Katie Hallen -- As a first-year undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I took a psychology class from a young professor named Jonathan Haidt. Haidt, whose research interests largely focus on morality, was memorable in more ways than one. Being that he was easy on the eyes and ears largely forgave him for wearing the same green tweed jacket every single day of class. Thanks also to him, I still mimic his shorthand for “morality” by circling the letter “m.”
Recently, I have been revisiting Haidt’s research via his new book The Happiness Hypothesis, which contains important lessons for us Washington policy and communications types interested in coalition building and campaign management.
In building in an army of supporters, we must grapple with the issues and messages that motivate them to join a cause. If we are looking to change their behavior in some way, we must look beyond the politics of reason to the politics of emotion. This is no easy task.
Haidt uses a wonderful metaphor to describe how our brains are often torn between reason and emotion: the Rider and the Elephant. The Rider, representing the rational side, has the reigns of the Elephant and is controlling his path. But the Elephant is very large and from time to time easily overpowers the Rider and takes him down a different route.
Why is it that the rational side of the brain knows that we should not eat the second cookie but we almost always give in to the emotional craving? Why is it that a white paper packed with compelling data persuades our logical selves to support a piece of legislation but our emotional side keeps thinking of our one friend Chip whose job could be impacted? That’s the Elephant overpowering the Rider.
“To understand most important ideas in psychology, you need to understand how the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict,” Haidt writes. “We assume that there is one person in each body, but in some ways we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together to do a job, but who often find themselves working at cross purposes.”
It’s an important lesson for coalition building and campaign management. If we want people to join our cause, and if we are asking them to make a commitment, take action or even change their behavior – buy energy-efficient light bulbs, fasten the seat belt, vote for the first time, whatever it may be – we must be aware of the brain’s competing demands.
Brothers Chip and Dan Heath further explain the competing brain in their new book Switch, which I’ll discuss in greater detail in a future post. For now, take a look at Haidt’s book and let us know what you think.