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.

9 Responses to Jost Haidt

  1. Ryan October 2, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Looks like you’re missing a hyperlink in your first ‘graph.

    • Andrew Gelman October 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

      Fixed, thanks.

  2. TR October 2, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    I have to laugh at Jost singing the praises of pluralism in one quote and casting conservatism as a sickness in the other.

    I wish I had time for a more complete comment on your post, but I think part of Haidt’s reaction would be: “Do people on the left really take pluralism as seriously as they would like to think? Wouldn’t pluralism true to the name call for more circumspection and less certitude, stridency when it comes to things people on the left hold sacred? Pro-choice stances, affirmative ation (a departure from the philosophically “liberal” ideal of race-neutrality), an ambitious welfare state, collective bargaining, to name but a few…

    • Andrew Gelman October 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm #


      I agree that Jost sang the praises of pluralism but I didn’t see where he cast conservatism as a sickness. Was that in the review I linked to, or are you referring to something else that Jost has written?

      Also, I sent this to both Jost and Haidt, so maybe they will reply and we can see if Haidt’s reaction matches your prediction. I myself will briefly reply to your second paragraph above: I’m not sure what it means to have more circumspection and less certitude regarding a pro-choice stance (your first example above). Would that imply that someone on the left, politically, should want abortion to be a little bit illegal, perhaps legal only in the first trimester, or maybe legal but just very expensive, or maybe illegal and thus requiring a trip to another country? All these positions are possible but I don’t see how they easily relate to pluralism.

      • TR October 2, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

        The references in Jost’s review to conservatives being threatened by change and complexity could be read as inklings of the conservatism-as-sickness perspective. Elsewhere in Jost’s work, conservatism is a form of system justification and “motivated” cognition. Simple, nonvalenced statistical relationships? Perhaps. Jost’s starting point, though, seems to be that conservatism is a peculiar phenomenon that requires explanation. I’ve never read him engage the idea that conservatism might be an estimable intellectual tradition that traces various threads back to luminaries like Smith, Burke, and any number of Nobel Prize winning economists.

        Elsewhere (, Jost writes, “If we do concern ourselves with the results of Haidt’s armchair demography, we should ask honestly whether social scientists are too liberal or society is too conservative. After all, when experts and laypersons disagree, we do not usually rush to the conclusion that the experts are biased. Haidt fails to grapple meaningfully with the question of why nearly all of the best minds in science find liberal ideas to be closer to the mark with respect to evolution, human nature, mental health, close relationships, intergroup relations, ethics, social justice, conflict resolution, environmental sustainability, and so on.”

        If “listen to the experts” is Jost’s guiding principle, wouldn’t the progressive suspicion of economics, an academic discipline that generally leans to the right, be just as worthy of scrutiny and explanation?

        With respect to people on the left exhibiting less certitude, I am not really trying to capture the idea that their opinions should be less extreme. I am more trying to capture the idea that extremists on both sides could be more tolerant in how they cast their opinions — less as a clash of good and evil. I’m talking about a shift from “I’m pro-[life, choice] and to the extent you disagree with me it makes me angry and I find you contemptible” to “I’m pro-X, but I respect your opinion, different though it may be, because I can see this is a very difficult and complex issue.” That shift away from what Haidt calls “Manichaeanism” seems to me at the very heart of pluralism.

        • STS October 3, 2012 at 8:10 am #

          As a graduate student in Social Psychology who researches political ideology and is very familiar with the work of Jost and Haidt, I tend to agree with TR’s sentiment. Jost’s research is certainly extensive and his theory of conservatism as motivated social cognition does a great job integrating research on political ideology with broader social psychological theory .

          Jost’s approach focuses almost entirely on conservatism. The psychological factors that underlie liberalism are generally just the opposite of conservatism (e.g., high on openness, tolerance of ambiguity, need for cognition, etc.). The (not so) implicit message is that liberalism is self-evidently correct and that there is something wrong with conservatives and conservatism. This view is perfectly acceptable as an opinion but, if social psychologists only investigate the psychology underlying conservatism we will not obtain a complete picture the psychological underpinnings of political ideology.

          • TR October 3, 2012 at 9:06 am #

            Additionally, liberals tend to be low and conservatives tend to be high in conscientiousness. (Indeed, of the Big Five, I think that might be the strongest relationship.) I’m not, like, intimately familiar with everything Jost has written, but I’ve never seen him emphasize that.

            • Joshb December 3, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

              First off, I have to say that I’m new to the blog and am loving it. Some of my fav PS thinkers all in one place – sweet! Very excited to check out the research of the many others on this site. (what a nerd)

              TR and STS, I’m fascinated that the “conservatism-as-sickness perspective” even exists. There’s that much distrust in academics (let alone society) that entire areas of research – in this case ideology as a motivated social cognition – are not taken at face value? The empirical evidence is rejected; the efforts of the researcher are considered biased (“Simple, nonvalenced statistical relationships? Perhaps.”) because a misunderstanding of the theory produces normative implications that are uncomfortable? I guess so. Call me naive but that sucks.

              tr: “Jost’s starting point, though, seems to be that conservatism is a peculiar phenomenon that requires explanation.”

              The only peculiar thing about this is your use of the word “peculiar” – remove it and you may be on to something. It is in no way peculiar or wrong or whatever negative you want to insert that Jost often focuses on “conservatism”. To suggest this is to mischaracterize and misunderstand the work itself and where it comes from (spoiler: Jost may be on the cutting edge of his field but def not a pioneer).

              Jost’s “starting point” is summarized below from this recent paper:

              “The model as a whole was derived, at least in part, by synthesizing the pioneering research programs of Adorno et al. (1950), Rokeach (1960), Tomkins (1963), and especially Wilson (1973), who wrote that, ‘‘The common basis for all of the various components of the conservative attitude syndrome is a generalized susceptibility to experiencing threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty’’ (p. 259, emphasis in original). By linking ideology to basic cognitive and emotional processes, Wilson’s (1973) formulation suggests that research on basic psychological and even neural responses could illuminate the dynamics of political ideology.”

              As a grad student you must understand that this isn’t new. A lit review of this area of research would likely change your mind about any biases. And, please don’t get hung up on a word like “syndrome”. Consider the context. Wilson, in a lot of ways, was seeking to understand the psychological underpinnings of societies negative aspects. He considered conservatism to be the basic disposition of all people. Thus, we are all conservatives – some more than others. The collections of attitudes that are associated with uncertainty and threat were part of the so-called syndrome. Suffice to say I can’t do justice to the history of the study of conservatism in a comment thread. Furthermore, let’s be honest, you won’t be convinced (especially by me) until you look into the topic yourself.

              TR, I would say “listen to the experts” is the common sense move when faced with situations where expert advice will help. I debated even bringing this up b/c it should be so uncontroversial. I mean, this is why we (Jost et al. included) use the scientific method, peer review, etc… to inoculate society against quackery and charlatans, and to call out bias. This quasi-paranoid line of thinking reminds me of the recent three way political horserace coverage/unskewed/Nate Silver flappage. But, to answer your question: yes, economics (academic) is worthy of scrutiny:

              briefly on the myth:
              on a possible reason:

              Finally, I definitely agree that the current level of vitriol is unacceptable, uncivil, unproductive, and many other un’s. Black and white thinking is a huge problem for everybody (especially since the world isn’t black and white;-). But, it must have been advantageous at one point in our species history. We all lapse into it. Some people seem to exist in it. Nuance baby!!!

  3. GeraldY October 3, 2012 at 11:23 am #

    [this comment is made in light of the fact that I see Haidt as a threat to me and my fellow liberals]

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for a serious debate with Haidt. He is far too busy preparing well-compensated talks that flatter the wealthy by praising them for their prejudices.