Why Won’t They Listen? ‘The Righteous Mind,’ by Jonathan Haidt

I don’t know if this is a good book or not. I don’t know if us talking about it might lead to partisan unpleasantness (I sincerely hope not, there’s enough of that to go around). I just read the review in the NY Times here today. But it seems like in our little area of interest, our blog might be working toward the needs that Haidt’s research suggests.

Our task, then, is to organize society so that reason and intuition interact in healthy ways. Haidt’s research suggests several broad guidelines. First, we need to help citizens develop sympathetic relationships so that they seek to understand one another instead of using reason to parry opposing views. Second, we need to create time for contemplation. Research shows that two minutes of reflection on a good argument can change a person’s mind. Third, we need to break up our ideological segregation. From 1976 to 2008, the proportion of Americans living in highly partisan counties increased from 27 percent to 48 percent. The Internet exacerbates this problem by helping each user find evidence that supports his views.

I think I’ll order it from the library and see if there is more relevant information therein.

4 thoughts on “Why Won’t They Listen? ‘The Righteous Mind,’ by Jonathan Haidt”

  1. Research shows that two minutes of reflection on a good argument can change a person’s mind.

    But if we add in a little psychology from Karl Weick, we find something different. ‘Specialists’, like many in the US Forest Service, have substantial defense mechanisms that make it very hard to change minds. Here’s a little Weickian philosophy

    Weick [writes] about the notion that good theorists should like new evidence that disconfirms their ideas, as it speeds the process of building interesting theory. But then he goes on to say that this doesn’t always happen because, once a theorist has a strong investment in a theory and has well-organized defenses and ideas about that theory, and is planning to spread the theory, new ideas (especially disconfirming evidence) will likely be experienced as upsetting to him or her—even if they improve the theory—because such interruptions throw a monkey wrench in current plans, causing the person to go through new cognitive effort and threatening to destroy something that he or she has worked hard to build and defend—and I would add to often lash out and destroy the offending ideas and evidence (and perhaps the person who has them).

  2. “‘Specialists’, like many in the US Forest Service, have substantial defense mechanisms that make it very hard to change minds.”

    Wow, Dave, you certainly compartmentalized those folks eh? Is it an either/or thing? An FS employee is “grumpy” or “happy”? Most I know aren’t, eh, …”happy”, but that’s another topic…

    I found the book review intriguing. Certainly worth a further look. Thanks for posting Sharon. As I read the review I couldn’t help but to recall some of my favorite subculture lyrics from 20+ years ago. Still very apropos:

    “I used to think that label were just symbol of pride
    but over time i’ve seen they only serve to divide
    it’s so easy to judge people by the way they seem to be
    we must overcome this problem to live life peacfully
    break down the walls!
    yes, we’ll break down the walls !
    look beyond the fashion or the crowd that they are in
    look beyond their riches or the color of their skin
    look beyond appearance and the truth you will find
    look for what’s inside before you make up your mind
    break down the walls!
    we’ll break down the walls !”

    • No JZ. It is not an “either/or” thing! Still, the US Forest Service prides itself on specialization. Almost all who make it into management positions and high-level staff positions are specialists. There are foresters of various stripes (specializations within the broader umbrella of forestry), engineers of various stripes, wildlife biologists, ecologists, fire behavior specialists, fire ecologists, range conservationists, hydrologists, soil scientists, botanists, social scientists of various stripes, and many more. My point is simply that those who tend to specialize tend to be more wedded to belief systems, scientific ideologies/methodologies if you will. They tend to have very deep-rooted defense mechanisms, when their paradigms are challenged. Take a look sometime at Thomas Kuhn’s: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn maintained that paradigms shift mostly by a series of funerals since many (most?)”specialists” tend to stick to their belief systems until death. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Kuhn

      My point in all this is only to suggest that it isn’t easy to change minds when dealing with specialists. And to suggest, as per the article I hyperlinked and you referenced that specialists tend to get upset with those who challenge their paradigm. And that the Forest Service is filled with specialists.

      And yes, people in the Forest Service aren’t too happy these days. Why is that? Hint: It is not because they are specialists, at least not entirely.

  3. I strive to be non-partisan, and as apolitically-aligned, as possible. The extremes have major dealbreakers, in my mind, that require me not to support either side. During my journey in the Forest Service, I had several mindsets, that changed over time.

    My first timber sale, in 1986, had an average “cut-tree” diameter of 51″ dbh. The prescription was “Overstory Removal”, which didn’t set well with me. This sale had been prepared for the third time, with defaults and buybacks happening the previous times. The first day of work on it, a spotted owl was clearly seen but, the mindset was that the owl would move. The sale was marked and cruised but, for the third, and last time, it would not be logged. The last timber sale I worked on had average “cut-tree” diameters of 14.5″ dbh.

    My first experience in controlling loggers had me thinking that I would make those loggers “toe the line”, and not get away with anything bad. I was going to hold them to the letter of the timber sale contract. However, through experience, I learned to pick my battles, and keep account of my “wins and losses”. Fighting over one missed small log, or a few piles of slash over 30″ were insignificant. Poor waterbars or unauthorized skid trails required them to go back and make it right, no matter what the cost. If they had to drive over a dozen existing waterbars to install the missing one, they would have to rebuild them all.

    As logging projects diminished, so did the amount of crummy loggers, and mill representatives. The overall work improved, and I learned how to “trust, but verify” their works, demanding of myself that I would review ALL of their work, and not just “sample” it. I came to respect the best loggers I worked with, and trusted their opinions and solutions to problems I didn’t have experience in. While I had more trust in the loggers, I was able to see how they were manipulated by the mill reps. They became the untrusted ones, and I had no reason to respect many of them, as they were responsible for the sole control of their contractors. Indeed, some insisted that I do their jobs for them. It was difficult to keep a balance of production and quality. If I pushed for better supervision, through non-compliances and documentation of breachable offenses, the projects would bog down, and the issues would go over my head. I chose to work closely with the good loggers, and disregard how bad the mill reps were. We could do an excellent job, as long as those reps didn’t interfere. It was up to me to give up some control of the mill rep, in order to get the job done, in the best possible way.

    Pride and self-importance were a necessary casualty, in the interest of balance and excellence. Tolerance and an open mind go a long way towards “doing the right thing”. Sadly, the opposites of those characteristics are still personified in the powerful political people of today. Political victimization of the weak dominate the lives of the powerful. Both political sides claim to be counterbalances, demanding full victory, with few considering compromise.


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