The Way We Think: Culture, Values, and a Righteous Mind

“Attitudes become Behaviors by Choice”

While it may seem reasonable to attribute our (or other’s) behaviors to our (or their) attitudes and to assume that these attitudes are simply conscious expressions of subconscious values, a harder question is, “Where do our values come from?”

This question is more difficult than it seems because the simple answer, “From my family and friends” still leaves open the same question about the source of their values.  The question could go on ad infinitum, or ad nauseam, take your pick.

It was therefore refreshing (and challenging, enlightening, and, ultimately, an “Ah-Ha” experience) to come across Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion (2012), a journey through the development of Moral Foundations Theory.  The theory provides the strong foundations upon which multicultural Value systems are based.

(Granted, it is now 2018 so I came late to discovering and reading it, especially since reviews described it as, “An eye-opening and deceptively ambitious bestseller … undoubtedly one of the most talked-about books of the year” (WSJ), and “A landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself” (NYT Book Review).  So, I asked, if it is that impactful, why I had I not come across it earlier?  And that led me to think, if a best seller averages between 5,000 and 10,000 copies sold per week and lasts rarely more than 52 weeks on a best seller list, that amounts to about 400,000 copies sold with maybe 25% of those readers passing the book on, resulting in about half a million people who have read this “landmark contribution.”  So, what are the rest of the 330 million people in the US reading?  Don’t answer that question; just watch their behavior.)

Based on the title, right off the bat I figured it was sort of a polemic against a conservative mindset.  Not true at all.  The reviewers (and others) are correct not only about the thrust and impact of Haidt’s message, but in the approachability and readability of how he has written it.  The message is not only how different cultural “Moral Matrices” (what I have referred to as Values) develop, but the very real journey that Haidt, a self-proclaimed liberal atheist of Jewish descent, made by living in different cultures doing research and reached a broader and deeper understanding of the culturally universal foundations upon which various Moral Matrices (Values) are built.

With so many nations of the world descending deeper into polarization and paralysis, the Moral Foundations Theory that Haidt presents leads to a better understanding of the different forms of bedrock upon which Values (Moral Matrices) are built, which can then lead to a better understanding of the Attitudes that lead to Behaviors.

In particular, it helps explain how different cultures can build conflicting Moral Matrices on the same small set of bedrock foundations.  It also leads to a potential understanding of how these selfsame forms of bedrock (the Foundations) can also constrain the ranges of Choices people are willing to make that lead to their Behaviors.

Enough of a broad overview; here is the distilled meat of Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), sandwiched with connections I see to my previous thoughts.

At the heart of most attempts to understand human behavior is the question of the influence of Nature (inherited genes) versus Nurture (our environments).  In a past post I have supported that it is not Either One/Or the Other, but a reality that both play significant roles which are not always completely complementary or additive (an And/And situation).

MFT builds upon the concept that our genes and our environment (Nature and Nurture) lead to ‘switches’ developing in our brains which are then turned ‘on’ or ‘off’ by various patterns and experiences that are important for survival in a particular environment, and that these ‘on’/’off’ switches then change or affect our behaviors.  Switches develop through cultural learning and variations in experiences as cultures can shrink or expand the ‘triggers’ (events, words, pictures, etc.) that turn them on or off (blog:think of this as a form of Regression to the Cultural Mean).

Research by Haidt and his colleagues initially led to proposing five foundational and universal cognitive areas (they called them ‘modules’) upon which different cultures construct their Moral Matrices in order to respond to adaptive challenges in their environments (blog: ‘adapt or die’ circumstances).  These are: 2

-Care versus Harm
-Fairness versus Cheating
-Loyalty versus Betrayal
-Authority versus Submission
-Sanctity versus Degradation

(blog: note that each module has two extremes, a positive, value-adding (giving) concern first, followed by a negative or value-subtracting (taking) concern. These correlate with positions along the Behavior Curve.)

Here are simple summaries, with some thoughts, of each Foundation as described in The Righteous Mind.

Care/Harm 3

This foundation is based on the module that is primarily responsible for meeting the adaptive challenge of protecting and caring for children and others.  This one concerns survival and seems fairly straightforward.

The triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation can include seeing a cute, healthy baby (Care) or a child or animal threatened with violence (Harm).

Fairness/Cheating 4

The Theory of Reciprocal Altruism says that we evolved a set of moral emotions that lead us to play “tit-for-tat.”  We’re usually nice to people when we first meet them (blog: ye olde “Trust but Confirm” philosophy), but after that we’re selective: we cooperate with those who have been nice to us, and we shun those who took advantage of us (blog: that is, we recognize Givers versus Takers).  A major point is that human life is a series of opportunities (adaptive challenges) for mutually beneficial cooperation (blog: in other words, opportunities as potential Positive Sum Games or value added transactions).

Current triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation include things that are now strongly culturally and politically linked to the dynamics of reciprocity and cheating.

On the political Left, concerns about equality and social justice are based in part on the Fairness foundation: in the extreme, wealthy and powerful groups are accused of gaining by exploiting those at the bottom of the social ladder by not paying their “fair share” of the tax burden (blog: they are accused of being Takers, all the while ignoring the fact that the top 1% of income earners pay 27% of federal taxes, and the top 20% pay 87% of taxes (WSJ)).  For the Left, Fairness often implies equality of outcomes.

On the political Right, there are equal concerns about Fairness: in the extreme, Democrats are seen as “socialists” who take away money from hardworking Americans and give it to lazy people (including those who receive welfare or unemployment benefits) and to illegal immigrants (in the form of free health care and education).   For the Right, Fairness often implies proportionality of outcomes.

(That the responses to these first two foundations are so strongly different eventually led, with further research, for Haidt and his colleagues to propose an additional foundation, which we will return to later).

Loyalty/Betrayal 5

The male mind appears to be innately tribal, enjoying things that lead to the adaptive challenge of group cohesion and success in conflicts between groups (yes, including warfare).  While the virtue of loyalty matters a great deal to both sexes, the objects are quite different:

-Teams and coalitions for boys; and

-Two-person relationships for girls.

Warfare has been around since before agriculture and private property were developed, and we are the descendants of successful tribalists (blog: now we primarily organize this, more or less acceptably, into sporting competitions).

The triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation are recognizing teammates, matched by a corresponding hatred of traitors.

Clearly Loyalty/Betrayal plays a strong role in politics: while the Right tends towards nationalism and patriotism (group cohesion), the Left tends towards universalism (individualism) and away from nationalism and consequently the Left has trouble connecting to voters who rely on the Loyalty foundation.  And because of its strong reliance upon the Care foundation, American liberals are often hostile to American foreign policy (i.e., care for our own first).

Authority/Subversion 6

The adaptive challenge basis for this foundation is negotiating status hierarchies, which typically followed the development of cohesive social groups such as clans and tribes.

Cultures vary enormously in the degree to which they demand that respect be shown to parents, teachers, and others in positions of authority.  This can also be seen (and heard) in various languages that code respect directly into pronoun forms, i.e., French has vous, plural and respectful, and tu, singular and familiar.  Similar coding occurs in other Germanic and Romantic languages.

It is important, however, to not confuse Authority with Power.

There is a “control role” readily observable in human tribes and early civilizations to say nothing about today.  Human authority is not just raw power backed by the threat of force.  Human authorities take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice (although the people we call Authorities often exploit their subordinates for their own benefit while believing they are just).  (blog: under Authority, this exploitation is a “control role,” while the alternative, what I would call a true “influence role,” responsibly seeks to elevate other’s skills for the benefit of the cohesive group).

Haidt acknowledges that early in his graduate school career he subscribed to the common liberal belief that Hierarchy=Power=Exploitation=Evil.  He subsequently discovered (and accepted and admits) that he was wrong when he came to understand the concept of Authority Ranking.

Authority Ranking is where people have asymmetric (i.e., unequal) positions in a linear hierarchy, in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and pastoral responsibility for subordinates.  Relationships are based upon perceptions of legitimate, not inherently exploitative asymmetries and not on coercive power (blog: interpreting this in my words and perhaps splitting concepts, these relationships recognize a legitimate “influence role,” which is based upon the idea of “authority by influence” in areas of strength while simultaneously behaving with “authority with deference or delegation” in areas of relative weaknesses (in other words, a smart boss who delegates).   The hair splitting perhaps comes in bundling the “inherently exploitative asymmetries” above into a “control role,” which presumes using only strengths and coercive power. Sometimes I wonder if this should also be called a “God role”).

We are the descendants of those who could play the “game,” to rise in status while cultivating the protection of superiors and the allegiance of subordinates (blog: this can be perceived as a Positive Sum Game where all benefit, eventually).  If authority is, in part, about protecting order and fending off chaos, then everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station (blog: this is also a form of Regression to the Cultural Mean, however that Mean was formed.  It is also a form of equality of opportunity, or proportionality of outcomes).

Current triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation include anything construed as an act of obedience or disobedience, respect or disrespect, submission or rebellion, all with respect to authorities perceived to be legitimate.  Current triggers also include acts that are seen to subvert the traditions, institutions, or values that are perceived to provide stability.

As with the Loyalty foundation, it is much easier for conservatives, the political Right, to build on this foundation than it is for the Left, which often defines itself in part by its opposition to hierarchy, inequality, and power (blog: recall the common liberal belief that Hierarchy=Power= Exploitation=Evil).

Sanctity/Degradation 7

The adaptive challenge for this foundation originated in a practical need to keep people and the group free from parasites and diseases, especially from pathogens that could spread quickly when people live together in large groups. It eventually evolved to focus on taboo ideas and behaviors.

Feelings of stain, pollution, and purification are irrational from a utilitarian point of view (Value system), but they make perfect sense if/when one recognizes a spiritual component to mankind.  Recognition of this component no doubt contributed to the evolution of and focus on taboo ideas and behaviors and contributed to the development of an Ethic of Divinity.  The Ethic of Divinity can be viewed as a vertical axis, with good increasing upwards with divinity at the top, and bad increasing downwards towards evil at the bottom.

Haidt also relates this, in a way, to food. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, omnivores must seek out and explore new potential foods while remaining wary of them until they are proven safe (blog: recall the history of the tomato).  Omnivores go through life with two competing behavior motives:

Neophilia (an attraction to new things), and

Neophobia (a fear of new things).

The liberal Left scores much higher on measures of neophilia (openness to experience), while the conservative Right is higher on neophobia, to stick with what’s tried and true.  And therefore the Right cares a lot more about guarding borders, boundaries, and traditions.

While current triggers for this foundation include taboo ideas and behaviors, according to Haidt’s research these triggers are extraordinarily variable and expandable across cultures and eras.  There appears to be a strong psychology of sacredness that binds individuals into moral communities, coupled with an emotional response of disgust for things and people outside of the community. When someone in a moral community desecrates one of the sacred pillars supporting the community, the reaction is sure to be swift, emotional, collective, and punitive (blog: these are prime examples of the Regression to the Cultural Mean as well as Exclusion from the Cultural Mean).  Haidt feels that if we had no sense of disgust, we would also have no sense of the sacred.

Haiti also notes that there is a vast difference between Left and Right over the use of concepts such as sanctity and purity. American conservatives are more likely to talk about “the sanctity of life” and “the sanctity of marriage.” And this idea is not just ancient history.  It inspired a virginity pledge movement in the U.S. that is still current.  On the Left, however, the virtue of chastity is usually dismissed as outdated and sexist.  If your morality focuses on individuals and their conscious experiences, then why on earth should anyone not use their body as a playground?

The Sanctity foundation is used most heavily by the religious right, but it is also used on the spiritual left.  In New Age grocery stores one can find a variety of products that promise to cleanse you of “toxins.”  It can also be found underlying some of the moral passions of the environmental movement concerning physical pollution as well as the degradation of nature. The Sanctity foundation is also crucial for understanding the American culture wars, particularly over biomedical issues including abortion.

The philosopher Leon Kass in 1997 lamented that technology often erases moral boundaries and brings people ever closer to the dangerous belief that they can do anything they want to do.  In his essay, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” he argued that our feelings of disgust can sometimes provide us with a valuable warning sign that we are going too far, even when we are morally dumbfounded and can’t justify those feelings by pointing to victims.  He notes, with some aplomb, “Repugnance, here as elsewhere, revolts against the excesses of human willfulness…” (blog: remarkably in alignment with our avoidance of the Repugnant Conclusion, especially if/when the “excesses of human willfulness” are our own, individually or as a group).

Now What?

In testing the validity of these foundations, data in the form of survey responses and reflections were collected from 132,000 people. 8  The results are rather striking, as exhibited in the following chart:

Figure 8.2 Scores on the MFQ, from 132,000 subjects, in 2011.  (The Righteous Mind, p 187)

The conclusions are stunning. 9  Not surprisingly, the Care and Fairness foundations show the least variation between Very Liberal and the Very Conservative, while the Sanctity foundation shows the greatest variation.

(The same pattern is found in responses from countries outside the U.S.  In addition, all five of Haidt’s research colleagues, who are politically liberal, all shared the same concern about the way their liberal field approached political psychology.  They observed that the goal of so much research was to explain what was wrong with conservatives!  The standard explanations psychologists offered for decades to explain why conservatives are conservative include,

  • They were raised by overly strict parents, and/or
  • They are inordinately afraid of change, complexity, and novelty (blog: recall Neophilia and Neophobia, above) and/or
  • They suffer from existential fears, and therefore cling to a simple worldview with no shades of grey.

These approaches all had one feature in common: they used psychology to explain away conservatism (blog: in other words, they were “Lib-splaining”).  This makes it unnecessary for liberals to take conservative ideas seriously.)

One conclusion from the research is that Republicans (more or less conservative) understand moral psychology; Democrats (liberals) don’t.  Republicans do not aim to cause fear as some Democrats charge.  They trigger the full range of intuitions described by Moral Foundations Theory.

A second conclusion is that Liberals value Care and Fairness far more than the other 3 foundations (those are almost irrelevant), while Conservatives endorse all five foundations more or less equally.  The consequence of this is that the American Left fails to understand social conservatives and the religious right because it cannot see their world other than a “moral abomination” (blog: note the low Liberal endorsement values for the foundations of Loyalty (e.g., too “groupish” and not individualistic enough), Authority (e.g., “hierarchy = evil”), and Sanctity (e.g., “enlightened intellectuals don’t need magic”)).  For liberals, such a vision must be combated, not respected or engaged with.

(To this point I’ve followed Haidt’s approach in introducing the five foundations.  However, continued research, as well as response to the publication of MFTled to the realization that the Fairness foundation was still inadequate to account for the range of responses.  Subsequently, and for brevity here, the Fairness foundation was split into two: a Fairness/Cheating foundation to accommodate the equality of outcomes, and a Liberty/Oppression foundation to accommodate the proportionality of outcomes. In revision, MFT now has six foundations and Liberals have a three foundation morality (Care, Fairness, and Liberty), while Conservatives have a six foundation morality.  Expanding on these two would take a future post by itself.)


This is an impressive book and many things about it resonated with me. First of all were the components of Moral Foundation Theory which opened the door to a better understanding of how such divergent Moral Matrices could develop in different “cultures” (including Liberal and Conservative “cultures” in the U.S.).  Second, it expanded the concept of “Values,” which I had expressed very simply in the Behavior Curve (now I just need to wrestle with six variables instead of one).  And finally, I not only appreciated Haidt’s transparency in describing his journey from, my words, blinkered liberal to liberal with a broader, more open perspective, but also his testimony about how it came about – by living and studying in other cultures, by immersion.  It is close to my own journey, although I went from blinkered liberal through a domestic moderate phase before choosing also to go immerse myself and live in other cultures, learn their languages, and end up a Conserviberal, or possibly a Liberative.

So, now what does your Moral Matrix, your set of Values look like?  And how balanced is it?


1The Righteous Mind, p 144-145
2The Righteous Mind, p 146
3The Righteous Mind, p 155-158

4The Righteous Mind, p 158-161
5The Righteous Mind, p 162-164
6The Righteous Mind, p 166-168
7The Righteous Mind, p 172-174
8The Righteous Mind, Fig. 8.6, p 187, Survey results from 2011,
9The Righteous Mind, p 184-187


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Way We Think: Culture, Values, and a Righteous Mind

  1. Wow! Thank you for digesting this book for all of us!!! I must add this one to my list of books to read.


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