I am an Associate Professor in the Social Psychology area of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia. I study morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures. I am also active in positive psychology (the scientific study of human flourishing) and study positive emotions such as moral elevation, admiration, and awe.
My research these days focuses on the moral foundations of politics, and on ways to transcend the “culture wars” by using recent discoveries in moral psychology to foster more civil forms of politics. Morality, by its very nature, makes it hard to study morality. It binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.
Jonathan Haidt: I happened to take a Psych 101 class in college. The teacher was great. Her name was Faye Crosby. And I just thought it was so interesting I ended up taking a few more.
I was dead set on being a philosophy major, because I wanted to figure out the meaning of life. Four years later I realized philosophy had really nothing to say about the meaning of life, and psychology and literature are really where it’s at.
Question: How do happiness and psychology fit in together?
Jonathan Haidt: I don’t know that all these recent books on happiness fit together.
My own book was originally titled “Twelve Great Truths: Insights Into Mind and Heart from Ancient Cultures and Modern Psychology.” As I ran out of time in writing it, we changed the title to “Ten Great Truths: Insights Into Mind and Heart.” And then the publishers made up the title, “The Happiness Hypothesis.”
I didn’t really know what it meant at first. Ultimately I was able to link together all these great truths in a way that led to a formulation for how one can be happy.
The many other books about happiness, a lot of them grow out of a common body of recent research on happiness. So there’s a lot of new scholarship and a lot of people with different angles on it.
Question: What is the relationship between philosophy and moral psychology?
Jonathan Haidt: Well, I think moral philosophy is speculation on how we ought to live together done by people who have very little clue how people work. So I think most moral philosophy is disconnected from the species that we happen to be. In fact, they like it that way. Many moral philosophers insist that morality grows out of our rationality, that it applies to any rational being anywhere in the universe, and that it is not based on contingent or coincidental facts about our evolution.
So I think that moral philosophy is useful for framing questions, but terrible at answering them. I think moral psychology is booming right now, and we’re making a lot of progress on understanding how we actually work, what our moral nature is.
Question: Does moral philosophy inform psychology?
Jonathan Haidt: I would have to say generally no. Moral philosophy does give us certain questions that we can anchor around, but that is as much an obstacle as a benefit. There is just too much work; looking at say the Kantian theory of ethics, focusing on moral reasoning, stages of moral reasoning.
I take more of a naturalistic approach to morality. It’s a fact about us, just like our sexuality or our language. And I don’t think studying ancient linguistic theories from the Greeks does a lot to help us understand language. I would rather read Steve Pinker than the ancients on that. And the same thing about morality. I think studying the ancients on philosophy doesn’t help us very much, except for the few who were really great psychologists, such as David Hume.
Question: Who in psychology is teaching us great things?
Jonathan Haidt: I think a lot of the work on how we are not particularly rational creatures. We are creatures of habit and intuition and emotion. So the work of Dan Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky, and others who are looking into all the various biases and errors that the mind makes.
I think the greatest work in social psychology from the 1950s and ‘60s is enormously important. I wish every high school kid could take a course in social psychology. I think we’re making enormous strides in understanding the brain. These aren’t yet giving us great insights, but I feel like we’re on the verge of it. In five or ten years this basically searching the brain is really going to change things.
Question: Why is social psychology important?
Jonathan Haidt: Social psychology’s the study of how we live together, influence each other, and our influenced by each other.
We scientists have way too much a tendency to simplify problems. I guess we get this method from Newton. I guess it actually comes to us naturally. Take the simplest unit, separate out all the confusing, external factors. Study it. Make sure you understand it, and then sort of assume it scales up, or check that it scales up. And in psychology that means the person studying the individual. That works great for perception. If you want to understand visual perception, taste on the tongue, take a person, put him a dark room, and give him stimulate.
But if you want to study our social nature, if you want to study processes that will lead to war and peace, you don’t learn all that much by looking at the single individual. A lot of the important things are emergent facts about us, things that you can only see when you get a lot of us interacting.
Question: Does social psychology relate to sociology?
Jonathan Haidt: Yes, absolutely.
I think of myself as a social scientist. In order to get hired and to get promoted, we’re forced to declare a disciplinary and sub-disciplinary specialty, so I am a psychologist and I am a social psychologist within that. But I think the exciting thing is to think about the social sciences in general and the nature of society. It’s one of the hardest things to think about, because our brains aren’t designed to think about these emergent entities. We’re not good at it.
So I think sociologists are among the best at thinking about emergence, of thinking about the ways that the society is more than the sum of the individuals. And I’ve found that much of the wisest writing on human social nature comes from sociology and anthropology, not from my own field of social psychology.
Recorded on May 9, 2008.