Psychologist Explains Why Economists—and Liberals—Get Human Nature Wrong

Jonathan Haidt deploys insights from moral psychology to help us see ourselves and each other more clearly

For a fictional character, homo economicus has had a pretty good run. Since the 1950s, this mono-motivated, self-seeking figure has stalked the pages of economics textbooks, busy deciding each action according to a rational calculus of personal loss and gain. But more recently his territory has shrunk as experts on human nature have demonstrated what any decent novelist could have told them: our real selves are nothing like this.

Unfortunately, many economists still plug this flawed view of people into computer models that determine all kinds of things that impact our lives, from how much workers get paid to how we value life or common goods, such as a clean environment. The results can be disastrous.

Typically, economists aren’t that keen on admitting that their work is deeply connected to morality — never mind that Adam Smith himself was a moral philosopher. But if you ask a question as simple as how to price a used car, you quickly find that moral concerns and economic activity happen together all the time.

In his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explored why so many perfectly intelligent people have misread human nature– and not just economists, but plenty of psychologists and even (shocker!) people who identify as politically liberal. For him, the key to getting to know ourselves properly lies with moral psychology, a newish strain that pulls together evolutionary, neurological, and social-psychological research on moral emotions and intuitions.

As Haidt sees it, we are creatures driven by moral intuition and attuned to both our personal interests as well as what’s good for the groups with which we identify. He points out that in order to thrive, we have to appreciate our complex, interactive natures and see each other more clearly and empathetically – an observation that may be especially useful at a time when threats like climate change and the concentration of money and power threatens all of us, no matter who we are or what groups we belong to. At the moment, we aren’t doing such a good job of this.

The Rider and the Elephant

Morality, Haidt argues, doesn’t arise from reason, and besides, humans aren’t winning any prizes for rationality. Heaps of studies show how factors beyond conscious awareness influence how we think and act, from judges giving out more lenient sentences after lunch to bottles of hand sanitizer making people more feel more conservative.

In Haidt’s view, the conscious mind is like a press secretary spewing after-the-fact justifications for decisions already made. Thinkers like David Hume and Sigmund Freud were certainly hip to this idea, but somehow a lot of economists missed the memo, as did psychologists following dominant rationalist models in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Haidt invites us to consider ourselves as a rider (our analytical, rational part) and an elephant (our emotional, intuitive part). The rider holds the reins, but the beast below is in charge, urged on by the complex interaction of genetic influence, neural wiring, and social conditioning. The rider can advise the elephant, but the elephant calls most of the shots.

Fortunately, the elephant is quite intelligent and equipped with all sorts of intuitions that are good for conscious reasoning. But elephants get very stubborn when threatened and like to stick to what’s familiar. The rider, for her part, is not exactly a reliable character. She’s not really searching for truth, but mostly for ways to justify what the elephant wants.

That’s why a rebel economist challenging conventional thinking about subjects like human nature faces a heavy lift. Experts have to see a lot of evidence accumulating across many studies before they reach a point where they are finally forced to think differently. Scientific studies are even less helpful in persuading the general public.

When I asked Haidt how the mavericks could help their cause, he noted that humans are social creatures more influenced by people than by ideas. So, it matters who says something as much as what they say. It also makes a difference how they say it: elephants don’t like to be insulted, and they lean towards arguments made by people they like and admire. Not very rational, perhaps, but likely true.

Homo Duplex

The notion that human beings are social creatures is another strike against homo economicus. We are selfish much of the time, but we are also “groupish,” as Haidt puts it, and perhaps better described as “homo duplex” operating on two levels. Here he offers another animal analogy, suggesting that we’re 90% chimp and 10% bee, meaning that from an evolutionary perspective, we are selfish primates with a more recently developed a “hivish” overlay that lets us occasionally devote ourselves to helping others, or our groups.

This helps explain why you can’t predict how someone is going to vote based on their narrow self-interest. Political opinions are like badges of social membership. We don’t just ask what’s in it for us, but also what it means to our groups. Having a kid in public school doesn’t tell you that a person will support aid to public schools, probably because there are group interests in play. What unifies us in groups, Haidt argues, are certain moral foundations that allow us to share emotionally compelling worldviews that we can easily justify and defend against any attack by outsiders who don’t share them. And we can get pretty nasty about those outsiders.

This begins to sound like ugly tribalism, the kind of stuff that leads to war. But Haidt reminds us that this propensity also prepares us to get along within our groups and even to cooperate on a large scale — our human superpower. We differ from other primates because we exhibit shared intentionality: we’re able to plan things together and work together towards a common goal. You never see two chimps carrying a log – they just don’t act in concert that way. We do, and in our groups we’ve developed mechanisms to suppress cheaters and free riders and reap the benefit of division of labor. Groups of early humans may well have triumphed over other hominids not because they smashed them with clubs , but because they out-cooperated them.

To better understand how we operate in political groups, which have lately become more antagonistic, Haidt created a map of our moral landscape called Moral Foundations Theory which delineates multiple “foundations” we presumably use when making moral decisions, including care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. (Some scholars have challenged his system, offering alternative maps). His research indicates that liberals and conservatives differ in the emphasis they place on each of these foundations, with conservatives tending to value all six domains equally and liberals valuing the first two much more than the other four.

Haidt argues that liberals tend to home in on care and fairness when they talk about policy issues, which can put them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis conservatives, who tend to activate the whole range of foundations. Republicans are thus better able to talk to elephants than Democrats because they possess more ways to go for the gut, as it were. If Democrats want to win, Haidt warns, they need to think of morality as more than just care and fairness and to try to better understand that foundations more important to conservatives, like deference to authority or a reverence for sacredness, are not pathological, but aspects human social evolution that have helped us survive in many situations.

When he wrote The Righteous Mind, Haidt noted that Democrats had espoused a moral vision that did not resonate with many working class and rural voters. In the current presidential race, he sees some progress on economic populism from the Bernie Sanders wing, in part because Occupy Wall Street got people attuned to issues of fairness and the oppression of the 1%. When politicians talk about the abuse of political and economic power, they can activate not only care and fairness concerns, but also the liberty/oppression foundation which people respond to across the political spectrum.

But this line is also tricky because, as Haidt pointed out to me, “Americans don’t really hate their rich.” (One recent study suggested only 25% of Americans have a negative view of the rich, though a majority said they should be taxed more).

Haidt also worries that many Democrats, particularly elites, are currently engaging with cultural issues by embracing a what he called a “common enemy” form of identity politics which “demonizes people at the intersectional point of evil (white men)” rather than focusing on a “common humanity” story which “draws a larger circle around everyone. (Haidt plunged into controversial territory with his 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, which argues that college campuses are shutting down useful debate through “safetyism” that protects students from ideas considered harmful or offensive).

He observed to me that while the polarizing Donald Trump may have turned off the younger generation “for the next few decades,” Democrats may be failing “to look seriously at the ways that their social policies—and their messengers— alienate many moderates.” Newly “woke” white elites, for example, who see racism as the driver of nearly every phenomenon, may be having an unintended negative effect in his view. When they ascribe Trump’s victory to racial resentment and ignore the concerns of those who fear sliding down the economic ladder, for example, they may turn off potential allies. Call a person or a group racist and you won’t be able to convince them to support your view on anything. Their elephants aren’t listening.

Haidt acknowledges that our moral matrices are not written in stone; they can and do evolve, sometimes quite rapidly within a couple of generations. Economic forces surely act to shift attunement to moral foundations, making people more susceptible, for example, to anti-immigration arguments. If you fail to consider the economic influence on this kind of moral activation, you’ll be less equipped to address problems like ethnic conflict. Being able to step outside our own moral matrix is essential to persuasion. We not only have to talk to the elephant, but see the beehive.

We also have to remember the truth is not likely to be something held by any one individual, but rather something that emerges as a large number of flawed and limited minds exchange views on a given subject. Our smarts and flexibility are increased by our ability to cooperate and share information. Economists, for example, improve their understanding of human nature by opening up to other social sciences and the humanities for insight.

There is evidence that economists are paying attention to moral psychology. In their book Identity Economics, Nobel laurate George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton argue that people identify with “social categories,” and that each category, whether it be Christian, mother, or neighbor, has associated norms or ideals to which people want to aspire. Sam Bowles’ The Moral Economy shows that monetary incentives don’t work in many situations and that policies targeting our selfish instincts can actually weaken the institutions which depend on our more selfless impulses– including financial markets. At the Institute of New Economic Thinking (INET), the connection between economics and morality has been explored by INET president Rob Johnson and political philosopher Michael Sandel as well as thinkers like economic historian Robert Skidelsky and economist Darrick Hamilton.

All of this rather bad news for homo economicus. But pretty good news for humanity.

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