Liberals are WEIRDer than Conservatives

Posted by in Politics

Guest post by Thomas Talhelm (on a recent publication with Haidt, mentioned by Tom Edsall in NYT)

A few years ago, psychologists looked at all of the psychological studies of people in different cultures and concluded that Westerners are WEIRD. That’s an acronym, not an insult. People from Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic countries are consistent psychological outliers compared to the other 85% of the world’s population.

On psychological tests, Westerners tend to view scenes, explain behavior, and categorize objects analytically. But the vast majority of people around the world more often think intuitively—what psychologists call “holistic thought.”

Five years ago, I had just arrived at the University of Virginia, and I had a thought flash: Aren’t most of these WEIRD elements even more true of liberal culture within the United States? Liberalism thrives in universities (Education), cities (Industrialized), the wealthy East and West coasts (Rich), and ultra-pluralistic groups like Occupy Wall Street and Unitarian churches (Democratic). So if Westerners think WEIRDly, maybe liberals think even WEIRDer. I went to talk with my advisors, Shige Oishi and Jonathan Haidt, and they liked the idea and joined me on the project (along with Xuemin Zhang, Felicity Miao, and Shimin Chen)

Five years and thousands of participants later, we just published the findings in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. We found that American liberals think even WEIRDer, even more unlike the rest of the world, than the average American conservative.

We studied this using tests that cultural psychologist use to measure cognitive differences. In one test, participants have to choose two of three items to categorize together, such as scarf, mitten, and hand. Westerners tend to categorize scarf and mitten because they belong to the same abstract category. People in most other cultures tested such as China and the Middle East tend to pair mitten and hand because those two things have a relationship with each other. American liberals (on the left side of the graph below) choose those relational pairing much less frequently. American conservatives (on the right side) are more likely than liberals to do the relational pairing. It’s not a majority, but we can still see that the conservatives are less WEIRD in their judgments than are liberals.


Next we wondered if temporarily changing people’s thought style would change their political opinions, so we asked participants to think analytically—even if that was the opposite of their own style. Then participants read articles about social issues like welfare and drug sentencing. The temporary analytic shift made people more likely to support the liberal side, and a temporary intuitive shift made them more likely to support the conservative side.

Figure 8

This all leads me to think that it’s no accident that people call American politics a “culture war.” Liberals and conservatives do really see the world as if they were from different cultures, and it influences whether they see welfare recipients as moochers dragging down hard-working Americans or as people in need of a helping hand. It influences whether we see rehabilitation for drug offenders as rewarding bad behavior or as treating an illness. Social policies have facts and data, but how people see those policies depends a great deal on their cultural mindset.

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Country of ambition and pollution

Posted by in Capitalism

I’m traveling in Asia for three months to do research for my next book, Three Stories About Capitalism. Each Westerner gets just one chance to have first impressions of China, and mine lived up to my hopes for memorability.

To prepare for the trip, I’ve been reading Evan Osnos’ much-talked-about book Age of Ambition. It’s about how China is changing  as the market-oriented reforms initiated by Deng Xioping in 1979 have led to such rapidly rising prosperity–and ambition for far more prosperity–since the 1990s. Osnos opens the book by describing the “fever” of aspiration that was sweeping the big cities when he first arrived in 2005. It was the “belief in the sheer possibility to remake a life,” by rapid success in business. These new possibilities are changing everything, including dating. We learn about  a dating show in which a young woman brushes off an appeal from a suitor who talks about taking her out on his bicycle. The woman says “I’d rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle.”

So I was well prepared to encounter a country abuzz with energy, entrepreneurialism, and materialism, with little trace of communism. But I didn’t expect the evidence to hit me as soon as I boarded the China Southern flight in Kuala Lumpur, to fly via Guangzhou to Shanghai:

1) When I sat down in my seat, the seat protector in front of my face had an advertisement for marble tiles, because the sort of person who can take a plane is probably also renovating his home or apartment in a lavish Western style (as their website makes clear).

2) The in flight magazine had the article below, informing flyers that “Guangzhou is a place to embrace everyone who wants to make a fortune.”


3) The movie playing during the flight was “Fen shou da shi” (The Breakup Guru), a comedy that included a prosperity guru preaching to a stadium full of upward strivers. In the scene below he says: “our biggest dreams are the precondition that drives us to surpass….” something or other. It was a secular Chinese version of the prosperity gospel preachers we have in the USA. (Granted, the movie was making fun of this guy, but his type is recognizable to Chinese movie-goers).



4) At one point during the flight I checked my watch and saw that my seat-mate, an 18 year old Chinese college student, was looking at my watch. I assumed he wanted to know the time so I turned the watch toward him. He said “Omega. I recognize that mark.” I’ve worn this watch for 18 years and nobody has ever commented on it in America or Europe.

These are all small things, but it was notable that as I was reading Osnos on the plane, all I had to do was raise my head and look around to find four pieces of evidence that (a part of) Chinese society is consumed by the material ambition Osnos describes.

The next surprise was the air pollution. We’ve all heard so much about the awful air quality in Chinese cities, but I was still stunned by my first encounter upon landing in Guangzhou, an industrial city near Hong Kong. It was a sunny day, and when I looked straight up I could see a blue sky, photographed here through an airport window:


Yet when you look horizontally, through the haze, it looks like a foggy day, or a day with light snow:


The smog is so bad that you can actually see it in the cavernous spaces of the airport. Signs far away look a bit blurry. It looks and smells like you are walking around in a heavily trafficked underground parking garage.

The air quality in Shanghai feels slightly better, but is still far worse than anything I’ve seen in my life. But I will say this about the smog: it makes night scenes more dramatic:


Shopping malls on Nanjing Road, Shanghai

Shopping malls on Nanjing Road, Shanghai

View of the Shanghai Pudong skyline, taken from the Bund

View of the Shanghai Pudong skyline, taken from the Bund

Despite the pollution, the city is beautiful and fascinating. It feels very safe, the food is delicious, and I am looking forward to my three weeks here, based at NYU’s brand new campus.




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The Ten Causes of America’s Political Dysfunction

Posted by in Civility, Politics, Videos

Here is my most complete talk on the causes of America’s rising political polarization and dysfunction. It’s more pessimistic than my prior talks. I was invited to speak in November at the NYU Law School, at a session hosted by professor Rick Pildes. Pildes wrote a superb law review article in 2011 on the causes of our dysfunction, from an “institutionalist” perspective, looking at Congress and electoral processes: Why the Center Does Not Hold: The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America

When I first read it, I thought Pildes’s account of the history was enlightening, but I thought he was too negative about the chances for real reform. But I re-read his paper while preparing for this talk, and realized he was right — and prophetic. He predicted that Obama would soon start bypassing congress and implementing policy by regulatory fiat; he predicted that one or both parties would soon start cutting back on the filibuster, unilaterally.

In this talk I integrate moral psychology with recent American history to explain the TEN reasons why America has been getting more polarized — at the elite level AND at the mass (public) level. My talk runs from minute 2 to minute 46, and then there’s commentary from Pildes, then open discussion.

Here is the list of 10 causes that I showed in the video:

1) Party realignment and purification,  1964-1992

2) Mass sorting of lib vs. con voters into the purified parties, by 1990s

3) Generational changing of the guard, from Greatest Gen to Baby Boomers, 1990s

4) Changes in Congress, 1995—death of friendships

5) Media fractionation and polarization, since 1980s

6) Residential homogeneity, urban v. rural, 1990s

7) Increasing role of money, negative advertising, 2000s

8) End of the cold war, loss of a common enemy, 1989

9) Increasing immigration and racial diversity, 1990s

10) Increasing education, since 1970s (more educated citizens are more partisan and opinionated about politics)

I show how these 10 trends interact with the moral psychology I presented in The Righteous Mind to produce the strong and steady rise in polarization that we’ve seen since the 1990s. Note that most of these trends cannot be reversed. Morality binds and blinds, and for these 10 reasons, morality been binding us ever more tightly in the last 10-20 years. “Affective partisan polarization” — the degree to which we hold negative views of the other team — has been rising steadily, and there is no end in sight.


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Three Stories about Capitalism

Posted by in Business, moral philosophy, Videos

Since moving to the NYU-Stern School of Business in 2011, I’ve been interested in the many ways that moral psychology influences economic thinking. I was surrounded by professors and MBA students who see business as a force for good, and I was periodically riding my bicycle a mile south to study the Occupy Wall Street movement, which saw capitalism as a great evil. Over the next two years I came to see that there were two diametrically opposed stories about capitalism circulating in Western cultures: capitalism is exploitation, and capitalism is alchemy (i.e., it makes gold out of base metals, and we are all better off). I began to write out those stories and make them explicit in the business ethics courses I was teaching at Stern.

In February, I was given the chance to tell those two stories at an unusual panel discussion. It was held at the American Enterprise Institute – one of the foremost free market think tanks – a place devoted to promulgating the positive story about business. Its president, Arthur Brooks, has been scrambling culture war categories recently by proposing that Republicans need to “declare peace” on the safety net, and they need to make the moral case for capitalism. As one way to explore the moral case for capitalism, Brooks invited The Dalai Lama for two days of discussions. I was invited to take part in the second day.

I had met the Dalai Lama once before, at a discussion on secular ethics at USC in 2011, and was shocked to hear his answer to my question about what kind of ethics he would like to see in Tibet: Marxist. You can see our exchange here. His Holiness firmly embraced the exploitation story. So I figured that this second meeting would be a good place to bring up the two stories about capitalism and ask him if he really meant to embrace the exploitation story told by Marxists everywhere, despite the fact that Marxism usually leads to poverty and secret police forces.

Here is the video of my talk and his response. I paste below it the transcript of my written remarks, which are quite close to what I actually said. These two stories, plus a third, yet to be written, is the topic of my next book. My remarks start at 47:20.


Overall it was a lovely event – not overtly partisan, just an exploration of some of the most important issues of our day: capitalism, happiness, and ethics. At one point before my talk, the Dalai Lama said that, as a result of hearing the speakers, he had “developed more respect about capitalism.” You can read more about the event in David Brooks’ column.

===================  TEXT OF MY REMARKS ======================

Three stories about capitalism

Jonathan Haidt

What a wonderful world we live in, when a religious leader most beloved on the left [The Dalai Lama], comes to speak at a free-market think tank led by a man who wants conservatives to strive for social justice [Arthur Brooks]. This day gives me hope.

In my remarks today, I’d like to tell you three stories about Capitalism. His Holiness endorses the first story. I will try to convince him that he should put more credence in the second story, and then help us to write the third.

Here is the first story, Capitalism is exploitation. It goes like this:

Once upon a time, work was real and authentic. Farmers raised crops and  craftsmen made goods. People traded those goods locally, and that trade strengthened local communities. But then, Capitalism was invented, and darkness spread across the land. The capitalists developed ingenious techniques for squeezing wealth out of workers, and then sucking up all of societies’ resources for themselves. The capitalist class uses its wealth to buy political influence, and now the 1% is above the law. The rest of us are its pawns, forever. The end.

In their recent book Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson show that there is a great deal of truth to this story. In most countries and at most times, economic institutions have been extractive, not inclusive and generative. This exploitation story activates many aspects of our innate moral psychology. One is that we judge people based on their intentions. When a merchant or businessperson makes our lives better, we give them no moral credit because their goal was profit. As Adam Smith put it…. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” We may praise their skill, but we never praise their virtue. In fact, we see them as selfish.

This, I believe, is the story about capitalism that His Holiness embraces. When I first met him at the U. of Southern California, 3 years ago, I asked him what kind of government he’d like to see in Tibet. Here was his response:

Between socialism and capitalism, I’m socialist, and furthermore, I always describe myself as a Marxist…. But not a Leninist. In my mind, Marxism is the only economic theory that expresses a sense of concern about equal distribution. That’s a moral thing. Whereas capitalism…. Is about “how to make a profit,” only that.  And in order to get more profit, there is no hesitation to exploit.

But what if we were to judge people, and ideologies, by their results, rather than by their intentions? That would lead us to the second story about capitalism: Capitalism is our savior.


Here’s how it goes:

Once upon a time, and for thousands of years, almost everyone was poor, and many were slaves or serfs. Then one day, some good institutions were invented in England and Holland. These democratic institutions put checks on the exploitative power of the elites, which in turn allowed for the creation of economic institutions that rewarded hard work, risk-taking, and innovation.  Free Market Capitalism was born. It spread rapidly across Europe and to some of the British colonies. In just a few centuries, poverty disappeared in these fortunate countries, and people got rights and dignity, safety and longevity. Free market capitalism is our savior, and Marxism is the devil. In the last 30 years, dozens of countries have seen the light, cast aside the devil, and embraced our savior. If we can spread the gospel to all countries, then we will vanquish poverty and enter a golden age. The end.

We heard this second story in Glen Hubbard’s remarks, and I believe the historical facts strongly support it. Free markets really are miracles. They can quite literally turn water into wine, in vast quantities, and at low, low prices, as long as vineyard owners can get  access to capital, labor, and transportation networks.

But because free markets are so astonishingly good, some people come to worship them. A basic principle of moral psychology is that morality binds and blinds. When any group of people makes something into a sacred object, the joint worship of the object binds them together, but then prevents them from seeing any faults or flaws.

Pope Francis pointed this out in his controversial Exhortation last November. He criticized those who embrace the second story too firmly as exhibiting “A crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” And this brings us to the third story about Capitalism, the story that has yet to be written. It begins like this:


Once upon a time, in the 1990s, capitalism triumphed over all other forms of economic organization, and the entire planet began moving toward prosperity. But we didn’t all live happily ever after. In fact, it was just the beginning of a new chapter, in which new challenges were discovered.

The long compression of income inequality, which had  begun in the 1930s in many Western nations, ended. The gap between rich and poor within nations began to shoot upwards. Economic gains went mostly to the rich, who then used their money to buy legislators and laws, just as was charged in the first story.

The problem of global warming was first recognized, just as Asia was beginning to industrialize, leading to apocalyptic forecasts of submerged cities.

The fragility of the world’s banking systems was exposed in the crash of 2008, shaking global confidence in capitalism’s ability to work without strong government oversight.

And as market values expanded beyond the marketplace, and started taking over medicine, education, and other domains of life, many people felt lamented the crass and degrading materialism of modernity.

So this is our challenge for the 21st century: We celebrate the fact that the wide embrace of free markets has lifted more than a billion people out of poverty. Yet we know we can do better. If we can strip away the anger, the worship, and the ideology, we can examine capitalism and its ethical challenges more openly.

We can see that the supply chains that keep our shelves stocked have their origins in the deadly sweatshops of Bangladesh. We can measure the polluted air and empty oceans we are bequeathing to our children. And we can have a more nuanced discussion of equal opportunity, particularly in America where schools are funded by local taxes and money buys your children a better starting line.

So let us be grateful to the butcher, the brewer, and the baker for the bounty they bestow upon us, even when they are corporations. Let us look back in awe at the political and economic changes that brought us from the first story to the second. And then let us work together to write the third story, a story that must draw on insights from left and right, and from secular thinkers and religious leaders.

Is there a story about capitalism that could be embraced by Pope Francis, His Holiness, and the rest of today’s panelists? Let’s find out.

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Moral Foundations and Relationship Therapy

Posted by in Moral Foundations in Action



My lifelong curiosity about human interactions led me to a career as a psychotherapist and consultant. In addition to learning the psychology of individuals, couples and families, I have also maintained the interest in social and moral psychology that I developed as an undergraduate student. Combine that with a longstanding fascination with the psychology of politics and religion and I bought Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” the minute I finished reading the review.

Haidt’s book delivered what it promised – a thorough and well researched answer to the question of “why good people are divided by politics and religion”. My desire for a new and deeper way of thinking about moral and social psychology in the area of politics and religion was satisfied. What I did not expect to obtain from this book was strategic applications in my clinical practice. If moral foundations theory can explain the behavior in large systems like politics, might it be useful as an explanation of fractures in a smaller but equally powerful systems like a couple? I have experimented with three applications of Moral Foundations Theory, which I describe below.

Application 1: Changing the focus of fighting couples from what they might be fighting about to what they may be fighting for

Beth and Mike were in my office going at it.  I am a seasoned (sounds better than senior) therapist so I was in practice in the days when we believed cathartic release was a good thing for couples (any of you old enough to remember couples using bataka bats on each other as a therapeutic strategy?) Now that we know more about how the primitive part of the brain works, feeding anger is not useful as a solution for anger. So, as an up to date marital therapist, I attempted to slow down the interaction of this couple, identify some communication missteps, and teach some self-regulatory skills to manage the primitive fight responses.

As this couple calmed, I flashed back to my recent reading of moral foundations theory. I asked each spouse if it was possible that the energy in this fight might come from a drive to protect something very important and perhaps even very sacred to each of them.  I asked them to consider what they were fighting for rather than fighting about. It took some work but each was able identify the important belief  that triggered such a primitive fast brain response.

Over the course of our work together Mike had accepted he had a problem with alcohol. Mike eventually agreed with Beth that any amount of alcohol and driving was a great risk to their family’s wellbeing. Mike agreed with Beth’s sacred protection of the moral foundation of Care vs. Harm. The fight in this session was triggered because Mike came home in the afternoon smelling like alcohol after spending the night at their lake house. Mike’s defense was shaky. He admitted he had an uncounted number of beers the night before but he vehemently claimed he did not drive while intoxicated. He stated he had worked on the dock all day in the heat and had not showered. He smelled like he had been drinking because he was sweating out the alcohol. To my surprise, Beth believed his explanation. But also to my surprise, that did not matter. “No responsible adult would not know how much alcohol he had to drink in any circumstance,” said Beth. And, she questioned, “Did he not see the risk in walking around the lake and lake house drunk?” “A man ought to be able to have whatever he wants to drink as long as there is no obvious harm,” replied Mike. “I did not drive or operate any machinery after I drank. I agree driving and drinking is wrong. I cannot live in a relationship in which I do not have some freedom.” Mike had now voiced his moral foundation of Liberty/Oppression that overrode the agreed upon foundation of this topic of Care/Harm because he believed no harm occurred.

The pattern of couples polarizing over the competing needs of safety and freedom is common. The shift in my approach was to identify these beliefs as deep and sacred rather than just “differences of opinion”. This strategy deepened this couple’s level of acceptance of the other by identifying the sacredness of the territory being protected. In the session I actually used the language of moral foundations theory and described the information of Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression as two of six possible ways people differ that can create conflict. Both agreed the other’s sacred territory had value. They were able to acknowledge they each put extra energy into their position because they believed they were the only one able to see value in their particular moral foundation. At this level of each “getting” the other we could transition to some useful work on the early formation of their positions as it related to their family of origin history.   Beth talked in more depth about the terror of living with an alcoholic mother and Mike’s disclosed his historical struggle to gain his freedom from an oppressive controlling father.

Application 2: Helping couples who actually fight about politics and religion deepen their understanding of the cause of the fight

Beth and Mike were aligned in their politics. Their conflict was about a different emphasis on two moral foundations as it impacted their interpersonal dynamics. Ruth and Bill, on the other hand, were like watching a rambunctious cable television show. Ruth contended she thought they were more alike than different politically until recently. She stated that ever since Bill began listening to certain radio programs and watching certain television shows he has acted “crazy” like the people he listens to. Bill could not imagine why any sane person, particularly his wife, is not as outraged as he is about the direction of the country.

I have seen so many similar couples in the last 5-6 years that this dynamic is beginning to look like a syndrome. Typically one spouse is an avid radio listener or television watcher of conservative commentary. The conflict is obvious if the other spouse leans a different way politically. Some couples like Ruth and Bill do not differ much politically. The problem is the intensity of the presentation of the partner who is outraged.

Prior to coming to therapy, the closest Ruth and Bill had come to fixing this frustration was Bill getting a headset so Ruth did not have to listen to what he listened to each afternoon. That solution was limited because Bill continued to yell in agreement with his afternoon show hosts creating what Ruth experienced as an unsafe environment.

Again, I encouraged this couple to dig vertically to discover the roots of the conflict using Moral Foundations Theory. Interestingly, in this conflict one moral foundation seemed to be at play in two different ways. Bill was a retired physician who had been beat up financially by managed care. His original motivation of caring for patients became overshadowed by his rage at insurance companies and forced pro bono work. He primarily tuned in to political commentary that would fire up his rage about lack of fairness as proportionality. Ruth was mad about his lack of fairness in the area of equality. She did not believe it was fair that she had to hide in her own home to escape his tirades at the radio and television. She also experienced him as not attuned to her need for a psychologically safe environment (Care/Harm). When this conflict was defined as the two different aspects of the moral foundation of Fairness and Bill’s lack of sensitivity to Care, Bill and Ruth could make a connection. She could understand that the anger he displayed was related to how hurt he was that his dream of practicing medicine was impacted by the changes in his profession. He could understand that she was not just against him, but that his aggressive presentation was unfair because it made their home less safe. Bill agreed to turn down his volume and Ruth agreed to have political discussions with him if the discussions were calm and thoughtful.

Application 3: Helping single patients assess potential partners.

Jeff was single with full custody of his three young children. Our early work in therapy focused on the expected adjustment to his new life as a single parent as well as his deep sadness about the end of his marriage. After a few years, Jeff decided he was ready to date. The children were more independent and Jeff was lonely.  Jeff wanted a long-term partner.

As Jeff described his dating experience to me, I noticed an emerging pattern. If Jeff was asked to describe how his political beliefs, he would quickly respond that he was a true blue conservative. Jeff was clear with his friends who wanted to set him up that he wanted a partner who was compatible with his politics. However, Jeff would often let his elephantine sexual drive override his discerning rider only to later discover the woman he had been intimate with had liberal leanings. He came to understand how his strong drive sexually impaired his judgment. Once this fact was clear, he would more quickly dismiss relationship candidates who were “bleeding hearts” before the relationship escalated to sexual intimacy. The surprise for Jeff was even after he slowed down and made sure the women he dated shared his party affiliation, he still experienced a breakdown in their shared beliefs that he could not adequately understand.

I suggested to Jeff that he read a couple of short articles by Haidt to help him develop a deeper understanding of his political preferences and how he assessed the preferences of the women he dated. Jeff determined he was actually a political hybrid rather than his previous summary of himself as “conservative”. His moral foundations matrix was high on Care, high on Liberty, very high on Fairness, moderate on Loyalty, moderate on Authority, and low on Sanctity. One strong belief in his Fairness foundation included the idea that partners in a relationship should share the financial responsibility (distributive fairness). Several significant dating relationships ended when Jeff saw in the woman an expectation that the male should be the financial provider in a relationship.

Jeff concluded that he should not assume all Republican women he dated were a fit. His ideal partner would care for children and the disadvantaged who absolutely could not help themselves. She should value liberty and not desire a hierarchical relationship with him. She should be personally self-sufficient and with a strong belief that almost everyone else in the country should be self-sufficient as well. She should have some important group alliances and a moderate, not legalistic appreciation for authority. Finally, she should not be engaged in causes related to sanctity such as abortion or sexual abstinence outside of marriage.

I have other groups of related individuals with whom I am using moral foundations theory. I currently have several consulting cases with family businesses that are benefiting from understanding their conflict based on the theory.  If you are a clinician or consultant and found Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations intriguing, keep a look out for applications with your patients and clients. You will be pleased how useful Moral Foundations theory is in your practice.



Patrick O’Malley, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist and consultant in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the past chair of the American Association For Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) Ethics Committee and the past chair of the AAMFT Judicial Committee. He also served on the Ethics Code Revision Task force for the AAMFT 2001 Code of Ethics. He has written several articles on ethical practice in marriage and family therapy. Patrick can be reached at pomalley AT


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The first New York City Asteroids Club Dinner

Posted by in Civility, Politics

[Cross posted from]

The Asteroids Club is any group of people  with diverging political views who gather not to debate, but to listen to the other side explain why it is concerned about certain threats. The metaphor is meant to capture the fact that there are many threats coming at the United States–like asteroids scheduled for direct hits—yet each side of the political spectrum focuses on a few of them and ignores or discounts the asteroids that most worry the other side. As John Stuart Mill said in 1840: “in almost every one of the leading controversies… both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though in the wrong in what they denied.” The Asteroids Club is a novel format for bringing people together, over a meal, for a discussion in which each side helps the other to see more clearly. The format has been developed by The Village Square, in Tallahassee Florida.

The Nathan Cummings Foundation hosted the first New York City Asteroids Club dinner on February 26, 2014, in the home of its president, Simon Greer. The foundation is in the process of updating its research and funding portfolios, and its leaders were interested in learning more about the issues of income inequality and the causes of poverty. They were also interested in developing relationships with experts from diverse perspectives who could help them understand these complex topics. Simon and I therefore chose the two asteroids of rising income inequality (a topic of greater concern on the left), and declining rates of marriage and family stability (a topic of greater concern on the right).

This report is intended to be useful for anyone interested in hosting future dinners, or in bridging the political divide more generally. However, we note that we decided to invite experts from right and left to the first dinner, rather than ordinary people, to maximize the degree to which we could learn about the best thinking and research on these topics. This dinner may therefore not be representative of what will happen if the Asteroids Club format is rolled out and used widely by civic groups across the nation.

Preparing For the Dinner

We ran the dinner using the Chatham House rule, which says that participants are free to write about the event, but cannot reveal the identities or affiliations of the speakers. So we will simply say that we invited two very prominent and well-respected journalists, one clearly identified with liberalism, one with conservatism. We asked these two co-hosts to suggest additional people they wanted on their “team.” (We had hoped to avoid the terms “team” or “side,” but it was hard to do so.) These two co-hosts then nominated several other experts, and took a few suggestions from Simon and me about experts we know on both sides. All 10 people who were invited accepted the invitation. The final dinner was attended by 18 people: 6 liberals, 6 conservatives, Simon and me (who served as co-hosts), and four observers affiliated with the foundation. The expertise in the room was extraordinary, including journalists, economists, activists, and people with experience in government and policy-making.

Two weeks before the dinner, we assembled a list of readings nominated by the participants and posted them all in a google document that we used to share information and coordinate the evening. Because these prominent participants were all extremely busy, we did not push for them to do much preparation beforehand, although we did encourage them to read one or two articles from the other side, and to watch my TED talk that introduced the idea of the asteroids club.

The Dinner

The evening began at 7:30 with drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and unstructured socializing, which was quite cross-partisan. At 8:00 the two teams convened separately to go over final plans for their presentation. (In retrospect we should have encouraged the two teams to do more of this online, before arriving at the dinner). Around 8:30 everyone moved into the dining room and sat in seats that had been assigned to ensure a good mix of people at each of the two long tables. Simon welcomed everyone to his home and presented the Hebrew conception of two kinds of argument: machloket l’shem shamayim – argument that is for the sake of heaven which is intended to better discern truth and move the world forward,  and 2) machloket she’lo l’shem shamayim – an argument that is not for the sake of heaven, but is just for the sake of itself or for the sake of being controversial. Argument in pursuit of truth is considered sacred in the Jewish tradition.

I then explained the history of the Asteroids Club format, and went over the groundrules, including the Chatham house rule, the exact schedule, and the role that I would play as timekeeper and moderator. Each of the participants then offered a 1-minute introduction of him- or herself. We then served ourselves dinner from the buffet, and began the structured discussion. The schedule that we intended to follow was this:

9:00 begin Asteroid #1: rising inequality, liberal side presents
–15 minutes to describe the threat; why this matters, why it’s urgent….During this time, the listening side gets to ask a few brief elaborative questions, but hold argumentative questions for the next step.
–5 minutes for “telescope” time — conservatives ask critical questions, request more info, challenge assumptions.

9:20 begin Asteroid #2 family breakdown, conservative side presents
–15  minutes to describe the threat; why this matters, why it’s urgent…. During this time, the listening side gets to ask a few brief elaborative questions, but hold argumentative questions for the next step.
–5 minutes for “telescope” time — liberals ask critical questions, request more info, challenge assumptions.

9:40: dessert served, short break
9:45 Integrative discussion, 20 min.
–10 min: Return to Asteroid #1: Inequality. Go deeper: what does the liberal side most want to change, address, or at least have understood (taking into account family breakdown)
–10 min: Return to Asteroid #2: Family Breakdown: Go deeper: what does the conservative side most want to change, address, or at least have understood? (taking into account rising inequality)

10:05 Concluding discussion and resolutions.
10:30: End of formal discussion, take closing survey.

The schedule we actually followed was close to this, but because we were running behind and because there was clearly a surprising amount of agreement on what aspects of poverty were of great concern, I decided to merge the two parts of the integrative discussion into a single discussion of what really matters – what issues either side had raised that seemed to elicit at least some assent from the other side.

In general there was bipartisan agreement that income inequality has been rising in recent decades, although there was NOT bipartisan agreement that rising inequality itself was a problem that needed to be addressed. There was, however, bipartisan (though not necessarily unanimous) agreement that the following issues are concerns or problems, and that we would be a better country if we could address them:

  • Dignity, and the indignities disproportionately suffered by the poor
  • Distrust of government and democracy
  • Waste: the financial squeeze and inefficiency caused by “arms races” as people spend more money to attain “positional goods” such as a home in a good school district.
  • Lack of opportunity for large segments of society; The waste of human potential among the poor.
  • Declining motivation and economic dynamism – which can be stimulated by moderate degrees of inequality (this point was noted by a liberal)
  • Abuses of power, which becomes easier for those with a lot of money
  • Separateness – having communities that are cut off from the mainstream of society; having low social trust and cohesion.

In general there WAS bipartisan agreement that marriage rates and family stability have declined in recent decades. There WAS bipartisan agreement that these trends are bad for society, and that it would be good if we could find ways of reversing the trends. There was a very high degree of bipartisan concern about poverty, especially for its pernicious effects on children. There was also a consensus that the people who suffer most from these trends are single mothers (who bear the main costs and stresses of raising children under often adverse circumstances) and their sons. Daughters suffer too, of course, but there was consensus that boys’ outcomes are more adversely affected by the absence of a father, and these adverse outcomes then set up a feedback loop for the next generation in which there are way too few stable, employed, and marriageable young men who could break the cycle of father-absence.

The Post-Dinner Assessment

We are working with my colleagues at to develop assessment tools that can be used by any organization running any kind of civility-enhancing event. For future events, we will send all participants a link to a web-based survey  a few days before the event, then pass out a paper questionnaire at the conclusion of the event, then send out a web-based followup survey a week after the event, to assess the effects of the event on attitudes about the asteroids, and about the people on the other side. For this first dinner, with 12 super-busy people, we only obtained four responses to the first web survey. (You can see that first survey here. Future versions will be much more extensive.) We therefore decided to focus our efforts on obtaining measures of the key variables at the conclusion of the evening. Did people come to see the asteroid presented by the other side as a clearer or more pressing threat than they had before the dinner? That is the central goal of an Asteroids Club dinner.

We collected responses from all 6 liberals and from 5 of the conservatives.  For each asteroid, we asked participants whether their views had changed regarding both the PACE of the threat and the SEVERITY of the threat.  For example, here is the exact text of one of the four main questions:

How has tonight’s discussion influenced your beliefs about the severity of the problem of income inequality for the USA?
___I now see it as a much less severe problem than I did a week ago
___I now see it as a slightly less severe problem than I did a week ago
___The discussion did not influence my beliefs in either direction
___I now see it as a slightly more severe problem than I did a week ago
___I now see it as a much more severe problem than I did a week ago

The graph below shows the results. Let’s start with family decline. The liberals (shown on the left half) DID move in the desired direction. They now see it as a more rapidly approaching threat (gold bar, 4 moved), and a more severe threat (purple bar, 5 moved). The conservatives did not really move on family decline, nor did we expect them to. (The gold bar doesn’t even show  because nobody moved.)


On inequality, the story was quite different. No conservative moved at all on the speed of the change (which is why the blue bar does not show), and the only movement on severity came from a single conservative who said that he/she now sees the problem as “slightly less severe” than before. (The liberals also showed no movement on inequality, except for a single participant who said “slightly more severe” than before.)

What can we make of this pattern?  It appears that the asteroids club format worked for the family decline asteroid. The conservatives presented the asteroid, the liberals listened, and then came to see it as a greater threat. This is very encouraging.

But it is harder to know how to interpret the results on the inequality asteroid. The lack of movement could have resulted because A) the liberal team made a weaker case about inequality than the conservatives had for family decline, or B) the conservatives were less open-minded and willing to listen, or C) the facts about inequality and its harms are truly more ambiguous and contestable than they are for the family decline asteroid. My conclusion from the background reading, and from the conversation during the dinner, is that C is true and is at least part of the explanation.

We also asked: “Compared to other discussions about policy and politics you’ve had in politically ‘mixed company,’ how enjoyable was this ‘asteroids club’ format?”  We offered 5 choices, ranging from “much less enjoyable” (scored as -2) to “much more enjoyable” (scored at +2). Six respondents said “much more enjoyable,” one said “about the same,” and four said “slightly more enjoyable.” There was no significant difference between the liberals and conservatives, which is quite encouraging


Conclusions and advice for future Asteroids Club dinners:

Based on the data above, and on comments made by participants after the dinner, I draw the following conclusions and lessons:

1) The format is enjoyable and promotes civil interaction. Sharing a meal in a private home seems to have made people particularly polite and open.

2) It is difficult to do two asteroids in a single 2 hour discussion. There are advantages to doing two – it led to a sense of balance and fairness. But at least 3 hours of discussion would have been needed to cover both.

3) Relationships matter, and it takes time to get to know each other and develop trust. Ideally, asteroids clubs will be true clubs, with a stable membership that meets every month or two.

4) The exact instructions for each part of the evening matter. More work is needed, drawing from experts in negotiation and facilitated discussion, on how to optimize the integrative discussion and conclusion.

5) More “warmup” exercises could be tried. We kept this evening fairly direct and cerebral – focused on the ideas and research. But future events could begin with more activities to build trust and cohesion, such as singing the National Anthem, or doing introductions in a much more personal way, or pairing off in bipartisan teams for short initial discussions, and then having participants report to the group by introducing their partner and his/her main concerns.

The bottom line is that we created a novel social situation which called for openness, trust, and collaborative thinking, and the participants rose to the occasion. There was no partisan sniping and not a shred of hostility. People sometimes made points that supported the other side. Many on both sides expressed a desire to continue the conversation. Which we will do, in a way soon to be announced.

If you are interested in hosting an Asteroids Club dinner yourself, please visit:


Jon Haidt


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Why I think Sam Harris is wrong about morality

Posted by in moral philosophy

Several commenters  have said I should not just critique the excessive certainty of the New Atheists. I should respond directly to Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge. I should say why I think the argument he makes about a science of morality are wrong. (Harris argues that what is right and wrong can be determined scientifically, just as we can determine truths in the natural sciences). Fair enough. So this morning I submitted the following text as my entry in his challenge.


I see two principles errors in The Moral Landscape.

1) The claim that well-being can be measured in an objective way that is similar to measurements in the natural sciences.

I am active in positive psychology. I believe that well-being can be measured. But there is no one measurement, and no way to aggregate measurements in a way that removes the need for philosophical discussions about what matters to people in a particular culture and era. The form of measurement Harris seems to assume is a utilitarian approach: sum up all the well-being of each person at each moment, perhaps estimating it by taking brain scans. Whatever way of life leads to the maximum objective well-being across all people is morally better than one that leads to less.

This approach to measurement is similar to the approach that Dan Kahneman took in the 1990s, when he thought that happiness was the area under the curve, when you graph out a person’s well-being from moment to moment. The more moments spent in high well-being, the better. But Kahneman eventually renounced this view, recognizing that experienced happiness is not the only criterion, and that the duration of experiences does not matter in a linear way. To give one example, which life would you rather lead:

Life #1: You have an easy life, full of intense pleasures, and you are very happy for your first 60 years. But at age 60 you take stock of your life and spend your last 20 years unhappy, with a sense that your life has been a waste.

Life #2: You  work hard, have repeated failures, and are rarely happy for your first 60 years. But at age 60 your hard work finally pays off, you have great accomplishments, and you spend your last 20 years happy, with a sense that your life has been profoundly meaningful.

If we stipulate that the total well-being experienced in life #1 is twice as high as in life #2, would it then be wrong to choose life #2? According to Harris’s logic, a society that pushes people toward life #1 is morally superior to one that pushes people toward life #2. It has a higher peak on the Moral Landscape, even though most people would probably choose life #2.

There is no single metric of well-being; there is no way to eliminate the need for reflection, or for philosophers. There is no way to turn values into the sorts of non-contested facts that we find in the natural sciences, where variables of interest can be measured with no need for cultural or historical knowledge.


2) The claim that moral facts are non-anthropocentric facts.

The philosopher David Wiggins (1987) distinguishes between “Non-anthropocentric” and “anthropocentric” facts. (This is similar to Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities). Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.

Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that  sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar  and isolation.

Harris is asserting that correct moral claims are non-anthropocentric facts. He is asserting that if intelligent aliens came to Earth today, they could in principle judge the moral worth of human societies, as long as they learned about human brains and could take accurate measures of well-being.

But moral facts are anthropocentric facts. If intelligent aliens came to visit, we can have no confidence that they would reach the same moral conclusions that Harris reaches, based on his utilitarian ethos. Perhaps these aliens evolved by cloning rather than sexual reproduction, and, like the Borg on Star Trek, are concerned only about the strength of the collective, with no concern for individuals.

Even within the category of anthropocentric truths, there are subtypes. Perceptual claims are generally (though not always) true across cultures and eras. Because of our shared evolutionary history, it will be an anthropocentric fact everywhere that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid. Yet many other anthropocentric facts are emergent –– they emerge only when people interact, in a particular cultural or historical era. Prices are a good example: It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver. That is not just my opinion. Other examples include judgments of humor, sexiness, or deliciousness. Some comedians, fashion models, and restaurants really are better than others. Standards emerge at particular times, and the aggregated judgments of experts are actually ratings of quality. There are facts, but they are very different from the facts of chemistry and physics. We might call such facts “emergent culture-specific anthropocentric truths.”

I believe that moral truths are of this sort. This still makes it possible to critique practices in other cultures. All cuisines are not equal – French cuisine was better than 1950s American, and Julia Child offered Americans a way to improve. Similarly, a culture that oppresses categories of people against their will is worse than one that does not. Massive human rights violations, in which large numbers of victims are crying out for foreign assistance, can justify a military response  from other nations. But the fact that humanity has reached that point is an emergent fact about modernity and our changing moral standards. I do not think it was morally incumbent upon ancient Rome to stop human rights abuses in neighboring kingdoms. Moral facts are not eternal and universal in the way that non-anthropocentric facts are. But if moral facts are unlike facts in the natural sciences, then Harris’s attempt to collapse the fact/value distinction fails.







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