Jonathan Haidt: The Contributions of a Moral Psychologist

Psychologist and Researcher John Haidt.

American Psychologist and Professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, Jonathan Haidt, has significantly contributed to the fields of social, moral, and positive psychology.

He has written two books, including the New York Times bestseller, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haidt’s work is not only limited to writing and research. He currently runs nine different educational websites and champions a number of causes through his nonprofit work. As the director of Ethical Systems, he helps businesses, cities, and other systems operate both ethically and efficiently.

And as a co-director of Civil Politics, he applies his research to bridging moral divisions in politics.

Haidt on Morality: The Social Intuitionist Model

Haidt’s hallmark achievements lie in his research on morality, particularly in the development of the social intuitionist model. The social intuitionist model is an explanation of human morality that diverges from earlier rationalist theories.

Traditionally, the dominating view in moral psychology has been that we reach moral judgments through our ability to reason. Haidt’s social intuitionist model offers an alternative view that our moral judgments are driven primarily by intuition, not reason.

Before diving deeper into this model, we should take a look at the story that sits at its foundation. This is the fictional story of Julie and Mark:

“Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it OK for them to make love?” -Haidt, Björklund, & Murphy (2000)

When Haidt and his colleagues presented this scenario to the participants of the study, most of them immediately answered that Mark and Julie were in the wrong. However, when pressed to explain, they could not adequately justify their conclusion.

Contrary to rationalist theories of morality, these people made their moral judgments before, rather than after, reasoning their way through the dilemma. This phenomenon of maintaining a moral judgment despite having insufficient justification is called “moral dumbfounding.”

The fact that moral dumbfounding could even occur raised some doubts as to the validity of rationalist theories of morality. In 2001, Haidt released his famous paper, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” in which he outlines the four links, or processes, that define this new moral perspective. These are:

1. The Intuitive Judgment Link: 

We reach our moral judgments effortlessly through moral intuitions.

2. The Post Hoc Reasoning Link:

Moral reasoning, on the other hand, is an effortful process that takes place after judgments are reached.

3. The Reasoned Persuasion Link:

We produce and verbally express our moral reasoning in order to justify the conclusions we have already made.

4. The Social Persuasion Link: 

We are all highly susceptible to group norms of morality, even to the mere knowledge that our associates have a moral judgment.


Haidt On Happiness: The Divided Self

“The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.” -Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis (2006, p. 4)

Metaphor of a Human Riding an Elephant.
Metaphor of Human on Elephant. Image by Mohamed Nuzrath on Pixaby.

This quote speaks to the underlying metaphor of all Haidt’s writings and research: the elephant and the rider.

Haidt characterizes the human mind as a partnership between separate but connected entities. In his metaphor, the rider represents all that is conscious.

It is the director of actions and executor of thought and long term goals. The elephant represents all that is automatic, and often acts independently of conscious thought.

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt explains that conceptualizing the mind as a division of parts is the first step to understanding many of life’s mysteries. He emphasizes four divisions that have been observed throughout history:

1. Mind vs. Body:

This first division is the classic observation that our bodies often betray our intentions, such as through unknowing smiles or locked knees in the face of fear.  

2. Left vs. Right:

The second refers to the hemispheres of the brain, which control different sides of the body and specialize in different processes, like language in the left and spatial perception in the right.

3. New vs. Old:

The third division deals with the evolutionary development of the brain, which has grown in complexity and size over time. As a result, humans have “outgrown” some of our oldest brain structures, these influence our behavior in ways that may not be compatible with modern life.

4. Controlled vs. Automatic:

The fourth division is that of the elephant and its rider. This is the distinction between our conscious thoughts and our body’s automatic processes.

According to Haidt, our problem is that we overemphasize the power and importance of our conscious verbal thinking and neglect the other components of our mind. In his book, he argues that we must improve our understanding of these divisions and learn to let them operate in harmony, not compete for control.

This is the key to getting along with others, to finding happiness, to living virtuously, and to finding meaning in our lives. 

Do you identify with being a human on an elephant? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you. 

If you’re ready for more of Haidt’s work, read on.


Haidt’s Other Contributions

Jonathan Haidt has written two books: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. He has also released several chapters of “The Happiness Hypothesis” for free reading, which you can access here.

Haidt has generously made much of his work accessible for free. On his homepage, you’ll find links to his educational websites, all of his publications, information on his nonprofit work, and much more.

To get you started, check out Haidt’s most recent TED talk on the Moral Psychology of Liberals and Conservatives:

Bjorklund, F., Haidt, J., & Murphy, S. (2000, August 10). Moral Dumbfounding: When Intuition Finds No Reason. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e633872013-071

Haidt, J. (n.d.). Jonathan Haidt’s Home Page. Retrieved from

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814-834. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.108.4.814

Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

About the Author

Stephanie Caldow, B.A., is a certified positive psychology practitioner and holds a postgrad in Human Resource Management from the Australian College of Applied Psychology.

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