Have you ever made the mistake of trying to change someone’s opinion on Twitter, Facebook, or a blog comment? It’s a crazy trap that so many of us have fallen into. We lay out our best arguments only to be attacked, yelled down, and misunderstood. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to get sucked into responding, which only makes matters worse.
Why is this? Why is it so impossible to dialogue and persuade?
Jonathan Haidt gives a compelling piece of the answer in his book The Righteous Mind. If you have the time, this book is worth reading. Haidt is a great writer. His concepts are convincing and the studies he interacts with are fascinating.
Here’s Haidt’s overall contention: Judgment and justification are separate processes. It’s that simple. That’s a profound statement, but I know it’s confusing. Read the book, but I’ll unpack that a little bit.
We all think we make moral judgments (what’s good, what’s bad) on the basis of carefully considered arguments. In other words, we THINK that we begin with reason and end by making a judgment. But Haidt contends that the exact opposite is true. What happens in reality, he says, is that we make a moral judgment almost instantly, and then we employ our reasoning skills to justify the judgment we’ve already made.
Perhaps that sounds exactly right to you. It explains the “confirmation bias” we all have trouble escaping. I find it extremely helpful in explaining my own actions and those I observe in others. But if you need more convincing or explaining, keep reading.
Haidt describes a study done by Alexander Todorov in which he flashed the images of two faces on a screen in front of subjects who were unfamiliar with those faces. The subjects were then asked which person seemed more competent. What Todorov did not tell the subjects is that the two faces were opponents in senatorial and gubernatorial races. 70% of the time, the candidate that subjects deemed more competent (a judgment they made in seconds) also went on to win the election.“We think we begin with reason and end by making a judgment. But Haidt contends that the opposite is true: We make an instant moral judgment, then we employ reason to justify the judgment we’ve already made.”
What’s going on here? The participants in this study couldn’t determine anything about the person’s positions, character, beliefs, etc. But they did what people do: they made a snap judgment that determined whether or not they thought that person was competent. And their choice was America’s choice most of the time! The implication is that as much as we believe we’re weighing a candidate’s positions and character, we’re usually just voting for the person we’re predisposed to like (a decision we make instantly).
But once we’ve made a snap judgment, we instantly begin employing our reasoning to explain why we made that choice.
Haidt refers to this process as “the intuitive dog and its irrational tale.” We decide intuitively, then our mental faculties kick in to provide that rationality (which Haidt says is so unlike “rationality” as we think of it that it’s more like irrationality). He puts it more plainly by saying, “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”
Our reasoning is less like a philosopher that employs wisdom to decide where we should go and more like a press secretary who has to stand before the world and explain the President’s policy decisions—decisions which she had no role in developing.
Is there any hope, then? Are we all just locked into our own intuitions, completely unable to dialogue or help each other act in wisdom rather than pure intuition?
Haidst sees hope in other studies which show that when a subject is given time to reflect, their rational faculties play a larger role in shaping their judgments. Do you see the implication there?
When we allow ourselves to respond quickly, we’re basing it all on unreasoned intuition. When we slow down enough to reflect, weigh, and consider, we give our rationality a seat at the table in deciding what we should do.
Unfortunately, most of our decisions are made quickly. Our opinions of people are formed in seconds. Our consideration of candidates and character and theological positions are more knee-jerk reactions than carefully weighed conclusions. So we rarely give ourselves a chance to slow down and form a healthy opinion. We just listen to the news station our tribe has taught us to tune into.
The truth is, you’ve already written this entire blog off, or you’ve immediately accepted it. You knew what you thought about it pretty early on. And that’s okay. But it helps to understand the process. And when we recognize the (ir)rational tale being wagged by the intuitive dog, we can choose to slow down. To engage in dialogue. To do some research or ask some questions or—what’s best—get to know some real people. Maybe then we can all have some constructive dialogue about the things that matter.