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The Liffman Provocations: On Elephants, Riders, Chimpanzees - and Philanthropy…

January 23rd, 2019

In recent months I have read two books which have influenced my thinking greatly. Neither of them deals with philanthropy, or if so, only fleetingly (although one of them is recommended by Bill Gates as an essential book for our times). Nevertheless, I believe they are hugely important to anyone involved in the business of making the world a better place, whether simply as individuals seeking to make sense of our complex era, or discussing contentious issues with others, or – as philanthropists and philanthrocrats claim they are doing – hoping to create better, more just communities.


Dr Michael Liffman

But these books are not simply additions to the literature on social policy reform. Their real contribution, and the one I value so greatly, is their recognition of the importance of diversity of opinion and openness to debate; their exploration of the reasons people and communities in our time – or perhaps always – find this so challenging, seeming to prefer ideological rigidity, conflict and partisanship; and their quest to arrest the alarming global descent into polarisation and populism. Though written independently, by different writers, the two books are, in a sense, book-ends: both tackle, in complementary ways, the challenge of developing open-minded, evidence-based, non-ideological public policy, and finding respectful and productive means of engaging with those whose views may not be ours. If this is not a role for the philanthropic sector, then I don’t know what is?

Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion’ sets out its purposes very clearly in its title and goes a long way towards achieving them. Haidt is an American academic, a social psychologist, and a Democrat voter of progressive disposition. As a psychologist he brings powerful insights to the issue that as a citizen disturbs him greatly (as it does me!): the profound difficulty most of us have, intellectually, emotionally and socially, in dealing with views that we don’t agree with, and the damage this does to individual relationships and political processes. 

Much of Haidt’s analysis draws on a metaphor he invokes to describe our thinking process: the rider and the elephant.  By this he means simply that, like a rider on an elephant, while we may think we are in charge, in reality it is mainly the elephant that determines the direction we take, and we kid ourselves if we don’t realise this.  Of course, a century after Freud and Jung, this is not of itself an original insight, but just another way of recognising the role of the unconscious, or, more prosaically, the head/heart, in the way we and the wider community function.

Nevertheless this claim is an important reminder to us that in areas that, unlike obviously emotional ones such as music or sex, we believe are in our rational domain, this is rarely in fact so. Our opinions are derived from, or at least shaped by, largely non-rational, emotional forces of which we are rarely aware but in which we are highly invested. And it is in the way Haidt explores the nature of these forces, and how they affect our community’s civic and political processes, that the real power of his analysis lies.

Haidt draws on a mass of social psychology research to propose, and claim an empirical basis for, a ‘theory of moral foundations’. These are our ‘moral taste buds’ (psychological equivalents of the taste receptors of our tongue) and there are six of them. Importantly, we all have them all.  They are innate, visceral and powerful. Together they constitute our own morality map. They can be recognised, identified and labelled, as followed:

Care, of which the opposite is harm

Fairness of which the opposite is cheating

Loyalty vs betrayal

Authority/respect vs subversion

Sanctity/purity vs degradation

Liberty vs oppression


Like the taste receptors of our tongue, while each of us have them all, we have them in various proportions, which is where we come to the pointy end of Haidt’s argument! In the same way that some people’s taste receptors make them more sensitive to sweet and others to sour, people are sensitive to their moral sensibilities in differing proportions – which correlate directly with political dispositions!

In general terms, it can be shown that progressives value the care and fairness foundation over the others, whereas conservatives value all of them equally. Moreover, both camps tend to be blind to the moral foundations of the other camp, and indeed to the psychic origins of their own elephant-driven, visceral moral foundations, and therefore to overvalue the soundness of their own views and to demonise the views of those they oppose.

To take an (admittedly rather extreme) example that graphically illustrates how these differences translate to social controversies: when asked how they respond to the idea of an incestuous relationship, using birth control, between two mature consenting adults, liberals are likely – albeit perhaps reluctantly – to accept it on the basis that no apparent harm is being done, while conservatives invoke a non-negotiable revulsion, best explained as a sense of inherent degradation and breach from accepted canons of moral or religious authority. Similar dynamics can explain less dramatic divisions over attitudes to same-sex relationships, abortion, dying with dignity and the like – both in the difficulties in finding common ground, and in the underlying inability to even understand, let alone respect, the opposing view.

This is, of course, a summary which in no way does justice to the complexity of Haidt’s ‘moral foundations’ thesis or his further explorations. Another useful contribution Haidt makes is to unpack the somewhat crude ‘conservative/progressive’ labels we commonly use. Haidt claims that the progressive pattern of moral foundation preferences is typically seen in that part of the population that is ‘Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic’ i.e. WEIRD. While not of itself a profound insight, Haidt’s clever acronym reminds us of the socio-economic demography of much of the divided opinion that troubles our society, and how the progressive community (of which most of the readers of this post will be part) often fails to see how it is perceived by less advantaged community.

Indeed, part of the appeal this analysis has for me - and the reason I believe it to be so important to those of us working for social change - is that it is a much more sophisticated and empirical iteration of a troubling notion I have long held: namely that many of the ideas to which progressives are so committed, although commendably principled, ethical, and directed at creating a better society, are counter-intuitive….or, in the words of the unconvinced, ‘politically correct’.

Of course, to suggest that a belief is counter-intuitive is not to say that it is wrong; but it is to recognise that some of our sector’s core beliefs about, for instance, feminism, diversity, or equality, may be as much aspirational as empirical, and may not readily accord with the experiences, observations, instincts and inherited belief systems of a great many people. To many people, in fact, those ideas are indeed ‘WEIRD’ (from which it also follows that to regard all of those who are unconvinced as ‘deplorables’ is unfair, and seriously compounds the problem it seeks to remedy.)

Haidt’s particular focus is on the American higher education environment where he is particularly disturbed by the resistance to diversity of opinion he sees there, and he has established an organisation, the Heterodox Academy, to encourage universities to commit to the principles of opinion diversity, and to provide teaching tools for academics to equip their students to deal with the complexity of the issues they face.

While people working in practice and policy settings may be more exposed to the traps of imposing pre-formed beliefs on reality than those in academia, my experience is that Haidt’s overall analysis addresses issues of critical importance and offers insights of great value to those involved in policy formulation and civic debate in the wider community. That means us.


Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’ uses the elephant/rider metaphor to suggest the extent to which opinions are formed by systematic emotional forces rather than detached attention to facts. It therefore focusses on the elephant.

A complementary counterpart, because its focus is on the rider, not the elephant, is the second book I - and more importantly Bill Gates - have been impressed by: Hans Rosling’s ‘Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – and why Things are Better than You Think’. (Indeed, so impressed was Gates that he is offering free copies to all new US college graduates. Its clumsy title is the only fault I can find with this truly insightful and refreshing book.)

The late Hans Rosling was a Swedish medical doctor and educator, specialising in international public health. His book was written in response to his discovery of how ignorant even the most expert people are about the world, how little attention they pay to facts, and how prevalent are the distortions in beliefs and policy resulting from the pessimistic and over-dramatic world view we seem to have. He cites some fascinating evidence for this, and his book offers some quick tests with which to assess our own performance or that of our friends or colleagues.


This is the first of the thirteen questions:

In all low-income countries across the world, how many girls finish primary school?

A: 20%

B: 40%


Over twenty years Rosling has asked many thousands of people the world over, including leading politicians, journalists, economists, business people, the same standard thirteen questions - culminating in surveying the participants at the 2015 Davos Conference. Rosling discovered that most people got most of the answers wrong; so much so that the errors were worse than random, but ‘devastatingly and systematically wrong’. In fact, Rosling, who was also a very skilled and creative statistician, pointed out that if chimpanzees in a zoo were asked these same questions, by means of labelled bananas, their random choices would score better results. In other words, experts are no better than chimps. (By the way, the correct answer to the question above is 60%.)

The remainder of the book, written in an agreeably accessible, personal and conversational style, explains the errors we all tend to make in using and interpreting data (or neglecting data entirely), and how to employ facts, rather than pre-existing assumptions, to understand the world. Rosling, with the assistance of his children, also creates the most effective and understandable graphic presentations I have ever seen; as a statistical illiterate I actually enjoyed them.

Rosling also demonstrates that an evidence-based approach generates a largely positive view of the directions in which the world is headed, although by no means is he a Pollyanna optimist. He sees huge continuing challenges in chronic problems, and recognises the threat of climate change, but sees enough progress to describe himself as a ‘possibilist’ who believes that much can be achieved.

In ‘Factfulness’ Rosling follows his somewhat startling introduction with a practical cognitive framework we can all use in our work. Ten chapters identify, and give wonderful examples of, ten different errors in thinking that distort our ability to seek and interpret data. While they are not self-explanatory (otherwise why write a whole book explaining them?) I will not say much more about them here, but rather encourage you to go to the book itself.

The common thinking traps Rosling identifies are;

The Gap Instinct: while we pay attention to the extremes, the majority is in the middle

The Negativity Instinct: we perceive and react to bad news more than to good news

The Straight-Line Instinct: trends rarely go in straight lines forever

The Fear Instinct: risk is danger X exposure

The Size Instinct: amounts and rates tell different stories

The Generalisation Instinct: there can be differences within groups and similarities between groups

The Destiny Instinct: change is change, even if slow...look behind as well as ahead to see how all is not destiny

The Single Perspective Instinct: every complex problem has a simple solution – which is always wrong. If you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail

The Blame Instinct: look for causes, not villains; and systems, not heroes

The Urgency Instinct: take a breath, look at data and beware of drastic action

The combination of Haidt and Rosling is, to me, a very powerful one. Haidt helps us see where our elephant is inclined to go (although it doesn’t tell us), and why. Rosling gives us, as the rider, an improved ability to understand where the elephant should go, and to steer it in that direction. As a sector whose primary business is social improvement and consensual problem-solving, the skills that can be realised and demonstrated by reflection, practice and discussion around these ideas may be the most appropriate contribution philanthropy can make to the challenges we face in the present moment.

Both these books can be purchased at local bookshops for less than $30 or online from the links above.


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