. Rites of passage, often pass people into adulthood by hallucination as it connects subject to group and leaves behind ‘self’.

“All of a sudden I felt sort of drawn out into infinity and all of a sudden I had lost touch with my mind. I felt I was caught-up in the vastness of creation…. Sometimes you would look up and see the light on the altar and it would just be a blinding sort of light and radiation….. We took such an infinitesimal amount of psilocybin, yet it connected me to infinity.” Subject recalling LSD experiment.

MDNA: Amphetamine that creates a heightened sense of love and openness. Clubbing with hypnotic music, concerts, singing, teams, all can flip the hive switch.


Biology of the Hive Switch

Oxytocine: hormone that binds people together. It increases when we see people suffering. Increases with intimate contact e.g. back rub. It’s a ‘love drug’ that makes people love their ‘in-group’.

Mirror neurons: Works strongest when in accordance with new moral matrix.

Seeing people only as individuals is like trying to understand clapping by looking only at one hand.

When do people follow? When group needs to get something done and when emergent leader that doesn’t activate hypersensitive oppression detectors. A leader must construct a moral matrix based in some way on the authority foundation, thereby giving legitimatising the authority of the leader. Includes liberty and loyalty foundation.

How move more toward hive? increase similarity not diveristy, make people feel like family. Ramp up similarities and celebrate group’s shared values and common identity. People are warmer and more trusting toward people that look like them, dress like them, even just share first name or birthday. Race is not special. Make people care less about it by drowning in sea of similarities, shared goals and mutual inter dependencies.

Exploit synchronous, sing together, tap table together. Create healthy competition between teams, not individuals. This increases love of in-group more than dislike of out-group.

Transactional leadership appeals to followers of self-interest but transformational leadership changes the way followers see themselves, from isolated individuals to members of a larger group. We, rather than I.

“And, so fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country.” John F Kennedy

A nation of selfish individuals is hungry for meaning. Along comes a great orator, renouncing material pleasure and giving spiritual existence. Happiness not within but between. Work toward something larger than you. Because we have a dual nature, we evolved to be in groups, secret and profane.


A set of beliefs and practices that are sacred, in other words forbidden.

Humans have a hyper sensitive detection system, we see faces in clouds, its’a part of our survival instinct, sometimes we overly attribute human characterisitics – it can be misplaced .

To Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins religions are sets of memes that have undergone Darwinian selection.

Communes: Without religion they die out. When people are asked for sacred things they perform a cost/benefit analysis e.g. why shouldn’t I smoke?

“To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity.” Roy Rappaport

The very ritual practices that the new atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship. Irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group function more rationally…. Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.

Agriculture equals losses, equals religion.

“Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.” David Sloan Wilson

Gods and religions, in sum, are group level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust.

Our own genes have evolved to make us more groupish.

Religion: Good or bad?

Surveys show religious people give more and are more altruistic. But when they’re put in a lab they act no different to non-believers.

Religious people are better citizens, not because of their fear of God but because they are meshed with fellow believers.

“It’s religious belongingness that matters for neighbourliness, not religious believing.” Robert Putnam and David Campbell

 Religions focus on the in-group even though they preach love and benevolence. 

Religions evolved because they successfully made group more efficient at turning resourcs into offspring. 

Religions are not the cause of suicide bombings. Robert Pape found it’s a nationalist response to military occupation by culturally alien democratic powers. It’s a response to boots on the ground – never to bombs dropped from the air – it’s a response to contamination of sacred homeland. Like a fist punched into a beehive and left there for a long time. 

The ideology can be secular, marxist, leninist, whatever. Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group, while at the same time demonising another group can lead to moralistic killing – religions are well suited to that. 

Therefore religion is an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force or atrocity. 

The first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few). 

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” Haidt

Religion is both blinding and binding. Once something is declared sacred it is no longer questioned.

19th Century communes: Used Gods to elicit sacrifice and commitment. Subjects in cheating and trust games – found Gods help suppress cheating and increase trustworthiness.


Genes and Morals

80’s twins split and adopted found to be similar on nearly all things.

Self-interest does a remarkably poor job of predicting politics. Look at attitudes, tech billionaires vote left, industrialists vote right. Estimated 33% to 50% influence by genes on political allegiance.

Innate is not unmalleable – it means organised in advance of experience.

Threat of danger = glutamate & serotonin. Conservatives react more strongly than liberals. Dopamine is sensation seeking, stronger in liberals. Traits guide children along different paths.


“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Haidt

Example: Keith Richards won choir competition. At school he was told to resit his first year because he missed classes and the choir master didn’t help him.

“The moment that happened, spike, Terry and I, we became terrorists.. That’s when I started to see the world in a different way, not their way anymore. That when I realised there’s bigger bullies than just bullies. That’s them, the authorities. And a slow burning fuse was lit.” Keith Richards

The Two Grand American Heroic Political Narratives

1) Liberal Narrative: Once upon a time, the vast majority of humans suppressed in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive. Reprehensible because of their inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism…. But noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled and succeeded in establishing modern democratic, capitalist welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximise the individual freedom and pleasure for all, there’s much work to be done to dismantle the power vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving. 

2) Conservative Narrative: Once upon a time America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected a bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith every step of the way…. Instead of requiring people work for a living, they siphoned money from hardworking Americans and gave it to Cadillac driving drug addicts and welfare Queens. Instead of punishing criminals they tried to ‘understand’ them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals… instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and he gay lifestyle…. and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles … instead of projecting strength to those that would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag and chose negotiation and multilateralism… Then Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it. 


Cities versus villages

Cities are diverse but unsafe. Villages are safe but homogenous. 

Therefore, if someone has high openness and low threat sensitivity they should go to the city and they’re probably liberal.  

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