The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

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Posted by Rezwan Razani on Jul 05, 2013 at 06:22 PM
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Author: Jonathan Haidt

From the Amazon Review:

As America descends deeper into polarization and paralysis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done the seemingly impossible—challenged conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to everyone on the political spectrum. Drawing on his twenty five years of groundbreaking research on moral psychology, he shows how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings. He shows why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians have such different intuitions about right and wrong, and he shows why each side is actually right about many of its central concerns. In this subtle yet accessible book, Haidt gives you the key to understanding the miracle of human cooperation, as well as the curse of our eternal divisions and conflicts. If you’re ready to trade in anger for understanding, read The Righteous Mind.

How This Applies to Nuclear Energy

Many people have a strong visceral reaction against the word, “nuclear”.  As such, they are inclined to dismiss fusion energy, and other forms of nuclear energy.  Fusion proponents tend to “argue” the matter, using facts and figures, in an attempt to win people over to the idea that nuclear energy is an asset.  This often backfires.  The nuclear proponent is then left with the idea that “You can’t solve a political/emotional problem with science.”  By corollary - the impression is that “people are irrational.”  But this isn’t what is really going on.

Haidt’s book offers great insight into this matter, and how to work through it. 

First, it suggests that the dichotomy between cognition and emotion is useless.  “Cognition” describes information processing, but “Emotions” also involve information processing.  As such, they are not dumb and visceral.  They “are filled with cognition.  Emotions occur in steps, the first of which is to appraise something that just happened based on whether it advanced or hindered your goals.  These appraisals are a kind of information processing.” 

Haidt then makes the distinction between “reason” and “intuition” - but not in the way you might think.  He says that folks make their decisions on intuition, and then bring in reason to rationalize the decision - post hoc.  And that it pretty much always happens this way.  Reason is the servant of intuition, for everyone. 

This isn’t a put down that says that people are inherently unreasonable.  Rather, it is a revelation about what people are really basing their intuition/judgement on.  People you talk to aren’t evaluating your logic, they are evaluating whether or not you have their best interest at heart.  Whether or not they can trust you as a person.  Whether or not you are one of “us” or one of “them”.  Friend or foe.  People are “groupish” and this is about nurturing relationships. 

Since we all more or less operate this way, since reasoning always comes after the decision as a rationalizing press secretary and cherry picks its data - when someone is primarily using reason to try to persuade us, we don’t trust them.  This makes sense, because most likely they do have a bias - and what have they done anyway to deserve our trust?  Who ARE these people?  As the book points out, “Psychopaths reason but don’t feel”  Notice that nuclear science folks are always coming across as people who use pure reason.  That puts them in the “likely psychopath/untrustrworthy” category.

The takeaway here is that Nuclear energy advocacy can’t be accomplished with reason alone.  And it’s not just about throwing some marketing gimmicks or stories at it.  It’s about changing your relationship to the people you want to win over - about really connecting.  When you look down on them for being unreasonable, or seek to impose standards while dismissing their health concerns, that’s alienating.  In response, they alienate back.

I think the best way to change the relationship is to go from nuclear energy being about power, to making it about empowerment.  Bring the public into these discussions.  And connect them directly with the information in a hands on way.  Give everyone dosimeters.  Hook up measuring devices from every power plant to apps that people can have access to.  Give them the means to monitor power plants and radiation levels, and their own radiation and daily exposures for comparison. 

The USGS has a great model for this - their “Did you feel it” Earthquake detection program.  http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/dyfi/  And the map:  http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map/  So you can be on top of any spill.  And suddenly, earthquake tracking seems more manageable. 

Paradoxically, when “they” start monitoring “you”, they become part of the team, and are now working to manage the risks and challenges, rather than being alienated and suspicious of you.




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