Why your message isn't being heard insights from morality research wide

Why your message isn't being heard insights from morality research tall

Have you ever spent hours putting together a logical case, only to have it thrown out or ignored? Morality research might help clarify why you’re not connecting as well as you’d hoped.

February’s pick from the Recharted Territory reading list was “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a social psychologist and professor at the NYU Stern- School of Business. The book was all about looking at morality to help explain “why good people are divided by politics and religion.” With the U.S. presidential primaries going on, this read was especially timely.

If you’ve ever wondered why other people believe what they do, this book goes into the theory, science, and history behind how we evolved different moral viewpoints and why it can be so hard to connect.

Since our values are fundamental to many decisions that we make, a lot of the insights could also help us improve our businesses, organizations, relationships, and marketing. Complex problems usually involve people with a range of moral viewpoints.

Let’s talk about some takeaways from the book with four reasons that could explain why your message isn’t being heard and what you can do about it.


1. You’re trying to reason, without talking to the “Elephant”

Haidt provides an analogy for the two parts of our mind: the Rider and the Elephant. The Rider represents our rational side and the Elephant represents our emotional side. He also describes the difference as reasoning vs. intuition.

Why doesn’t the other side understand your carefully crafted logical explanation? According to Haidt, it’s because when we make moral judgments, we look to “intuition first, strategic reasoning second.” That basically means that we make a decision with our gut and try to justify it later.

“One of the rider’s main jobs: to be the full-time in-house press secretary for the elephant.”

– Jonathan Haidt

Haidt talks about how emotions are critical for decision making, citing research by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. Damasio found that people who had suffered brain damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) displayed zero emotions.

Even though they had the same IQ as before, they ended up making bad decisions (or no decisions at all) and alienating their family and friends. Every decision felt as good as any other so without emotions to guide them, all decisions required a time and energy consuming weighing of pros and cons.

How do you talk to someone’s Elephant? Haidt mentions the power of simple changes like the mere exposure effect and affective priming. The mere exposure effect means that the more we interact with something or someone, the more we tend to like them.

Affective priming means that how we physically and emotionally feel at the time can influence what we think about something, even if it’s something unrelated like the temperature of the room or if we ate something bitter right before the conversation.

That’s because when we need to make a judgment call we look inward and ask ourselves how we feel at that moment. You can influence that feeling by appealing to the Elephant, or emotional side of the person you’re talking to. The Rider tends to try to justify why the Elephant feels the way it does.

That’s why someone who’s had a positive emotional experience with you is more likely to find points in your argument that they agree with. The opposite can happen in a hostile conversation, which causes both parties to be more likely to look for weaknesses in each other’s arguments.

Application to daily life

There are some simple ways to improve your odds of a productive discussion:

  • Focus on understanding where the other person is coming from whenever you need to “pitch” something to someone with a different viewpoint. The tips in this stakeholder analysis post should help. Then you can craft your message in a way that appeals to his or her hopes, fears, and values.
  • Don’t isolate yourself from people who think differently. It may be easier in the short term but it will make all future discussions much harder.
  • When you meet with someone, make sure that the room is comfortable and that they have a positive experience before the conversation starts. Anything from an easier commute, a nice waiting room, a smile from you, small talk, and so on could help.
  • Meet face-to-face especially during difficult or controversial discussions. It helps to humanize you more than phone or email conversations.
  • Throw in delightful surprises. Depending on your situation this could range from small gifts and freebies to a report delivered ahead of schedule. It’s all about helping others associate you with a positive experience so it will be easier to connect.


2. You’re only appealing to one or two of the moral foundations

Haidt shares the concept that morality is like taste, and that each person has six moral taste receptors. Those receptors trigger certain emotions when we encounter signals from the environment, and they evolved to help humans adapt to challenges. Everyone has their own attachment to the different Moral Foundations.

The Moral Foundations:

  1. Care/Harm
  2. Fairness/Cheating
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal
  4. Authority/Subversion
  5. Sanctity/Degradation


And a sixth candidate:

  1. Liberty/Oppression


Haidt mentions that liberals tend to craft messages that only appeal to two out of the six foundations (care/harm and fairness/cheating) because they themselves are less attached to the other four. That means they are less effective when communicating with conservatives who tend to feel equally strong about all of the areas. That explains why liberals sometimes have trouble connecting with populations that seem to be aligned with parts of their platform, like rural farmers.

Application to daily life

  • Go to http://www.yourmorals.org/ and take the “Moral Foundations Questionnaire” moral test to find out where you land on the five morality foundations in relation to liberals and conservatives who have taken the quiz. The answer may surprise you.
  • Consider how your scores might relate to the people you are trying to help or work with. Do you have a similar moral foundation or do you differ in any of the six areas?
  • Read headlines and think about which aspects of the moral foundation are triggered.
  • Tweak your message to appeal to any of the missing areas that others feel more strongly about. Don’t stretch the truth, but think about other ways to word the benefits or disadvantages of something that would better resonate with the other party’s moral system without sacrificing your own.


3. You’re underestimating the power of the “hive effect”

Haidt suggests that “moral systems” help to bond communities and counteract selfishness which ultimately helped humans be successful.

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

– Jonathan Haidt

He talks about how it’s not always about what people believe, but that believing, doing, and belonging evolved to help us survive and thrive as groups and make bonded religions, political parties, corporations, and sports fans possible. It can also help us changemakers rally people around a vision. People can be convinced to do a lot if they feel like it’s in the team’s best interest or if they feel like going along will help them bond with the group.

Application to daily life

Think about ways to add the “hive effect” to your work through shared rituals, identities, values and beliefs.

  • Give teams their own names and identities. Jerseys, mascots, team colors, swag, and so on don’t hurt.
  • Articulate the “hive’s” values and share them with the group. Use them while making hiring decisions.
  • Create rituals in your schedule. It could be how you start or end the day, how meetings are conducted, a team happy dance, whatever it takes.
  • Highlight teamwork and flow. The Toyota production case is effective because everyone on the factory floor can see what everyone else is doing so they knew what part they play in the bigger picture.


4. You don’t realize what moral narrative you’re telling

One of the common downfalls of products and businesses is making assumptions. An assumption we tend to make is thinking that everyone experiences the world the way we do and if they don’t agree with us it’s because they’re “unenlightened.”

I found Haidt’s three-step description to be a very helpful way to think about how people have evolved different ideologies.

Here’s how Haidt describes the steps:

  • Step 1) Genes make brains (which impact our response to risk and change)
  • Step 2) Traits guide children along different paths (which are influenced by our experiences)
  • Step 3) People construct life narratives (to make sense of our lives)


“People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives.”

– Jonathan Haidt

Everyone is telling each other different stories and people rally around the stories that resonate with them on a personal and social level.

The narrative is the story you tell to describe your thoughts on the world and how it came to be the way it is. You might not realize that you have a narrative because it is so engrained in how you experience the world both biologically and socially.

Changemakers may have trouble connecting because we’re biologically more attracted to change. That caused us to seek out different experiences, education, and groups which further cemented our worldview. Meanwhile, many of the people we need to work with and influence could be biologically more attracted to order, which caused them to develop alternative ideologies.

Application to daily life

To enact any large-scale or disruptive change we need to be aware of our narrative in comparison to the people we’re trying to work with. How you frame a message when “preaching to the choir” may be very different than the one you need to share to connect with someone with a different life narrative.

  • Reflect on your personal narrative how you look at the world and explain your life, experiences, and the world around you. What narratives do the groups that you are a part of share?
  • Think about the story: who is the hero, the victim, mentor, allies and enemies? What problem needs to be solved and what is the reward of solving it? What is the biggest test your group needs to go through to resolve the problem?
  • Think about the personal narratives that you disagree with. They could be ones that you hear other people sharing in your meetings, the articles you read, and the shows that you watch. Noticing the narrative is a good first step to understanding why you disagree and where you might be able to work together to solve problems.


Related resources

If you’re running up against a wall, try pausing the logical argument and look closer at the moral beliefs and systems around you. We talked about four strategies to improve understanding and connection: speaking to the Elephant, considering all of the moral foundations, encouraging a hive effect, and paying attention to narratives.

Interested in the topic and looking for more?



What other insights did you draw from this book? How will you apply them?


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