Our Divided Minds – Part 2

My last post explored the eminent social psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s description of our minds as divided into two separate but cooperating functional units, to which he gave the simple names “System 1” and “System 2”.  Now, in this continuation post, we’ll move on to another highly regarded social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, and dip into his recent book The Righteous Mind to consider his views on our divided minds.

In contrast to Kahneman, whose focus is on the individual’s decision-making process, Haidt focuses on the individual’s opinion-forming process.  And, as he signals with the subtitle he has given to his book (“Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”), his attention is focused on the most polarizing opinions we can form.  Most of us all too easily lose our composure in the face of either a political sentiment or a religious conviction that differs strongly from our own.  Haidt wants to help us better understand why this is so, in the hope that by understanding the phenomenon a little better, we might begin to understand those we disagree with a little better as well.

Also in contrast to Kahneman, Haidt gives us a much more colorful pair of labels for his proposed dual components of the mind – “the rider” and “the elephant”.  Here is his description of how these two parts interact:

I call these two kinds of cognition the rider (controlled processes, including “reasoning-why”) and the elephant (automatic processes, including emotion, intuition, and all forms of “seeing-that”).  I chose an elephant rather than a horse because elephants are so much bigger – and smarter – than horses.  Automatic processes run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years, so they’re very good at what they do, like software that has been improved through thousands of product cycles.  When human beings evolved the capacity for language and reasoning at some point in the last million years, the brain did not rewire itself to hand over the reins to a new and inexperienced charioteer.  Rather, the rider (language-based reasoning) evolved because it did something useful for the elephant.

The rider can do several useful things.  It can see further into the future (because we can examine alternative scenarios in our heads) and therefore it can help the elephant make better decisions in the present.  It can learn new skills and master new technologies, which can be deployed to help the elephant reach its goals and sidestep disasters.  And, most important, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking.  The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.  

The model [is one] in which intuition is the main cause of moral judgment, and then reasoning typically follows that judgment to construct post hoc justifications.  Reason is the servant of the intuitions.  The rider was put there in the first place to serve the elephant.  {pp. 53-54, softcover edition}

In a number of ways, Haidt’s model aligns well with Kahneman’s.  If we superimpose “the rider” over “system 2” and “the elephant” over “system 1”, we will find many consistencies.  For example, with regard to the first two of the useful things Haidt claims the rider can do – examining alternate courses of action and learning new skills – both are excellent examples of what Kahneman calls system 2 slow thinking.  And as another example, where Kahneman refers to system 2 as lazy and hence always eager to hand back control to the energetic system 1, Haidt’s metaphor makes it abundantly clear that the puny rider (system 2) is simply not as powerful as the mammoth elephant (system 1).  For Kahneman it’s lack of comparable energy, for Haidt it’s lack of comparable strength, but whichever term you prefer – system 1 fast thinking or the intuitive elephant – that’s what holds the upper hand.  Kahneman flatly declares that system 1 is running the show; Haidt says with equal bluntness, the elephant rules.

While these conceptual similarities make us comfortable with both theories, there is something a little unsettling about the way Haidt characterizes the two parts of the mind.  It offends our notion of human dignity to imagine ourselves as being controlled by an unruly elephant within, while there is hardly anything at all offensive in recognizing ourselves as under the influence of a neutral entity called “system 1”.

It’s this unsettling effect it has on us that gives Haidt’s terminology its effectiveness.  He wants us to feel that elephant underneath us, not just to know that it’s there.  We understand the difference between system 1 and system 2 in our head, but we feel the difference between the rider and the elephant in our gut.

Feelings are the critical component here.  Remember that Haidt’s interest is in understanding how we form opinions – in particular, how we form our moral opinions, our views on what’s right and what’s wrong.  And he is unequivocal in asserting that it’s our elephant that decides between right and wrong – instantaneously and intuitively.  Our rider rationalizes as best it can, often clumsily and inarticulately, and always after the fact, what the elephant decided without hesitation.

In short, Haidt is asserting that our moral opinions spring entirely from our instinctive, inborn feelings.  The reasons we come up with to explain these feelings are nothing more than our best attempts at justifying our views to others.  Haidt cites numerous cross-cultural studies and social psychology experiments in support of his assertion.  I won’t recount any of them here, but I will vouch for nearly every one of them as being thought-provoking, entertaining, and sometimes even a bit upsetting.  So, if you’re interested in more details, I encourage you to read his book.  You will not be disappointed.

My interest here is in exploring how we can use Haidt’s ideas about the roots of our moral behavior to become more mindful in the ways we engage with others, especially when it comes to politically or religiously charged topics where thoughtful conversation so often breaks down into emotional ranting and raving.

To begin with, we can keep in mind that one thing we all have in common is that we all have “divided minds”.  If we accept that each of us is a rider on an elephant, then we should be able to agree with the following four assertions:

1. Our own convictions about any moral issue – political, religious, or otherwise – arise from deep-seated feelings that we have little control over.

2. The same goes for the convictions held by others.  Whether we agree with them or disagree with them, their convictions are also arising from deep-seated feelings that they have little control over.

3. Much of what we say by way of explaining our convictions is based upon our compelling need to justify ourselves to others.

4. The same goes for everyone else.  They too have the same compelling need to justify themselves to us.

While it’s possible to read these four statements as an argument that the possibility of authentic communication between my self-justifying rider and yours is all but hopeless, I think there is an opening above, in point #3, for mindfulness to make a difference.

If we have the capacity to understand that much of what we say by way of explaining our convictions is based upon our compelling need to justify ourselves to others, then we also have the capacity to exercise the option of simply of not saying it.

At least, not right away.

Not until we have paused long enough for two things to occur.  First, pause long enough to be certain that we have truly heard and understood what the other person is saying.  Second, pause long enough to be certain that what we are about to say is as free from self-justification as we can possibly render it.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey argued that such a pause allows us to move from reacting to responding.  Applying this insight to what we’ve been learning from Haidt, we might say that such a pause creates an opening for the rider to respond before the elephant can react.  The elephant may always be stronger, but the rider can sometimes be smarter.

One way we can train the rider in us to be smarter than our elephant is to cultivate mindful awareness.  If we are not paying attention, the elephant will always get its way.  We have to be aware enough that we will remember in the moment that we need to pause in order to respond instead of react.

And of course, one way to cultivate mindful awareness is to practice meditation.  Especially vipassana meditation, where we focus our attention on the continuous stream of thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind as we are sitting in stillness.  What better way to become more aware of all the ego-centered, self-justifying opinions we cling to?

With such increased awareness, we can become more skillful at pausing, at keeping our elephants in check, at letting go of some of our self-justifications, and at responding to others instead of reacting to them.

The concluding paragraphs for this post come from Jonathan Haidt’s moving exhortation to his readers on the last page of The Righteous Mind ….

This book explained why people are divided by politics and religion.  The answer is not because some people are good and others are evil.  Instead, the explanation is that our minds were designed for groupish righteousness.  We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning.  This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.

So the next time you find yourself seated beside someone from another matrix, give it a try.  Don’t just jump right in. Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or in some other way established a bit of trust.  And when you do bring up issues of morality, try to start with some praise, or with a sincere expression of interest.

We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.                                      {pp. 370-371, softcover edition}


You can read the New York Times book review of The Righteous Mind that got me interested in Jonathan Haidt’s work here

And you can find lots more reading and viewing materials on his work here.







About Tom Cummings

I've been a political liberal for the past fifty years, and a committed secular Buddhist for the last ten. As I move forward with my personal practice of Buddhism, and as I take note of the increasingly tribalistic "us-against-them" tenor of political discourse in countries across the globe (most notably here in my own United States), I appreciate more and more how much these two worthy traditions - liberalism and Buddhism - share in common. My intention in writing this blog is to provide a forum for the exploration of these overlapping values, and how their confluence might relate to current issues affecting American citizens and the global community. Two convictions underlie the posts that will appear here: (1) Buddhism's invitation for us to embrace generosity, compassion, and wisdom offers a clear path for resolving our national and global problems effectively and humanely; and (2) liberalism, by virtue of the high value it places on the social good, is the natural home for a politically engaged and pragmatically meaningful Buddhism.
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8 Responses to Our Divided Minds – Part 2

  1. A really nice comparison of two models. I wonder which system ‘model-making’ fits into… The slow one, I fancy – the one that can step back and put Covey’s Gap (Habit One) between stimulus & response. Perhaps we need to develop a consistent view of what model we’re operating out of from moment to moment.


  2. wisreader says:

    I was aware of the book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” but not Jonathan Haidt’s. Your posts about each of these thought-provoking probes into the workings of humanity’s thought processes are certainly worth “the price of admission” here (well, actually, worth far more since there really is no price!) I know I’ll be returning again and again.


    • Tom Cummings says:

      Thanks for your kind words! It was quite surprising to me that Haidt’s book garnered so little attention, given how lucid an explanation he provides for the current state of polarization in our national politics. I’m happy to have brought him to your attention.


  3. Meredith says:

    I want to go back and re-read. This helped me understand the difficulty I experienced with someone, not the first time and not the less.


    • Tom Cummings says:

      Thanks for your comment! I’m glad to hear that this post was helpful for you. Haidt’s explanation of how our mind arrives at so many of its judgments via instinctive emotions rather than via considered reason has been very helpful for me in understanding a great many of my past experiences.


  4. nought says:

    One of the reason that Haidt’s book garnered so little attention is that Haidt has been (very very gently) bringing the scandal of his profession’s endemic political and religious bias and bigotry to the attention of his peers. The amazing thing is that he managed to not be shouted down and ostracised, which is a testament to his skill in eliciting mindfulness from his peers.

    Unfortunately, such skill is in terribly short supply, as can perhaps be see in the way I am bringing to your attention the irony of your participation in a hate campaign against “haters”. Not mindful.

    I would be surprised if you were to respond thoughtfully to this, partly because I recognise that this is not the most skillful way to present this. Which only goes to show Haidt’s skill in getting a hearing for his ideas. I should read more of his writings.


    • Tom Cummings says:

      I certainly endorse your proposition that Haidt’s book did not receive the attention it deserved at least in part because of the objections voiced by many of his liberal-leaning peers with regard to what they perceived as his overly harsh criticism of their “righteous minds”. And I further agree with you that he was quite skillful in presenting his criticisms sensitively and effectively.

      That said, I must confess my puzzlement at your assertion that I have, ironically or not, participated in a “hate campaign against ‘haters'”. I’m as guilty as anyone else of being not mindful on occasion, but I just don’t see how that’s the case here. I’ve re-read my post three times looking for a sentence or phrase that would warrant your charge, and I cannot find one. The entire essay, from the first sentence to the last, is an unabashed tribute to the power of Haidt’s insight that we are all much-too-weak riders struggling to control our much-too-strong elephants. If you would care to point out to me what you see as the offending remark(s), please do so.

      And, even if we don’t eventually come to a point of agreement on this matter, at least I believe that we have already honored Haidt’s closing invitation to “disagree more constructively”. Thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment. I appreciate the opportunity it afforded me to revisit what I wrote, and think once more about Haidt’s powerful ideas. To echo your closing sentence, more people should read more of his writings.


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