Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, has delved into the tribal world of politics, where each group is obsessed with its own rightness. But self-righteousness, he says, is an essential part of being human.
You've called Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich a very good moral psychologist. What do you mean?
Gingrich is very skilled at manipulating moral sentiments. He understands visceral morality. In the 1990s, he came up with a list of words Republicans should use when talking about Democrats, including "dirty," "sleazy," "cheating." If you talk about "a dirty idea that will bring us down into the gutter," the words are very powerful. Ronald Reagan was a skilled moral psychologist, too. In fact, for the past 30 or 40 years Republicans have known how to talk in ways that push buttons.
Are Democrats less skilled at pushing buttons?
Democrats talk about programs like social security or Medicare but it's not clear to most voters what Democrats' core moral values are.
What should they do differently?
To get folks to vote for you—and go on voting for you—you need to tap into several of their moral foundations. When Barack Obama and the Democrats were changing the health care system, couldn't they at least have put on a show of worrying about cheaters—a concern that is stronger on the right than on the left? Couldn't they have pretended to care about catching all the doctors and lawyers who are in cahoots with patients to rip off the system?
Politics doesn't sound like the typical terrain for a psychologist. How did you become involved?
I began as a cultural psychologist in the early 1990s, looking at how morality varies across nations such as Brazil, India, and the U.S. It was only in 2004 that I got interested in political ideologies and cultures, and in looking at liberals and conservatives as though they were different nations.
You argue that the key to the partisan nature of U.S. politics today is to understand the concept of "righteousness." Why is that?
In its original meaning, righteous means just, upright and virtuous. I'm using the word in a colloquial sense: self-righteous, judgmental, moralistic. I believe our minds evolved to be moralistic. This may sound lamentable, especially to those of us who think we should be less judgmental. But the evolutionary story I tell in my book is one where judgmentalism—the ability to create moral matrices and punish, shame and ostracize those who don't behave rightly—was in fact the great breakthrough. We wouldn't be talking on the phone now if we didn't have righteous minds. We'd be like chimps, brilliant individuals who are poor at cooperating and collaborating.
So cooperation, fuelled by righteousness, makes us civilized?
People have long been looking for what distinguishes us from chimps. Is it our thumbs, upright posture, language? I was very influenced by the psychologist Michael Tomasello, whose work shows that chimps are as smart as 3-year-old kids at most physical tasks. But expect them to liaise with another individual, sharing a representation of what they are doing, and chimps do poorly, while 3-year-olds are geniuses. This was the birth of what he calls "shared intentionality," which includes shared ideas about what we're trying to do, and how we should do it. This ability allows us all to judge and collectively condemn those who can't or won't play along.
Only once we could share mental representations could we do things such as divide labor so some hunt and some stay home and tend the fire, while we all share the spoils. Tomasello's experiments show that if kids pull on a string together and it gives them unequal rewards, the kids will spontaneously equalize the rewards. They have the sense that we did this together therefore we must split the spoils. Chimps don't seem to do this.
But with all this cooperation in the air, how come things go so wrong?
Morality is a basic aspect of human nature just like, say, musicality or language. Morality binds people into groups. It gives us tribalism, it gives us genocide, war, and politics. But it also gives us heroism, altruism, and sainthood. This is all part of our "groupish" nature.