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Moral Foundations Theory

How To Train an Elephant

The elephant can never be convinced by a rational argument to simply change its mind, but it can be trained to react to situations differently.

The Elephant represents our instincts and our intuitions, our “gut feel,” and our instant, automatic, feeling of like or dislike, approach or avoid, fight or flee.  Automatic reactions happen in the deepest parts of our brains, long before rational thought – reason – comes into the picture. This is why arguments about moral issues – and practically all religious and political issues are moral issues – can be so difficult. No rational argument, by itself, can ever “convince” the elephant to change its automatic reactions. It’s just not that simple. It is beyond the power of rational thought alone to change the elephant’s mind.

But this does not mean that all moral discussion is futile.  The elephant does hear, learn, and grow – albeit gradually – from experience, and from the lessons taught by other riders it encounters, particularly if those other riders are skilled at the art of persuasion, as, for example, Martin Luther King was.

In other words, reason works, and is important, just not the way we’d like. Reason will seldom, if ever, simply convince another elephant to switch to a whole new path, but if we use reason honestly, patiently, and persistently (again à la MLK, over a long period of time) it is possible to retrain other elephants such that they make adjustments to the path they’re on.  So if you want to win a moral argument, don’t be like the famous TV lawyer Perry Mason, be patient and persistent like Martin Luther King.

But that’s not the only way to train the elephant.  The elephant is also trained by its environment.

Recall from Haidt’s “Planet of the Durkheimians” that the second of the three parts of Moral Foundations Theory is “a developmental account of how children reach moral maturity by mastering culturally variable virtues that are related to the five foundations. … [It] posits that the foundations make it easy for children to learn some virtues and hard to learn others. When we say that the foundations are innate we do not mean that they are visible in infancy or unchanged by experience. Innate means, as Marcus puts it, “organized in advance of experience.” The genes create the first drafts of our brains, but experience in our families and cultures then edits those drafts to produce unique individuals and divergent cultures.” (1)

In “When Morality Opposes Justice” (2) Haidt says that “a dictum of cultural psychology is that ‘culture and psyche make each other up.’”  He says that Moral Foundations Theory “is about both directions of this causal process.  Virtues are cultural constructions, and children develop different virtues in different cultures and historical eras.”  He says “Cultures select areas of human potential that fit with their social structure, economic system, and cultural traditions, and adults work to cultivate these virtues in their children.” 

The elephant is trained to walk a certain path through direct teaching of children by adults, and by the persistent, insistent, subtle and not so subtle, messages that are sent and reinforced by the cultural environment in which it is immersed.   In other words, the elephant is trained, in part, by “nurture.” 

Chip Heath and Dan Heath describe this concept beautifully in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture – to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in. We all want to wear the right clothes, to say the right things, to frequent the right places. Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious, sometimes in surprising ways.

One of the subtle ways in which our environment acts on us is by reinforcing (or deterring) our habits..

When we think about habits, most of the time we’re thinking about the bad ones: biting our fingernails, procrastinating, eating sweets when we’re anxious, and so on. But of course we also have plenty of good habits: jogging, praying, brushing our teeth. Why are habits so important? They are, in essence, behavioral autopilot. They allow lots of good behaviors to happen without the Rider taking charge. Remember that the Rider’s self-control is exhaustible, so it’s a huge plus if some positive things can happen “free” on autopilot..

To change yourself or other people, you’ve got to change habits. … This makes sense – our habits are essentially stitched into our environment. Research bears this out. According to one study of people making changes in their lives, 36 percent of the successful changes were associated with a move to a new location, and only 13 percent of unsuccessful changes involved a move.

[For more on this also see books like Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, and Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness]

But there’s another part too, because certain personality traits correlate fairly well with liberalism and others with conservatism, and so whether each of us “turns out” to be liberal or conservative is, to some degree at least, in our genes.  For example, children who tend to be curious, and who tend to move toward new and different things, often tend to become liberal later in life.  Children who tend to be cautious and shy away from unfamiliar things tend to be conservative.  (3)  Morality also depends on “nature;” to a certain extent, we’re born to be who we are.    



(1)  Haidt,  J., & Graham, J. (2009). Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality. In J. Jost, A. C. Kay, & H. Thorisdottir (Eds.), Social and Psychological Bases  of Ideology and System Justification.  Available on the Publications page at MoralFoundations.org

(2) Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007).  When  morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social  Justice Research, 20, 98-116.  Available on the Publications page at MoralFoundations.org

(3) Haidt discusses this at around the 1:27:30 mark of this video of a talk he gave called “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege.”


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