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The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt

This book might just change the way you look at your business — and the world.

We are all in search of truth to some degree. Some of us more ardently than others, but the truth is something we desire to allow us to make decisions from a solid foundation. However, truth can be an elusive commodity and it is directly affected by our life experiences. If there is a universal truth, how can two people, similarly educated and informed with common backgrounds, end up diametrically opposed on the same issue?

Jonathon Haidt is a social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He studied at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania and served as a professor at the University of Virginia before joining the faculty at NYU. His previous books include Flourishing in 2003 and The Happiness Hypothesis in 2006.

The Righteous Mind, published in 2012, has had a profound effect on me, and I believe it is a powerful tool in understanding how we, as human beings, interact with each other. It has given me valuable insight into those with whom I disagree and created a sense of empathy that has come from understanding how they arrived at their position on a particular issue.

The subtitle, “Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” is an inspired lead-in to the book, but I am afraid it is off-putting to some, as many today are sick and tired of both topics. Let me interject that the principles and evidence put forth in this volume reach far beyond religion and politics, and can be applied in almost every aspect of life.

One of the primary tenets of the book is the division of the decision process into two distinct elements. These are effectively explained in a simple metaphor of the elephant and the rider. Ask yourself, which of these two actually control the direction of the elephant? Some believe the rider, with his superior intellect and mental processing power, would be in control. However, if you have ever ridden an elephant, you quickly realized that those 11,000-pound behemoths are completely in control. If the elephant wants to go left, you are going left, and all you can hope to do is clear the way and avoid stepping on innocent bystanders.

Also in the Business Book Club: Start With Why by Simon Sinek

The elephant in this metaphor represents our passions, emotions, and desires. The rider is our intellect, judgment, and reason. We make emotional decisions and, only after the decision is made, we back it up with data points and evidence.

The brain itself is divided into two hemispheres — one being emotional and creative and the other analytical and reasoned. These two parts sometimes conflict and we are torn. The Roman poet Ovid stated, “I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and prove it, but follow the wrong.”

Haidt goes on to explain that, “Our brain is constantly evaluating everything in terms of threat or benefit. We then adjust our behavior to get more of the good stuff and less of the bad. Animal brains make such appraisals thousands of times a day with no time for conscious reasoning.” Of course, if we truly examined every decision in depth and studied every outcome, we could easily be caught in a paralysis through analysis and never get anything done.

Also in the Business Book Club: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie

Because of the weight our emotions and passions impress upon our lives, much of Haidt’s research involves the moral dilemmas we encounter on a regular basis. It has been posited that morality comes from either nature, nurture, or a combination of the two. However, in recent years there was another choice put forth by the psychological community — rationalism. This is kids figuring morality out for themselves.

“This is the essence of psychological rationalism: We grow into our rationality as caterpillars grow into butterflies. If the caterpillar eats enough leaves, it will (eventually) grow wings. And if the child gets enough experiences of turn taking, sharing, and playground justice, it will (eventually) become a moral creature, able to use its rational capacities to solve even harder problems. Rationality is our nature, and good moral reasoning is the end point of development.”

The beauty in this book is in making you aware of how you and everyone around you processes the choices we are given. How powerful is the knowledge that the individual with whom you disagree is possibly not stupid or uninformed; they simply arrived at their position through a different moral and emotional path?

Consider this when you are trying to influence someone’s decision in your favor. This is exactly what happens in the sales process. Knowing that the decision will be an emotional one, are you appealing to the head or the heart? Are you burying them in technical details and product reviews, or are you describing what life will be like when they take advantage of the technologies you provide?

As mentioned, Haidt’s research is both broad and deep. He has taken into account ethnicity variables and cultural differences. He has results from young and old. He has explored the impact of numerous emotions from joy to disgust and the results are fascinating. It is with great enthusiasm that I recommend this read. If you are looking for a book that will change the way you look at the world, this is quite possibly one of the best.