3 Mind-Limbering Exercises for the Politically Inflexible
We're all subject to cognitive distortions, especially when it comes to our fundamental beliefs, says social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who studies the moral roots of our political beliefs. The interactive app OpenMind, developed by Haidt and his team, helps us understand why we form certain opinions and how we can have more constructive conversations. Try opening your own mind with these exercises adapted from the free app; for more, visit OpenMindPlatform.org.
Break Out of the Matrix
Have you ever read an op-ed or heard a politician's speech and thought, "What an idiot?"
Of course you have—you're human. Each of us looks at the world through our own interpretation of reality. It's like the movie The Matrix, in which everyone was living in a consensual hallucination—a virtual reality similar to a shared dream state. We're all living in a type of consensual hallucination known as a moral matrix, shaped by our country and community.
To understand why your moral matrix might diverge from someone else's, think of your mind as a tongue with taste receptors. Human beings have the same receptors that register salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and savory, yet different people like different foods, depending on their culture and preferences. Some psychologists believe that we likewise share a set of universal moral foundations—the building blocks of morality that different individuals value and prioritize in different ways:
To talk with people who live in a different moral matrix, you have to consider where they're coming from. What moral foundations are they relying on most? Take a look at the opposing opinions of two U.S. senators, paying special attention to the words in bold type:
"We need an immigration system that...allows families to be reunited and safe. One that treats individuals with humanity and respects due process and civil liberties. One that shields the most vulnerable among us, including children and crime victims and asylum seekers and refugees." —Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
"reunited and safe," "most vulnerable among us" = CARE
"due process and civil liberties" = FAIRNESS, LIBERTY
"We have a duty to protect the borders and the sovereignty of this country... Asylum fraud is a serious problem... And, it's no secret that terrorists are trying to exploit the system." —Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
"protect the borders," "terrorists" = AUTHORITY, LOYALTY
"asylum fraud," "exploit[ing] the system" = FAIRNESS
Someone who supports stricter immigration policy might be motivated by xenophobia or racism, but it's also possible that they're motivated by their notion of fairness (e.g., fairness toward people who are waiting in line legally).
Someone who supports more open immigration likely isn't against the protection of U.S. citizens; instead, they may be more concerned with the protection of new immigrants, particularly refugees.
One way to broaden your perspective is to break free from your own moral matrix. It might seem uncomfortable at first, but it will soon feel liberating, and it will help you communicate more effectively with those around you. Try these exercises:
1. Analyze your own beliefs.
When you hear or read a news story that ignites anger or indignation, ask yourself, "Do I believe someone has committed a wrong?" Try to identify which moral foundations were activated in you.
2. Identify the roots of your disagreement.
Next time you disagree with someone, assume for a moment that the person is neither stupid nor evil. Instead, try to identify which moral foundations the person is relying on to make her statement.
3. Engage in moral reframing.
To disagree with someone more productively, first acknowledge your shared views. Then try reframing your position in a way that connects to her moral foundation. For example:
You're appealing to: A conservative who's averse to transgender military personnel.
Your moral foundation: fairness.
Reframe in terms of: loyalty, patriotism ("Our fellow Americans should be able to demonstrate their loyalty to our nation").
You're appealing to: A liberal who's against military spending.
Your moral foundation: patriotism.
Reframe in terms of: care, fairness ("The military helps level the playing field for minorities and the poor. Cutting spending would take away those opportunities").
You may not change anyone's mind, but you may both come away feeling more understood.