Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer
The Elephants Are in Control
My daughter recently loaned me a copy of Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.It’s an interesting study about why intelligent people can view the world so differently. It’s an interesting subject he’s written about before, and it’s worth considering. But I was taken with his point, early in the book, where he discusses the way people make moral decisions. He uses the metaphor of a person riding an elephant. The elephant represents our emotions, and the rider represents our rational thinking. Contrary to what most rationalists might think, he suggests that the elephant is actually in control. In other words, when we are faced with making an important assessment, we immediately “know” what we think, based on our intuition and emotion. We then use our rational thinking to explain, or justify, our decision.
This happens with practical decisions as well. For example, car salespeople understand this. When we buy a new vehicle, we frequently make the choice with our gut. We see a car we want and decide to buy it. We may lay out the logical reasons why buying this car would be a logical decision, but the decision to buy it was made rather easily by our emotions.
As I am writing this column, the Republican Party in the US is struggling with the surging presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. Many people, Republicans and Democrats alike, are dumbfounded that Trump could actually be leading all other candidates in the polls. By the time this column appears in September, his candidacy may have faded, as it must. But how can we explain the immediate popularity of this superficial, pompous blowhard?
If voters would evaluate Trump’s candidacy on the basis of logic, it would make no sense. He’s going to build a wall covering the entire US-Mexican border, and have Mexico pay for it? Seriously? Most of what he says makes no sense. So why are people flocking to him? It’s their elephants. Many in the US are angry at politicians, frustrated at the economy, and unhappy with the rapid rate of change. Along comes Trump, the un-politician, and speaks, however irrationally, to their emotions. Their elephants are responding. They may need to work overtime to justify their decisions rationally, but most won’t bother.
Many of us on the left could not understand how George W. Bush could be elected again in 2004 after leading the nation into the obviously disastrous Iraq War. People were voting for the guy with the bull horn, the regular guy, not too smart, who they could relate to, who stuck to his guns, perhaps in spite of the facts. Kerry was seen as an elite snob who windsurfed. Many could not relate to him. So they voted with their gut feelings for who they liked.
If we think about it, the evidence is everywhere. Scientists filter data through their biases, often ignoring results which do not conform to what they want to see. We buy things impulsively, then justify the decision by rationalizing later. People see the poor buying food with welfare assistance and feel angry that “those people” get something for free. Politics has become an emotional team sport. We like liberal or conservative politicians because they’re on our team. We like people who are like us. The anger at immigrants is based on this emotional reaction to “otherness.” We may justify our choices with logical reasoning, but our emotional elephants are really in charge.