Dr. Jonathan Haidt on how moral psychology can inform climate advocacy

Jonathan Haidt

Dr. Jonathan Haidt on how moral psychology can inform climate advocacy

By Sara Wanous

Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an online meeting featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change, carbon fee and dividend, and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Check out recaps of past speakers here.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby is dedicated to bringing people across the political spectrum together on climate solutions. Our work on bipartisanship and relationship building is informed by experts committed to engaging more effectively with those who think differently than us, like Dr. Jonathan Haidt. 

Dr. Jonathan Haidt is a professor of Ethical Leadership at the NYU Stern School of Business and the author of several books on the intersection of psychology and politics, including “The Coddling of the American Mind,” “The Righteous Mind,” and “The Happiness Hypothesis.” Most recently, Dr. Haidt has adapted one of his classes into an online learning platform called Open Mind to help people achieve just that. Dr. Haidt joined Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s September monthly call to share his expertise in moral psychology and how these lessons can help bring people together on climate solutions. 


Three principles of moral psychology

Moral psychology is a field of study aimed at understanding how our sense of morals develop and how they affect our judgment and motivation. Dr. Haidt boiled moral psychology down into three basic principles that can help us better understand those who think differently than us. When met with a political conflict, disagreement, or a generally complicated situation, Dr. Haidt advises, “Just apply the three principles, and it usually shows you something you wouldn’t have seen.”

Principle #1: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second

This means when exposed to something new, such as a person or an argument, our brain immediately decides whether we like it or dislike it before taking the time to reason. Haidt says, “We like [or dislike] something before we even understand it.” 

If we initially react positively, we are prone to confirmation bias. Confirmation bias means when we already feel favorable toward an idea, we look for proof to confirm that favorable feeling—even if that “proof” may be flimsy. Dr. Haidt explains, “All you have to do is give them some confirmation of this idea that they like, and now they know that you’re right because they want to believe it and they have reasons to believe it.”

If we initially react negatively, it is nearly impossible to override intuition with data. “If someone’s view on climate change is based on emotion and morality, you can’t change that with data. You have to start with emotion and morality, and then give data,” says Dr. Haidt. “You have to be smart about how the human animal responds, makes decisions, and what people care about.”

Principle #2: There is more to morality than harm and fairness

Moral codes are intricate and vary widely between cultures and social classes, but they boil down to a few building blocks. Dr. Haidt lists the six foundations of morality that apply most to politics: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Each person ranks these foundations with varying importance. As a part of Dr. Haidt’s Open Mind project, you can see how your moral code ranks these foundational elements.. 

Rankings of these foundations vary across U.S. political ideologies. For example, progressives give very high ratings to care and fairness as equality. Social conservatives rank care lower, view fairness as proportionality, and rank loyalty, authority, and sanctity higher. Understanding how social groups define morality is imperative to making arguments that speak to their intuition. 

Dr. Haidt provided an example of how this applies to getting people to respond to climate change. “The left tends to appeal to intergenerational equity, which does not appeal to the right, and the vulnerability of the global poor, which also doesn’t resonate so much on the right.” Arguments that appeal to a person’s morals make them more open to the conversation. When speaking with social conservatives, Dr. Haidt suggested, “Try to craft arguments that will appeal to a sense of patriotism, group loyalty, or stewardship.”

Principle #3: Morality binds and blinds

Our sense of morality and belonging to social groups is central to our behavior and understanding of the world because it is tied to evolution. Dr. Haidt says, “We’re primates that are only a little different than other primates. We evolved to live in small groups that are in constant conflict with neighboring groups, so we’re very, very good at doing tribalism.” From sports teams to political parties, humans gravitate toward defined social groups and defend them faithfully. 

Steadfast loyalty to our own social group can affect how we perceive facts and solutions. Psychologists call this phenomenon “solution aversion.” A 2014 study on solution aversion by Campbell and Kay examined how proposed climate solutions affected one’s perception of climate science. In the study, Republicans and Democrats were each asked to read a statement about rising global temperatures followed by a proposed policy solution to address climate change. When the policy proposal emphasized ideas that conflicted with the participants’ morals (such as increased government regulation for Republicans), they were less likely to report that they believed the climate science than when the proposal matched their moral values (such as utilizing free market principles with Republicans). That’s worth repeating: When a proposed climate solution conflicted with their morals, participants were less likely to believe in climate science itself. 

Bringing facts and studies to the table is not enough to advance bipartisan climate solutions. To work together on solutions to climate change, we will first have to understand each other’s moral frameworks. Dr. Haidt hopes that his work can bring us one step closer to this understanding. He says, “If you understand these three principles of moral psychology, you’ll be much more effective in persuasion and in truly listening to people and what their concerns are.”

To hear more from former Dr. Jonathan Haidt, including some Q&A with CCL volunteers, watch the entire September meeting on YouTube or listen to the podcast. Follow Dr. Haidt on Twitter at @JonHaidt.

Sara Wanous has been the Membership Coordinator at Citizens’ Climate Lobby since January 2018. She has a B.A. in Economics and B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy from Chapman University and is pursuing a masters in Climate Science and Policy at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.