If I Could Parlay With Pachyderms

 In Books, Community, Culture, Fred's Blog, Friendship, People, Teaching

How many times have we heard the phrase, “Come, let us reason together”? Like many, I’ve thought if only we could sit down and be rational about our differences, we could come to a reasonable understanding. After all, we are mature adults, right? We all want what is best. Well, it turns out that reasoning out our differences is a very small part of coming to understand what they are and how we resolve them without violence.

In Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Righteous Mind” he expands on a metaphor he first used in an earlier book, “The Happiness Hypothesis.” Each of us is two parts – our intuition and our reasoning. Intuition is not the same as emotion or hunches. Instead, “intuition is the best word to describe the dozens or hundreds of rapid, effortless moral judgments and decisions that we all make every day.” Our intuition is something like our autonomic nervous system. We breathe without thinking about it but that does not make it “emotional.” It is simply the part of us that takes care of thousands of decisions automatically. Reasoning requires us to pause and consider.  We weigh the options. In some ways, our intuitions are shortcuts we use to make decisions when thinking through everything deliberately would overwhelm us.

Haidt labels these two kinds of activities as the elephant (our automatic responses) and the rider (our reasoning). One is not divorced from or opposite the other. They are complementary. The elephant is far larger than the rider but their relationship is critical. “The rider can do several useful things. It can see further into the future and therefore it can help the elephant make better decisions for the present. It can learn new skills and master new technologies, which can be deployed to help the elephant reach its goals and sidestep disasters. And, most important, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking…Reason is the servant of the intuitions. The rider was put there in the first place to serve the elephant.” A skilled and sensitive rider can guide the powerful intuitions. A much larger elephant under the guidance of the comparatively small rider can be enormously productive. However, many of our quick decisions about important issues come from the elephant underneath without guidance from the rider. In fact, we know that often in spite of the compelling evidence to the contrary we will find reasons to believe even more stubbornly what beliefs and opinions have been challenged. We are actually less likely to change and more disposed to believe even more strongly. We call that cognitive bias and it means the elephant is in charge. It means the shortcuts have become so ingrained that we no longer have the capacity to make revised decisions about new facts and situations. We dig in.

I’ve been thinking about this because I have believed the path to resolving our destructive partisanship is somehow finding ways to engage in civil and reasonable discourse. Why do we allow our differences to divide us to the point we demonize anyone who disagrees in the slightest? Well, here is what Haidt contends. “The elephant is far more powerful than the rider.” It seems our shortcuts and built up biases have tossed off the rider and the elephant has gone rogue.

Can anything be done? Yes, and that is the encouraging news for me. When does the elephant listen to reason? “The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs. When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. The elephant leans away from the opponent, and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges. But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments. The elephant may not often change its direction in response to objections from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants.”

Here is the thing to think about after everything else: “If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.”

How simple! How elegant and obvious. It’s not really a matter of reasoning alone. It is a matter of learning, like Dr. Doolittle, to talk to elephants.

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