Bill Moyers discusses America’s cultural divide with Jonathan Haidt

February 5, 2012 | By | 9 Replies More

From Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers discusses our contentious culture with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Here is my summary of the above excellent conversation, in which Haidt offers a roadmap for those of us weary from years of unproductive cultural clashes:

Jonathan Haidt Explains Our Contentious Culture from on Vimeo.

Groupish tribalism is generally a good thing because it ramps up cooperation among those in the ingroup while animosity toward outsiders is usually minimal. But tribalism evolved for purposes of “war,” so that when a certain intensity is reached,

a switch is flipped–the other side is evil. They are not just our opponents. They are evil. And once you think they are evil, the ends justify the means and you can break laws and you can do anything because it is in service of fighting evil.

(min 4:30). Haidt argues that though “morality” often makes us do things we think of as good, it also makes us do things we think of as bad. In the end, we are all born to be hypocrites. Repeated studies have shown that all of us lie and cheat when we can get away with it, and we justify whatever we do in our own minds.  Our minds didn’t evolve simply to allow to know the truth. In social settings, our minds are not designed to really let us know who did what to whom. “They are finely tuned navigational machines to work through a complicated social network in which you’ve got to maintain your alliances and reputation. And as Machiavelli told us long ago, it matters far more what people think of you than what the reality is.  We are experts at manipulating our self-presentation; we are so good at it that we believe the nonsense we say to other people.”

Haidt designated the date on which the political parties in the United States ceased cooperating with each other: It was the date Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. (min 7:30). That was the first step of a “purifying” of the political parties (you can’t find liberal Republicans, as you could in the past).  This purification has gone so far that members of one party now characterize members of the other party as “evil.” This problem was aggravated by the appearance of baby boomers, who replaced the “greatest generation” (those who fought WWII). The Boomers, who are more prone to Manichean thinking, have been fighting each other (rather than fighting a common enemy) over who is “evil.” (min 10). Third, America has become a nation of self-segregating “life-style enclaves,” homogeneous groups that watch their own TV shows and visit their own websites.  Modern American groups do not invite connections with other groups. (min 15). Each side “lives in a separate moral universe with its own facts, its own experts, and there is no way to get into the other Matrix–you can’t just throw arguments and scientific studies at them . . . ”  We all feel like we are living in “reality,” whereas THEY are in La-La Land. But we’re all in La-La Land. If you are part of a partisan community . . . or part of any community that has come together to pursue moral ends, you are in a moral matrix.”

Since I first commented on Haidt’s theory of moral foundations, he has added a sixth foundation to his original five foundations, Liberty (see his explanation, starting at min 17).  More on that the addition of Liberty here.

How can America break out of its culture wars?   The solution is to start with the assumption that those who disagree with you are not crazy (e.g., stupid, racist or greedy).  A fruitful approach would be to examine Haidt’s work on the moral foundations to see why different-others are taking the positions they are taking. Haidt is hoping that his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, will serve as a “decoding manual” to stop warring and to begin working together again, as Democrats and Republicans sometimes used to do (min 20).

Conservatives resist the redistributist policy proposals of the left due to “Karma.” They see these ideas as evil because they reward failure and incompetence.

Moyers asked Haidt whether there is a “reality” beyond the positions of the left and right. (min 23). Haidt suggests that there are more productive ways of dealing with America’s challenges, but argues that the political left has failed to carefully hone its message and is thus losing the political battle. The political left should be advocating that the free market is like a garden, which requires some tending; they should be taking a position on what the free market is, why it is good and the ways to make it function better.  Even Adam Smith argued that regulation is necessary to prevent externalities and monopolies.

Haidt, who once considered himself to be a “liberal” has come to think that “conservative intellectuals are more in tune with human nature than liberal intellectuals.  Conservative intellectuals have a “more accurate” view of human nature. “We need structure, we need families, we need groups. It’s OK to have memberships and rivalries. All that stuff is OK unless it crosses the threshold into Manicheanism. It would be very difficult to run society without resting much on loyalty, authority and sanctity.” (25:27). Moyers countered by suggesting that liberals are more in touch with social structures–they understand cooperation better than conservatives. Haidt responded:

Cooperation and competition are opposite sides of the same coin. And we’ve gotten this far because we cooperate to compete. So you can say that liberals are more accurate or in touch with how the system works, but I would say that they are more in touch with some aspects of how systems go awry and oppress some people and ignore other people. Liberals see some aspects of how the social system breaks down, and conservatives see others. You have to have consequences following bad behavior. That is as basic an aspect of system design as any. And that is where conservatives see it much more clearly than liberals. I’m a centrist in terms of liberal-conservative, and I feel like I’ve sort of stepped out of the game.  Now that the game has gotten so deadly, I’m hoping that in the coming year I can be the guy saying ‘Come on, people.  Understand the other side so that you stop demonizing and now you can argue more productively.”

Image of Jonathan Haidt from Moyers and Company

Moyers: How do we do that when one side has a great advantage in demonizing the other side (Moyers mentioned Newt Gingrich)? (min 27). Haidt responds: Demonizing one side makes the other side stronger, but it weakens the country as a whole. Democrats are not good moral psychologists. They treat constituents as consumers. Come, let us sell you things. “We have a deal for you.” Democrats don’t understand that:

“Politics is religion. Politics is about sacredness. It is about binding the nation together in a way that will achieve greatness, and the Republicans since Ronald Reagan have been really good at that.”

It can also blind the entire tribe. (min 29).

“We are clueless and hypocritical about ourselves. We’re actually moderately accurate in our predictions about other people. Our blindness is about ourselves.” We are also insatiable in our desire to know what others think about us. We all cheat when we can get away with it (even moral philosophers), regardless of our beliefs that we all abide by our own infallible moral compass. One study showed that ethics books (the kind most ofter used by moral philosophers) are less likely to be returned to university libraries than other types of books. Instead of being experts on being moral, moral philosophers appear to be experts at justifying what they want to do (min 31). We also have little press secretaries in our minds, constantly running to justify what we have done. We lie, cheat and justify so well that we actually believe that we are honest. “Everybody believes that they are above average in honesty.”

The confirmation bias dominates our individual internal thought process: “Reasoning and Google will take you wherever you want to go.” We do our research much as a lawyer would do. It is not even-handed, and we can believe almost anything that supports our team. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason.”  Reason is much better at confirming what we want to believe than at finding the truth. “We’re really good lawyers.”

The idea of the sacred is an important marker: “Wherever people sacralize something, there you will find ignorance, blindness to the truth and resistance to evidence.” Individual reasoning “is post hoc and justificatory; individual reasoning is not reliable because of the confirmation bias. The only cure for the confirmation bias is other people. So, if you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, or institutions to preserve, they can challenge each others’ reason. And this is the way the scientific world is designed to work . . .”  Truth emerges when we challenge each others’ confirmation bias. Haidt suggests that the Christians have it right when they suggest that we need to come together to reason, and to be more modest about reason. Today’s “Apostles of Reason” are anything but modest. Science has shown that individuals cannot reason well. “Wisdom comes out of a group of people well constituted who have some faith or trust in each other. That’s what our political institutions used to do but don’t do anymore.” (min 36).

If you want to understand America, Haidt suggests that we “follow the sacred.” Both political parties are blind to evidence around their [own] sacred commitments.” A Republican sacred topic is taxation–it sees the government as doing evil by propping up cheaters, slackers and losers. A Democratic sacred topic is coming to the rescue of victims. (min 40).

At minute 42, Haidt points out that Ron Paul’s response regarding the hypothetical fellow who decided to not buy insurance, but then had a desperate need for major medical treatment is actually “Aesop’s fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper.” Aesop meant that if you are lazy and don’t take care of yourself, you will (and should) die. The problem is that people on the left have not properly developed a clear story about what is the proper role of government regarding the safety net.

Haidt believes that we are in big trouble regarding our difficulty talking with one another, but there is hope.  We’ve changed our attitudes about smoking in public and sexual harassment over the decades. Haidt suggests that we also moralize against two things:

A) Demonization. You can disagree all you want, but we need to avoid the language of demonization.

B) Corruption. We need to develop a massive groundswell of revulsion that Congress is bought and paid for.



Category: cognitive biases, Ingroup/Outgroup, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. Xtech says:

    I increasingly find these labels liberal and conservative useless. They mean different things to different people and serve no useful function – but they are handy for demagogues.

    I am also beginning to find some issues with Haidt’s conclusions. Perhaps in the media context, we live in “a separate moral universe” but I, like most of us, have co-workers and family that are all over the spectrum of beliefs. By Jonathan Haidt’s own website’s morality tests ( – go try it out! I have completed almost all of them), I am a mixture of liberal and conservative, depending upon the issue and the situation – like just about everybody.

    Our two party political system has a large role in creating this artificial polarization. The extremes tend to be highly motived but the moderate middle is less engaged – something that could potentially be addressed were all citizens required to vote, like in Australia and many other countries. We would then likely have much more productive dialogue and less need to sharply, and artificially define ourselves as one extreme or the other.

    I am sure there’ll be more to say once I finish watching the video, and thanks for posting it.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Xtech: I’m still digesting Haidt’s talk too. I like your point that perhaps he is focusing hard on the public perception of the culture clash, and perhaps this clash is revved up by the news media to get us all riled and keep us glued to the TV so they can sell commercials.

      Haidt brings up the metaphor of the free market as a garden that needs tending. Same thing for democracy, it would seem. It will not work where most of the citizens are uninformed and reluctant to participate. I’m intrigued by your information that some countries require the citizens to vote. That would seem to address have of the problem, but how do you make sure that these voters are informed? Then again, dragging the reluctant middle of the country back into the vote might immunize country against the extremists–it would seem that they would be more willing to vote for candidates who express the nuance and ambivalence that THEY often feel about the issues.

  2. Xtech says:

    So, is J Haidt buying into a grotesque characterization of the liberal/conservative extremes? As his own online tests reveal, one’s political tendency is much more complex and nuanced than the media version. I’ve taken almost all of the tests available. On some measures I was off the charts liberal. On some I was on the conservative side. – for example, I was higher than most liberals (I do consider myself liberal) on Harm and Fairness, but closer to conservatives on Purity, Loyalty though somewhat less so on Authority. (note: I was relieved to see I score lower than average on the Psychopathy scale). We all may feel conflict when asked about difficult moral reasoning issues – is anyone a cartoon version of liberal or conservative?

    As a glance at around the table at thanksgiving dinners and family reunions remind us, there are many flavors of political identification, and some issues motivate us greatly, others hardly at all. Though I feel I have always been ‘liberal’ on most measures, whatever exactly that means, I am feeling a bit of sympathy – though no longer schadenfreude, mind you – for my conservative brethren. The extreme right wing has louder and shriller voices than they do and lifelong Republicans are feeling regret at inviting some of these wingnuts, colorful as they might be, to the party.

    Perhaps it is more sensational and eye-catching even for a scholar such as Haidt to use extremists, such as the Tea Party and Newt Gingrich, as the definition of conservative. But he is flat out wrong to explain away partisan divisiveness and refusal to compromise as an attribute of some morality. No morality is self destructive. His use of the word ‘karma’ as a way of explaining conservative acceptance of abject poverty as one’s due (the ant and grasshopper parable) is chilling – suggesting an India-like society. That is not a road this country is willing to go down, and even the most groupish conservative is shown to be generous* to their preferred charity. (*see Brooks’ study and note this is also not a perfectly clear picture either)

    What I did find compelling is Haidts assertion that we all are blinded by our confirmation bias, this writer included, of course. That Google and the internet in general has enabled and encouraged us to crowd into our own little echo chambers is perhaps the most important reason our political discourse has deteriorated to the point where the political system is non-functional. More so than any inborn or cultural tendencies of ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ the constant positive feedback loops of our media (internet as well as TV etc) choices separate and divide us. It is this rather than a moral stance that allows demonizing and refusal to compromise with the forces of ‘evil’ (his example of Boehner who could not even bring himself to use the word compromise)?

    “Conservative intellectuals actually are more in touch with human nature” may be true, in the sense that our human nature is groupish and warlike. This is descriptive and perhaps an historical view. I can think of no reason why these aspects of human nature should necessarily be nurtured any more than other less than optimal aspects of human nature (rape; xenophobia). If liberals are characterized as willing to override our group loyalty, authority, etc tendencies in favor of fairness to larger society, is that not an improvement for us all?

  3. Xtech says:

    I do wonder about this tendency to polarize, that things tend to be either/or. All of us realize that it ain’t necessarily so, but I suspect it is a valuable heuristic for us to personalize the world. For example, let’s say two people are engaged in some sort of verbal exchange. One may hold an opinion, and yet the other person’s opinion differs. So then relative to first person (call this person ‘me’), the other’s opinion becomes ‘not me.’ This reminds me of a stage in a child’s development that occurs around age 2, when the child begins to differentiate between himself and his mother. This is an important psychological step in identifying the ‘self.’

    In a similar way, we relate the world outside of our self. ‘Up’ becomes anything over our head. Yet ‘up’ of course is not ‘up’ to the person observing this scene from the 21st floor of an office building. Or to a person in the space station; in fact the earthbound person’s ‘up’ looks quite ‘down’ to the astronaut. (Check out George Lakoff for interesting work on this subject of thinking in metaphors that relate to our bodies).

    My point is that our two party system structurally lends itself to this intuitive, and yes, Mannichean thinking. Between the limited choices of Republican and Democrat, (or, very crudely, conservative and liberal) and an innate tendency to separate into self/non-self (or more extremely us/them) we have got a much harder time acknowledging all the shades of grey, no to mention rainbow hues. Like the two people in conversation I started this essay with, if a third and a fourth view were added to the mix, perhaps some real work towards understanding could be done. (See the fascinating work of Hugo Mercier on Argumentative Theory of Reason). A group has a better chance of overcoming any individual’s confirmation bias; this is how peer-reviewed science works.

    So I claim that our two party political system corresponds in a dangerous way to a psychological tendency to over-categorize.

    If we had a diversity of opinion represented in our political process, rather than the platforms of only two parties, perhaps we could similarly not only come to better decisions about governing our country, maybe we could reach better understanding of those who are ‘not self’ or ‘other.’ 🙂

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Xtech: Good points. How about this example. Whenever I’m watching a movie, I tend to empathize with the protagonist that is handed to me, and quite often unjustifiably so. It seems that we are set up in a gestalt-like way. Whatever is the good and proper way (or person), anything (anyone) else is bad/improper. I’m always in my in-group, and everyone else gets harshly judged as an outsider. I agree with you that America would be a LOT better off with more than two political parties. We unofficially have that right now, with Ron Paul making so much sense (re foreign policy) among the other GOP candidates, all of whom are unflinchingly warmongering. If only we could always have a few extra candidates who spoke out in gadfly fashion to keep the two traditional parties more honest (or who knows, maybe they would win the entire election). BTW, isn’t it interesting that political parties are never mentioned in the U.S. Constitution?

      And yeah, I agree that Lakoff/Johnson have numerous valuable things to add to this topic of embodied thinking. I’m currently working my way through Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (2008), which continues the discussion started by Lakoff/Johnson way back in 1979 (I believe that’s the year it first came out), with Metaphors We Live By.

  4. Xtech says:

    Oh and I totally agree with Haidt when he says the system is broken, or rather than one party in the system is broken 🙂 Uncompromising ideological rigidity on the part of the Republicans is a kind of blackmail. It reminds me of this story:

    Two kids make a cake together. One kid says to the other, “We have both made this cake together, so we should share the cake 50/50.” The other child replies, “No, you get no cake. It all goes to me.” The first says, “That’s not fair!” to which the second responds, “Tough.” “Lets… get an adult,” the first suggests. “A grown up would know what to do.” They go to their mother, who listens to their points of view, and then pontificates: “One of you wants to share the cake evenly. The other wants to take all of the cake for himself. Its best if you compromise. Give him 75% of the cake.”

    But here is an interesting contrasting view on this perception:

    “Dan Kahan – The Great Ideological Asymmetry Debate
    So who’s right, factually, about politics and science? Who speaks truth, and who’s just spinning?”

    from an excellent Point of Inquiry podcast

    Kahan makes the point that the left is just as ideologically motivated as the right. I don’t see that as the case currently, though of course there are many examples of such in the past. Of course, that may be my conformation bias at work.

    • Erich Vieth says:


      Good cake story to illustrate pre-compromise. The confirmation bias is so incredibly powerful that Haidt would say all of us are warped by it and completely oblivious to it–we need each other to point out our errors. You mentioned it at the end of your post. Perhaps it would be good intellectual hygiene to mention the confirmation bias at the end of everything we write (as I have just done!).

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