The New York Times Sunday Book Review reported on Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” (Pantheon Books) which explores the challenge of persuasion. Haidt’s goal is to enhance political discourse by encouraging two sides of the debate – liberals and conservatives – to hear one another, but the book holds important insights for all of us engaged in using PR or communications techniques to convince audiences to move from an entrenched position.
Haidt asks the perennial question: “Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason?” and his answer leads to some surprising conclusions. He argues – very persuasively I might add – that we were never designed to listen to reason. The research shows that particularly when facing moral questions, people reach their conclusions quickly and then scan their brains to marshal arguments that defend their position, producing reasons later only to justify what they have already decided. The Internet has only exacerbated this by offering people a whole new tool with which to research supporting arguments!
According to the review, Haidt posits that reason is not impartial. It doesn’t act like a judge or teacher, weighing and evaluating evidence. It acts more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgements to others. In this interpretation, reason evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn. Therefore, if you want to change people’s minds, the suggestion is that there is no point in appealing to reason. We have to address the underlying intuitions or emotions that lead to the conclusions that reason defends.
Haidt asserts something we all know: we are not very good at challenging our own beliefs, but we are REALLY good at challenging what other people think. The fact that Haidt has written this book, suggests that he does believe in the power of reason, but that the reasoning has to engage in interaction. We need to create environments that lead to sympathetic conclusions.
While Haidt’s goals are political enlightenment – there is something here for all of us engaged in the process of persuasion from the introduction of a new product to the resolution of a contentious social issue. We have to begin with the basic intuitive or emotional response and build our arguments to defend it – not the other way round. My copy of “The Righteous Mind” has just arrived and I can’t wait to dive in - I am going to try to set aside my predispositions and listen to Haidt’s conclusions!