Talk to the Elephant
“If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.”
While this may seem self-evident to some, a bit of context may be helpful for the rest of us. The elephant is from Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: WHY GOOD PEOPLE ARE DIVIDED BY POLITICS AND RELIGION which my daughter recently sent me and told me to read. I’m just a few chapters in and I’m finding both insightful and timely.
Haidt is a social psychologist who studies moral reasoning; how we come to believe what we do. Haidt writes that some philosophers and psychologists have thought that reason is the final arbiter; we come to our beliefs through a process of thought and observation. Thomas Jefferson believed that we are balanced between reason and emotion, each operating in its appropriate sphere. While Hume held that emotions are the ruler and thoughts just explain.
Haidt reports that the studies done in the past twenty years are pretty conclusive that Hume was closest to the truth. We form an opinion as a kind of intuition and then we use our conscious analytic mind to explain and justify what we already believe. People with higher I.Q.’s don’t appear to be any more thoughtful in examining their beliefs, they are just more articulate and lengthy in defending their position.
This is where Haidt brings in his elephant:
…the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness, but that actually govern most of our behavior.
Haidt goes on to say that this explains why rational arguments, no matter how passionately expressed, rarely change someone else’s point of view. The rider of our rational thoughts mostly serves the elephant of our largely unconscious mental processes. The rider is rarely conscious of the elephant and functions more like a lawyer whose job it is, not to examine the truth, but to justify the position of the client, the unconscious elephant of belief.
‘Talking to the elephant’ is about coming to understand the deeper forces that are behind the stated positions. Haidt goes on to say: “When does the elephant listen to reason? The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people.” As humans, it is only when we feel heard and understood that we may be willing to let our guard down enough to consider what we had not yet considered.
This is not to say that there are not some things that need to be defended whatever the mindset of the perpetrators, it’s just that there’s a longer game as well. How do we move beyond the position of opposition, to finding a new sense of united purpose? How do we all learn to examine our positions and open our minds to what we have not yet considered?