Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Righteous Mind (Part 1?) Lemonade, Blackbirds, and mental programming

I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs. -Joseph Addison, essayist and poet (1672-1719) 

I am in love with this book:  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. Pantheon Books, 2012.

[For once I wish I hadn't got it on the Kindle, because I am marking it up like crazy (and it would be nice to be able to vary the desecration with highlighters, double underlining, etc -- options that aren't possible with an e-book). Besides, the pictures aren't that great on a reading device, and sometimes I have kinesthetic longings to see and touch the bigger structure of the book than can be displayed an e-page at a time. This book is essential equipoise reading and has changed my perspective on humanity, life, and all that stuff. And, my Kindle tells me, I'm only 35% of the way through it. That's why I've hinted that this may just be the first of several blog entries on this book.] [Late addition: It's not just my imagination -- there IS something about a physical book that makes its content sink in better than reading something on a reading device or a computer screen, science is now finding!]

Haidt (rhymes with 'Light' not 'Late') begins with the idea that our minds, fundamentally, are propelled not by logic or reason, but by emotions, intuitions, and the instinctive judgments we make many milliseconds before our rational brains have even started their deliberations. The research that undergirds this is fascinating, ingenious, and its description worked magically to make me trust Haidt  at a gut level, many pages before my rational brain was on-side.

One of Haidt's ways of making the arguments memorable is a poet's trick: He gives us a strong image  personifying the abstract concept. The first of these images, capturing this idea of the dominant emotional/intuitive brain, is an elephant with a human rider. In this model, our gut reactions are like the 10-ton beast being "driven" by a puny 10-stone person. The "control" exerted by the elephant-driver is laughable. Basically, the rider is going to go where the elephant chooses. Our logical brains, Haidt says, are also like "inner lawyers," or "inner public relations departments," finding good justifications for the snap decisions we have already made.

Haidt is a professor of social psychology. His interests in the book range into philosophy, anthropology, and, as the subtitle suggests, religion and politics. But the book's concepts could equally well be aimed at many other questions and aspects of life -- a rich source of Ph.D. theses for decades to come: "The Moral Psychology of characters in the poetry of Robert Frost." "The Moral Psychology of the Women's Movement." "Evolutionary foundations for the interplay of sexual attraction and moral disgust." "Poetry as a Confounder of Moral Psychology." But I'm also hoping to see (later in the book? In subsequent treatises?) the relationship of Haidt's ideas to older brands of psychology and newer frontiers of neuroscience. How do the elephant and rider relate to Freud's ego and id, or the right-brain left-brain dichotomy, for example?

For people like scientists and lawyers, who pride themselves on being guided by reason, evidence, and logic, the prospect that--like everyone else--we're just following our instincts (then dressing them up in the posh clothes of logic) could be rather depressing. But I'm hoping some hope will emerge later in the book. For example, perhaps the rider can work very hard to train the elephant to be responsive to commands, rather than its own will. Or perhaps the rider can learn tricks to assure the elephant will just naturally follow a desired course.

Afterall, in experiments that show the power of the subconscious mind to overwhelm reason, scientists can trick people into making a non-rational judgments by flashing an emotion-laden word or image extremely briefly before the judgment. The subconscious brain takes in this prompting, propelling the emotional brain in one direction without the slow-reacting senses even knowing what's gone down. Just then the experimenters ask for a judgement. The response is very likely to be dictated by the subconscious emotional propulsion.

Except when it isn't. And clearly some people in the experiments ARE able to hit the mental "PAUSE" button -- able to recognize or induce an equipoise moment -- the equipause??? -- and ask themselves what's going on? I feel this, I know that; let's go with what we know and want to believe rather than what we're feeling at the moment...

Haidt says in his book that one way to achieve truly rational decision-making is via genuinely honest, and open exchange of ideas with non-like-minded people. This is what Haidt mentioned in an infuriatingly short interview one morning on BBC Radio-4's Morning Show last month. Sadly, discussions of politics and religion are so polemic these days, that environments for such discussions between non-like minded people may not exist any more.

Could this ever be a do-it-yourself proposition? How would an "equipause" be intentionally invoked by a strong-minded elephant-driver? Isn't that actually one goal of positive psychology -- to help us use our logical brains to program against negative emotionally-driven decisions in favor of positive emotionally-driven decisions? And would it be possible for people to use the experimenters' tool of subliminal programming or other devices to redirect our emotions?

Thus we come to lemons and cherries. Consider the adage: if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or the quote I start with--older but in a similar vein.  Perhaps in Haidt's moral psychology-speak, the lemons and cherries mindset is akin to our inner lawyers telling us that we really did want lemonade and blackbird singing rather than cherries -- redefining what might be an unfortunate direction on the elephant ride of life to enjoy the experience. There's some joy and cheering sense of control in that.

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