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Jost Haidt

Research psychologist John Jost reviews the recent book, “The Righteous Mind,” by research psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Some of my thoughts on Haidt’s book are here. And here’s some of Jost’s review:

Haidt’s book is creative, interesting, and provocative. . . . The book shines a new light on moral psychology and presents a bold, confrontational message. From a scientific perspective, however, I worry that his theory raises more questions than it answers. Why do some individuals feel that it is morally good (or necessary) to obey authority, favor the ingroup, and maintain purity, whereas others are skeptical? (Perhaps parenting style is relevant after all.) Why do some people think that it is morally acceptable to judge or even mistreat others such as gay or lesbian couples or, only a generation ago, interracial couples because they dislike or feel disgusted by them, whereas others do not? Why does the present generation “care about violence toward many more classes of victims today than [their] grandparents did in their time” (p. 134)? Haidt dismisses the possibility that this aspect of liberalism, which prizes universal over parochial considerations (the justice principle of impartiality), is in fact a tremendous cultural achievement—a shared victory over the limitations of our more primitive ancestral legacy. In this spirit, he spurns the John Lennon song, “Imagine”:

Imagine if there were no countries, and no religion too. If we could just erase the borders and boundaries that divide us, then the world would ‘be as one.’ It’s a vision of heaven for liberals, but conservatives believe it would quickly descend into hell. I think conservatives are on to something. (p. 311)

Throughout the book Haidt mocks the liberal vision of a tolerant, pluralistic, civil society, but, ironically, this is precisely where he wants to end up, quoting Isaiah Berlin with evident approval at the end of his book: “I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments” (p. 320).

Good point. Jost also writes:

Haidt draws sparingly on the details of contemporary research in social and political psychology, usually as a foil for his ostensibly above-the-fray approach. Consider this passage:

I began by summarizing the standard explanations that psychologists had offered for decades: Conservatives are conservative because they were raised by overly strict parents, or because they are inordinately afraid of change, novelty, and complexity, or because they suffer from existential fears and therefore cling to a simple worldview with no shades of gray. These approaches all had one feature in common: they used psychology to explain away conservatism. They made it unnecessary for liberals to take conservative ideas seriously because these ideas are caused by bad childhoods or ugly personality traits. I suggested a very different approach: start by assuming that conservatives are just as sincere as liberals, and then use Moral Foundations Theory to understand the moral matrices of both sides. (pp. 166-167)

This paragraph illustrates both the slipperiness of Haidt’s prose and the extent to which key issues are unresolved by his theory. First, there is a great deal of empirical evidence indicating that conservatives are in fact less open to change, novelty, and complexity and are more likely to perceive the world as a dangerous place than liberals (Carney et al., 2008; Gerber et al., 2010; Jost et al., 2003). Rather than attempting to grapple with these findings, which are uncomfortable for his view of political ideology, Haidt characterizes them with argumentative language ( “overly,” “inordinately,” “suffer,” “cling,” “bad childhoods,” and “ugly personality traits”) to suggest that these claims have to be false because they sound so . . . pejorative. Second, he claims that past researchers have “used psychology to explain away conservatism,” as if there is no difference between explaining something and explaining it away. Third, Haidt switches at the last moment from discussing the origins and characteristics of liberals and conservatives to the issue of sincerity, as if it were impossible to sincerely believe something that is rooted in childhood or other psychological experiences. Psychological scientists recognize that questions about the social, cognitive, and motivational underpinnings of a belief system are distinct from questions about its validity (and whether it should be taken “seriously,” which is not a scientific question at all).

Jost is arguing that Haidt has some interesting things to say but trips up when trying to insert all of this into a particular political message about liberals and conservatives.


  1. disgruntledphd says:

    The funny thing is that Jost himself is certainly guilty of this.

    He’s been involved in much research on the IAT, and proposes that a Race IAT should be used to ensure that hiring managers are not prejudced towards candidates of particular skin colours. He had a massive academic beat-down with the estimable pyschological conservative Philip Tetlock in which both of them showed (to my relatively untrained eye at least) a disturbing lack of awareness of how their own biases distorted their perspectives on research results. Tetlock argues that the IAT can’t be used because it doesn’t fit his beliefs, while Jost ignores the masses of evidence that the IAT is simply not reliable enough to be used in any hiring situation (test retest reliability of 0.49).

    tl; dr – psychologists of particular political persuasians typically bring their own biases into the interpretation of science and politics, which is saddening, but perhaps unavoidable.

    • Wonks Anonymous says:

      Haidt once gave Tetlock as his example of the only conservative social psychologist he could think of. Tetlock replied that he identified as a classical liberal.

    • John Jost says:

      Hi Disgruntled:

      I’m sorry, but you have seriously misrepresented the debate about implicit bias as well as my own position in that debate. I have never advocated using the IAT to make hiring decisions either in those papers (published in Research in Organizational Behavior) or anywhere else. Instead, we strongly dispute Tetlock’s and others’ claims that measures of implicit bias do not predict any form of meaningful behavior that is organizationally relevant (as well as other critical claims they have made about how to interpret evidence about implicit bias). We focused very clearly on empirical evidence that rebuts strong nihilism about implicit bias but said absolutely nothing about using any measure of implicit bias to hire people. Rather, we do think that managers and others should be aware that lots of good evidence suggests that such biases do exist and that it stretches credulity to assume that people making business decisions would somehow be immune to those biases. I hope that this helps to clarify the matter.


  2. LemmusLemmus says:

    Andrew, I think there is supposed to be a link on “here” in the second sentence, right?

  3. Mike G says:

    I’m about 50 pages from the end of Haidt’s book, and had a thought related to the Jost comment “Why do some individuals feel that it is morally good (or necessary) to obey authority, favor the ingroup, and maintain purity, whereas others are skeptical?”

    The questions I have seen that are used in the surveys that address the difference between liberals and conservatives on issues of loyalty, authority and sanctity tend to mostly be probing people’s stances on more traditional forms of loyalty (family,country, etc), authority(parents, religious leaders, etc), and sanctity (religious purity). I’m not terribly versed in social psychology, but I hypothesize that both liberals and conservatives have a similar emotional/moral basis in those areas, but that they are targeted differently.

    I wonder if they could get the opposite dependance on the political spectrum if they used more liberal forms of authority (scientists, notable people fighting for minority rights, liberal political leaders), loyalty (to minorities or those disadvantages by society – even if the person is not strictly “in” the group, by identifying as liberal they consider themselves allied with the disadvantaged group and are loyal to the larger set of {disadvantages, allies}), or sanctity (organic foods, non-GMO foods, etc).

    • Mike G says:

      Incidentally this goes along well with the “grade inflation” discussion the other day. A possibility for why profs don’t already give all A’s. There is a level of sanctity to the grades and the grading process.

      You commented, “It’s not a matter of self-interest–if I give out a bunch of A’s to my students, it’s not going to retroactively tarnish my college grade-point average. Rather, I think it’s just that profs see grades as important in themselves. Sort of like rich people who don’t want to debase the currency, just as a matter of principle.” That profs would see grades as supposing to be meaningful; not arbitrary or even just given out for the good of the school, the professor, and the student, but being an honest attempt to in some way reflect the performance of the student is consistent with this idea. A professor would say it would be wrong to just give grades based on self-interest in the same way that a religious leader would say it is wrong to have safe, premarital sex just because both partners want to and it, practically, harms no one. In both cases, the act is meant to have some deeper meaning than doing it in self interest would reflect.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      From my review of Haidt’s book:

      What Haidt never quite gets across is that conservatives typically define their groups concentrically, moving from their families outward to their communities, classes, religions, nations, and so forth. If Mars attacked, conservatives would be reflexively Earthist. As Ronald Reagan pointed out to the UN in 1987, “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.” (Libertarians would wait to see if the Martian invaders were free marketeers.)

      In contrast, modern liberals’ defining trait is making a public spectacle of how their loyalties leapfrog over some unworthy folks relatively close to them in favor of other people they barely know (or in the case of profoundly liberal sci-fi movies such as Avatar, other 10-foot-tall blue space creatures they barely know).

      As a down-to-Earth example, to root for Manchester United’s soccer team is conservative…if you are a Mancunian. If you live in Portland, Oregon, it’s liberal.

      This urge toward leapfrogging loyalties has less to do with sympathy for the poor underdog (white liberals’ traditional favorites, such as soccer and the federal government, are hardly underdogs) as it is a desire to get one up in status on people they know and don’t like.

      • Andrew says:


        I don’t know if this is related, but . . . my impression is that Haidt does what a lot of people do, which is to puzzle over atypical cases. For example, he wrote an article about blue-collar Republicans. He got some facts wrong, but I think his main problem there was to focus on a group that was interesting because surprising, rather than on a group such as upper-class Republicans, which represent no surprise or puzzle but are politically important. It makes sense for a scientist to focus on interesting atypical cases but then care is needed before making general claims about the population, as Haidt will sometimes do. Again, this isn’t a problem particular to Haidt, I think it comes up all over the place. As a statistician I’m more interested in averages and typical cases, which may well introduce its own problems.

  4. idiot says:

    The key to understanding liberalism must lie in this sentence:
    “Why do some people think that it is morally acceptable to judge or even mistreat others such as gay or lesbian couples or, only a generation ago, interracial couples because they dislike or feel disgusted by them, whereas others do not?”

    I’m pretty sure that if you ask a liberal in the 1960s, he would say that he would support interracial marriages but hates homosexuality and support judging and mistreating homosexuals. Ask that same liberal today, and he would say support interracial marriage as well as gay/lesbian couples. But why? What changed in the meantime to affect his belief?

    I want to know if the thought process went “I rethought about the issue some more and I regret my earlier position” or “I heard that liberals support gay/lesbian couples, and since I am a liberal, I must therefore support gay/lesbian couples”?

    • idiot says:

      Actually, no, I was wrong. You probably couldn’t drag out a liberal in the 1960s who would support interracial marriage but opposed gay marriage, because according to this Gallup chart, only 20% of Americans approved of interracial marriage in 1968. And the liberal/conservative divide was still very strong there in that time period (Nixon did not win 80% of the popular vote), so this dilemma becomes even more puzzling. How does a liberal think that it was morally acceptable to judge both homosexuals AND interracial couples back then, but not now?


      • Andrew says:

        No, I don’t think the average liberal in the 1960s would’ve said that he or she “hates homosexuality and supports judging and mistreating homosexuals.” I doubt the average conservative in the 1960s would’ve said that either. I think it’s more likely that people in the 1960s would’ve said that they feel sorry for homosexuals and would like them to live a happy life while keeping away from vulnerable children.

        Regarding your second question: yes, opinions change. I was a child in the 1960s and so can’t answer your question directly, but I expect that the people who were adults in the 1960s and are alive today and who have the sequence of opinions you describe would say that, back then, they were ignorant of what it meant to be gay. There is often confusion and fear about people who are different in some way or another, but since the 1960s the majority in our society has been gradually getting used to gay people and interracial couples as a natural part of life rather than as some sort of pathology.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          In England in the mid-20th Century, upper class Tories sympathized more with homosexuals than did working class Socialists. Compare the books of Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell, both upper middle class writers born in 1903, with Waugh being ostentatiously elitist and Orwell populist. Waugh wrote much more sympathetically about homosexuals as aesthetically sensitive, while Orwell unsympathetically considered gays to tend toward snobbery and to form elitist cabals.

          I don’t think gays have changed much since then, but I think “Right” and “Left” have changed a lot.

          • Andrew says:


            Yes, Orwell was notoriously anti-gay and anti-Catholic as well. (My reading of him is that he thought of gays as some sort of fringe group (the way that many people might think of transgendered people today), while he thought of Catholics as part of a nefarious conspiracy (the way that some people think of gay people today). He presumably didn’t mind Catholics just living their lives quietly but he didn’t seem to like the idea that they might want to have some influence in how the world was run.

            My impression is that gay people have all sorts of different traits, but the distribution of people who are identifiably gay may well have changed over the years. The increase in general acceptance of homosexuality does not seem to have led to a huge increase in the number of people who identify as gay, but it’s certainly led to a broadening of the “openly gay” category.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            Waugh and Orwell agreed that gays tended to be class-conscious snobs who looked down upon the working masses. That’s what Waugh liked about them. Waugh liked elitist coteries of Catholics, gays, and aristocrats who discriminated against the unwashed English masses. Orwell didn’t. Orwell was a socialist nationalist who sided with the workers against the elites, and thus didn’t like internationalist Catholics, gays, toffs, and Moscow-controlled intellectuals.

            Andrew says:

            “My impression is that gay people have all sorts of different traits, but the distribution of people who are identifiably gay may well have changed over the years.”

            We’re not talking about who was identifiably gay to naive nobodies, we’re talking about who was identifiably gay to two of the most perceptive writers of the 20th Century (one of whom had gay leanings and history himself, as Waugh made clear in his quasi-autobiographical bestseller Brideshead Revisited). They agreed on the tendencies of gays, they just disagreed on whether they liked those tendencies.

            “My impression is that gay people have all sorts of different traits …”

            You can say that about any group. But it’s just anti-pattern recognition, anti-statistical thinking, anti-knowledge to stop there, throw up your hands and act as if statistics can’t help us understand tendencies among gay men. We have huge amount of social science data on gay men, and we have a substantial amount on celebrity gays who died of AIDS in the 1980s (e.g., Nureyev, Joffrey, and Ailey in ballet, nobody in golf). Both data sources confirm most traditional stereotypes of gays.

            I summarized several dozen ways in which gay men tend to differ from lesbians here:


          • Andrew says:


            You might be right, but my impression was not that Orwell thought of gays as an elitist coterie but rather that he thought they were weird. He didn’t like sandal-wearing vegetarians either, not because they were a coterie but, it seemed to me, because he thought it was a bit embarrassing for his serious socialism to be associated with these frivolous causes. But Orwell had lots of prejudices; one of the side-effects of his famous honesty was that he didn’t seem to try to hide these prejudices, and it would be no surprise if sometimes these attitudes came into contradiction with each other. Don’t get me wrong, I think Orwell is great, that’s why I’m interested in him in enough to be interested in his contradictions.

            I thought Waugh was hilarious but somehow found his books exhausting to read; I never made it to Brideshead Revisited.

  5. lemmy caution says:

    “I want to know if the thought process went “I rethought about the issue some more and I regret my earlier position” or “I heard that liberals support gay/lesbian couples, and since I am a liberal, I must therefore support gay/lesbian couples”?”

    Pinker’s new book attributes this to moral progress:

    LEDA COSMIDES: Right, I think that’s the claim. But the real question I had was about the cosmopolitanism, because I’m puzzled by that in a certain sense. It almost sounds, like “come be an undergraduate and everything is going to be okay.” I’m wondering if that is a real factor that’s contributing to this. It must be driven a lot by popular culture because you don’t have massive numbers of people reading Proust and etc.

    STEVEN PINKER: It’s a rising tide that lifts all the boats. It sounds elitist to say this, but attitudes toward women, homosexuals, and racial minorities, and the tolerant attitudes that we celebrate of not beating up your kids, tend to start among the most educated strata, and you can see the rest of the country being dragged behind. With a lot of these statistics, the red states today have attitudes that the blue states had 30 years ago—toward women, towards spanking, towards homosexuals, towards animal rights, and so on.

    What starts out at the universities and the pundits can trickle down and become conventional wisdom. That probably happens worldwide as well. This is another thing I’ll probably get flak for saying, but very roughly you can see a continuum in the world in a lot of variables related to the decline of violence: Western Europe, then the American blue states, then the American red states, then Latin America and Asian democracies, and the Islamic world and Africa pulling up the rear. We can look, say, at the criminalization of homosexuality in Africa, or human trafficking, and say the world is in a terrible state, which of course it is. But the historical trend is that the other parts of the world eventually catch up. Slavery is a concrete example: just fifty years ago, slavery was still legal in Saudi Arabia.

    • Jonathan says:

      Pinker also has some interesting theories here as well…

      • Andrew says:


        Pinker’s article has some interesting parts but I think it has serious flaws. I wrote a blog post on this, it should be appearing in a few weeks (due to backlog of posts, also I’m running enough politics-related material already).

        • guest says:

          I loved this clueless line as well:

          “The historian Pieter Spierenburg has suggested that “democracy came too soon to America,” namely, before the government had disarmed its citizens. Since American governance was more or less democratic from the start, the people could choose not to cede to it the safeguarding of their personal safety but to keep it as their prerogative. The unhappy result of this vigilante justice is that American homicide rates are far higher than those of Europe, and those of the South higher than those of the North.”

          Uh actually the happy result was that the amount of violence in America over the last century was orders of magnitude lower than in Europe. I’m sure all kinds of comparisons between Europe and America look better for Europe is you just remove 1935-1945 from the data set.

        • Jonathan says:

          Yeah I don’t buy the argument, but wasn’t sure if you had seen it. Look forward to the post.