The Elephant and The Rider: The Psychology of Political Division

Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion

That’s the subtitle of the 2012 book ‘The Righteous Mind‘ written by Jonathan Haidt. In this book, Haidt tries to find an answer to one of the greatest questions of our time: why are people in politics so divided? He concentrated primarily on America. You got three ideologies: liberalism (left-progressive), libertarianism (left-semi-conservative) and conservatism (right-conservative). Have you experienced unpleasant discussions lately with people who didn’t fit your political ideas? The problem lies deeper than you think, deeply within moral philosophy.

I myself have learned a lot of reading this book. As a progressive liberal, I mostly failed to understand people around me who were conservatives. This is the reason that this article focusses primarily on conservatives. Another reason for this is that Haidt explains that it is harder for liberals to understand conservatives than the other way around. Also, in this article, libertarianism is left out, to make things a little bit easier to understand. I hope I can provide you with enough knowledge to understand the opposite party. This blog isn’t meant for you to vote conservative, but, it’s all about understanding. As without understanding, you can never rationally pick your own political ideology. Finally, I want to say that I primarily focus on the text of Haidt and that I use his arguments, these are (most of the time) not my own.


The Elephant and The Rider

“Reason is the slave of the passions.” This is one of the most important quotations (taken from David Hume) when one tends to understand moral psychology. Let’s dive into it.

Haidt explained the sentence with the use of a metaphor. The Elephant is your moral matrix, your intuition, your passion. When you hear something you don’t agree with, the elephant immediately reacts to it as bad. You immediately speak with the feeling the elephant gave you. After you said it, after you gave your emotional response, you may want to give arguments for what you just said. This is the moment that ‘the Rider’ comes in. This is your ability to reason. You use your reason to account for your opinion.

Important in this story is that the Rider isn’t capable to steer the Elephant. As a matter of fact, the Rider has to account for whatever the Elephant does. The reason is the slave of the passions.

You can change the opinion of the Elephant though, but that’s very hard and takes a lot of time. That’s because our moral system is based on (our genes and) our life experiences. You can change by gradually experiencing that your Elephant is wrong.

The bottom line here is that you believe is some moral stuff which you think you have chosen by reason, but the truth is that you didn’t choose what to believe, and you account for it without you really seeing the other opinion clearly. You can’t transform into another Elephant by night.

Historian alert: The reason it is hard to believe that we don’t choose our own morals is partly psychological, but also partly historical. Since the Eighteenth Century, it is a vast statement in our culture that we can ‘achieve anything when we put our minds to it’. You remember those crazy revolutions in France, America (, Haiti…)? Well, that was because people thought they could overthrow the authorities. This intention came to them by reason. They thought it would be a good idea to reign the lands on their own.

In fact, all they did was overthrow an alpha male king, as he had too much power and the general people too little. But, that besides, my point is that the (European) Enlightenment caused Western people to think rationally and, more important, it caused them to think that ratio could solve everything. That’s a pity, because, much of the problems in our world can’t be solved by ratio, because they come just natural. We have to accept them and learn how to deal with them.


Moral Matrix

Haidt explains our morals to be like taste receptors. There are six foundations. With only one foundation, we haven’t got enough morals to survive as a community. Life will be unsocial. So, what are the foundations?


This foundation involves the moral belief that people have to care for other people and prevent them from being harmed. People must help people who have a difficult time or who are being oppressed.

This foundation is strong among liberals. They find that the rich must help the poor and that politics is about listening to every story and opinion.

For conservatives, this foundation is present, as they want to care for other people in their group, but it isn’t as strong as with the liberals.


This foundation involves freedom. Liberty-liberal: I think it’s clear that this one is strong with liberals as well.

The liberty foundation focusses on stopping people from being oppressed by higher authorities. The idea that you have to be free to do anything you want, to express your feelings and to voice your opinion is part of this foundation. One important thing that belongs to this foundation is the concept of overthrowing¬†‘the alfa-male’. Every society/group/community needs a leader, but then this leader goes too far (King Louis XIV, Tsar Nicholas II, Hitler), people will try to bring him down to gain their liberty back.

Conservatives also believe that the Liberty/oppression foundation is important for society to function properly. But again, this isn’t as strong with them as with liberals.


This foundation is about the morality of being fair. The bottom line is that people may not cheat and have to play by the rules.

Some liberals see the importance of this foundation, but it is mostly accepted by conservatives because they see being fair and playing by the rules is the foundation of a well-organized society. In contrast, liberals often want to change the rules and so they brake them to prove their point.


This foundation is all about being loyal to your fellow humans. When you are loyal, you do what people expect from you, and when you do what people expect, you fit perfectly into the organisation of the social world.

It may not be a surprise that conservatives hold these morals.


Together with the aforementioned, authority is important for a society which works fluently and via a vast patron. When people are loyal to the people whom they must respect, for example, a child to his father or an employee to an employer, social constructions stay the way they are used to be and everyone knows his/her place. This way, society can cling together easily. I will discuss this more under ‘groupishness’.

This foundation is exclusively conservative.

This foundation seems to be in contrast to the one of Liberalism, but that isn’t quite true looking at conservatives. They agree that an authority figure is needed for a peaceful society, someone who supervises the social relations between people. But, they also agree that when this person goes too far, someone has to stand up against this ‘alpha-male’ figure. So, conservatives seem to have both moral ‘taste receptors’.


One foundation that holds the aforementioned together is the one of sanctity. Religion, holy text and holy objects hold people together. They regulate the social and moral world. That’s the reason that so many moral ideas evolved from religion.

This conservative foundation will be explored in combination with authority and loyalty under ‘groupishness’.


It may be surprising to see, but two of the six foundations are used by liberals, while six of the six lay at the foundation of conservative thought. Yes, you read it correctly. Conservatives have a broader moral field than liberals have. That is one of the reasons that conservatives can more easily understand liberals than the other way around.

The Elephant is thus, in both matrices, in a whole different field of moral understanding. This causes the most problems with an eye on willing to understand each other.

The Psychology of Politics


As though most of the people I know are liberal, and I know this was also true for the writer of the book, I will examine and try to understand the conservative part more. We will do this with the use of the concept groupishness, religion and the hive switch.

The result of the moral matrices is that liberals are more individualistic (and they want the best for individuals), in contrast to conservatives who think more in terms of groups (and they want the best for their groups).

This is an interesting part in the book you must read to fully understand. With scientific experiments, Haidt is able to prove a lot of things about groupishness. He proves, with a little bit of help by Darwin, that humans evolved in a way that makes us stick to our moral beliefs.

One example: humans do care what other people think. We can feel shame for example. This is because we are so used to our moral rules, the rules of loyalty and authority, that our brains evolved to fit right in it.

Haidt also proved that people are groupish. It is easiest illustrated by sports. We support our teams with all kinds of other supporters. We don’t want to know anything about the other team, our team has to win and that’s the only thing that’s important.

Haidt speaks of something he calls the ‘hive switch’. This is a feeling that transcends the self, the feeling that you belong to something bigger than yourself. This feeling is triggered when you, for example, sing in a choir, dance exactly the same movements as twenty other people in a dance club, play in a fanfare, meditate, support sports teams or fight for your country.

This hive switch is important. It lets us do things, not for ourselves, but for our team, for the people around us. I must say that killing for your country is the most negative example. But let’s keep in mind that those people weren’t really killing for their country. They were killing for their comrades, their team, to help them and prevent them from dying (okay maybe they were a little bit killing for their country but Haidt says they weren’t). A more positive example is helping your neighbours, just for the sake of the community. People have often indicated that the hive switch was one of the most beautiful experiences of their lives. It is beautiful to feel you are one in a bigger whole.

Since the beginning of humanity, religion is on earth. This isn’t without a reason. It’s the same reason people follow religions that when they support a sports team or when they dance. They do it for the hive switch, to be part of a community (and they do it to provide answers for things they don’t understand).

Religion has one element that’s especially important. It not only binds people together, but it also arranges the hierarchical construction between people. As a liberal, you immediately say, the hierarchy is bad. But as a conservative, you understand that this hierarchy, based on authority and loyalty, lays on the basis of a proper social community. It means that everyone knows their place in life. It means that everything is clear, and everyone helps each other to support their teams/religion/neighbourhood. So, religion lays at the foundation of our society and has controlled our community and our moral beliefs since we evolved to humans. It even changed our nature by evolution and so chances are that when we lose all our moral foundations, the whole structures of humanity and humanity itself will collapse.

What do you prefer? A world in which individuals just live their lives, or a world in which relations between individuals are important where there exists a moral system where people help each other and the community?



Haidt notices that politics are seen as good as bad, heaven or hell, our team and the enemy. This is a very western (and Christian) way to look at things.

Therefore, Haidt proposes that we should look at liberals and conservatives in a more Eastern way. Ying and yang. You’ve got conservatism and liberalism. Without conservatism, liberalism will fail (because otherwise, the whole community will collapse). Without liberalism, conservatism will prevent humanity from any progress or experimentation. We need both. The principle of Ying and Yang is about harmony, and that’s precisely what we need in our politics between both ideologies. We need harmony, peace and love, and above all, understanding of each other.

Unexpectedly to me, Haidt proves that politic opinion is genetically determined. People who love new things, try stuff, are mostly liberal and people who have a greater fear of change are usually conservative. Respect each other, please, as we can do nothing about our genetics.

I hope I could show you with this article that we need both politic ideologies for a proper regulation of our country/continent. I hope I could show you that conservatism and religion aren’t some strange things made up by dumb people, but they have shaped our evolutionary brain, our morals, our relationship to other people and chances are they are necessary for a good community.


Love you all!



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