The Righteous Mind is Essential Reading

With partisanship on the rise and many Americans firmly settled into their echo-chamber media bubbles, books that attempt to understand political and religious thinking, without declaring obvious winners, are becoming crucial insights.Jonathan Haidt‘s The Righteous Mind is an essential tool for anyone trying to understand the political psychology of the other side.

I freely admit, I love reading fiction a lot more than nonfiction books. That said, I’m always happy to break my mold when a book comes along that dissects an interesting topic – whether that topic is a historical figure, political movement, or just some obscure trivia. Given the historically polarizing nature of the 2016 Presidential Election, I couldn’t help but be attracted to The Righteous Mind, an analysis by Jonathan Haidt – a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. While the book also covers religion, I cannot deny that my main motivation was increasing my political understanding.

Haidt wastes no time jumping into how the brain works. One of the books largest arguments is that the human mind is 90% elephant and 10% rider. The elephant is intuition and the rider is reason. This means, Haidt argues, that much of our decision making is based on “gut feeling,” with the logical part of the brain only being used after to justify/guide our reasoning. When the elephant decides to go one way, the rider has no choice but to follow, and can only coax the elephant back after some time has passed.


What is charming (and well-done) is that the writing of this book is structured to this effect. To prove his points, Haidt appeals to intuition and emotion over throwing boatloads of statistics in the reader’s face. This not only makes the book an easy read, but serves to reinforce the argument he’s making.

The Righteous Mind also proposes to categorize human morality. Haidt breaks morality out into five (then later six) areas: Harm, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity. For those looking for a political bent – here is where Haidt declares that conservatives have an edge. He argues that many liberals devote too much emphasis to Harm and Fairness while downplaying the other principles. For any interested, Haidt has also created YourMorals.Org – a website where your morality can be analyzed and put against the typical liberal and conservative.

Haidt’s diagram of the liberal moral matrix, showing an apparent weakness in three areas.

Haidt’s other points of focus include three main matrices of cultural morality, self-interest vs. group (what he calls groupish) inclinations of human action, and how genetics may play a role in determining a liberal vs. a conservative. To sum them all up would not do justice to the way Haidt frames his arguments. While I balked at the genetic link – I found most everything else in this book to be very well reasoned and exceptionally well researched.

Those worried of a partisan slant may relax. This book is not about proving which side is better or who needs to listen to who. Haidt admits his liberal leanings early on, but uses this to frame his own personal learning experience. This is not a man talking down to conservatives, but saying that there is a lot to be learned from them (something that liberal partisans badly need to hear).

As an added plus, Haidt appears to be a friendly and outgoing author on Twitter. I reached out to him several times over the course of reading his book and always found him responsive. When asked, given recent events, if he had an addendum to add – Haidt provided me a link to a new article he wrote on nationalism vs. globalism.

Partisanship is, in my opinion, one of the largest roadblocks to the best form of government. Any book, article, or film that attempts to understand and bridge that divide does this nation a service. I cannot recommend this book enough to any and all seeking a better understanding of their fellow human beings.

For some fun – here are the results of my initial morality test. Apparently I put even most liberals to shame in my pursuit of fairness, but am lacking in purity…. that seems fair.

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