Why humans are so quick to take offense, and what that means for the presidential campaign.

The state of the universe.
Oct. 17 2008 7:19 AM

Well, Excuuuuuse Meee!

Why humans are so quick to take offense, and what that means for the presidential campaign.

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Across cultures, the traditional moral disciplinarian has been religion. Many of the researchers studying the origins of human moral emotions and behaviors say religion does not create morality; it is building on pre-existing patterns. University of Cambridge scientist Robert Hinde notes in Why Gods Persist that every human society has a code of conduct, and that code is usually "legitimated, purveyed, and stabilised by the religious system." Both Hinde and Haidt warn of the dangers of believing that new research on evolutionary morality means science has made religion obsolete. Haidt writes that natural selection must have "favored the success of individuals and groups that found ways (genetic or cultural or both) to use these gods to their advantage, for example as commitment devices that enhanced cooperation, trust, and mutual aid."

Most religions offer precepts that seek to dampen our touchy, selfish side. Confucius was asked, "Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?" He replied, "It is the word 'shu'—reciprocity." Leviticus says, "Love your fellow as yourself." And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke the Golden Rule: "So in everything do unto others what you would have them do to you." But a recurring source of offense is that while people can easily live with the fact that they fall short on "doing unto others," they often find it intolerable when others are not properly doing unto them.

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Humans have superb abilities to evaluate the defects of everyone else. The glitch, Haidt says, is that we're blind to our own flaws. He points out that Jesus used this very metaphor when he said, "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." Haidt says we think that our perception of events is the objective truth, while everyone else's version is deluded by their self-interest.

It is at the intersection between the urge for cooperation and desire for self-interest that we experience so much internal turmoil and external conflict. Observing how others handle this balance has a great deal to do with how we judge their trustworthiness and their fitness. The presidential candidates present us with two stark leadership approaches: the cool, slow-to-anger reserve of Barack Obama; and the aggressive, man-of-honor style of John McCain. People instinctively weigh whether a leader who's laid back makes them worry that he won't stand up to enemies. And they consider that a hot-headed leader may be intimidating to foes, but that he also might create more of them.

Since the rest of us don't have a legion of advisers trying to help us calibrate our response to daily hostilities, is there a way for us to turn off the radar that's constantly scanning for offense? Not really. Being tuned in to the social clues around us is necessary. What we can work at is dialing down our response. Haidt advises that being aware of the forces that shaped and shape us can help us from letting them get the better of us.

"Once we're angry, irritated, we become prosecutors, and our reasoning gets hijacked by our need to build our own case," he says. So he suggests we can stop the prosecution by making even a small gesture of conciliation. We don't have to acknowledge we are wholly in the wrong, but changing our tone, conceding we shouldn't have said something, or said it in such a way, can trigger the reciprocity impulse in our opponent.

Some researchers recommend that when it comes to feeling offended, we could benefit from becoming a little bit Buddhist. Stephanie Preston, head of the University of Michigan's Ecological Neuroscience Lab, says: "The more attached you are to your sense of self, the more you see forces trying to attack that self. If you have a more Buddhist view, and are less attached to self, you are less likely to see offense."

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron illustrates this in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty. She retells the parable of a man in a boat enjoying the serenity of the river at dusk. He sees another boat coming his way and is glad that someone else is sharing his pleasure.Then he realizes the other boat is heading toward him. He starts yelling to the boatman to turn aside, but the vessel just keeps coming faster and faster. "By this time he's standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it's an empty boat. This is the classic story of our whole life situation. There are a lot of empty boats out there."

Emily Yoffe received research support for this article from a Templeton-Cambridge journalism fellowship in science and religion.