Art of Public Engagement: Elephants and riders

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Wapiti, Wyoming

My previous two columns presented the research of Dan Kahan and his Yale colleagues. Their findings focus on the reality that we are members of groups and that we will likely interpret any situation in much the same way as the rest of our group, regardless of our ability to understand the facts. Why? Conforming makes our lives smoother, day-to-day. Understanding the facts surrounding controversial issues may well make it less pleasant. But, as Kahan points out, and planners know, what works for individuals in the short run often does not work for communities in the long run.

In search of answers for how to deal with this, I turned to NYU Professor of Business Ethics Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In this book, Haidt sets forth a theory of moral psychology which, among other things, reminds us that each person in the meeting room brings along a reputation with the people who matter in his/her life. Maintaining one’s reputation is important to a social animal, more important than getting the facts straight. But that’s not his first point.

Elephants and Riders

Haidt’s first point sets the challenge for planners, with our profusely illustrated narratives and maps. It is “Elephants rule.” Haidt likens the way our moral perceptions work to an elephant and its rider. The intuitive (I would rather say, reflexive) elephant determines how we react unless otherwise persuaded by the reasoning rider. And elephants are stubborn. They are stubborn for the reason Kahan states, our group membership, but also, in Haidt’s view because our moral perception is partly innate. Because part of the way people view the moral landscape is genetic. Because people emerge from the womb inclined toward one ideology or another.

Haidt goes on, drawing as heavily on anthropology as psychology, to propose that a person’s moral judgment can largely be explained using a half dozen foundational axes:

  • Care/Harm
  • Fairness/Cheating
  • Loyalty/Betrayal
  • Authority/Subversion
  • Sanctity/Degradation
  • Liberty/Oppression

He also proposes that understanding how different people use or, perhaps more to the point for WP readers, fail to use these moral dualities in making political arguments explains a great deal about why contemporary politics are so intensely polarized.

Using Moral Foundations

If all I care about is the Care/Harm axis (and this tends to be where planners root our arguments), I may be unable to communicate with someone whose moral understanding depends more on the other axes. In the book, Haidt challenges us to think about how planning can invoke fairness (which is not, as Haidt found, as simple as it seems), loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty in the way we present our proposals.

All Western Planner readers should read Haidt’s book. He is a good writer and, unlike most academicians, weaves the story of his personal journey toward his conclusions into the narrative.
Besides reading what Haidt has to say, you may also want to visit where you can, among other things, find out where you stand on each moral foundation. The website is a collaboration among social psychologists who study morality and politics at the University of Virginia, the University of California (Irvine), and the University of Southern California. The researchers’ goal was to create a site that would be interesting to users and also allow researchers to test a variety of theories about moral psychology. By filling out the surveys, you will receive an immediate report on how you scored, how your responses compare to others., and what your responses might say about you.

Finally here, I want to say that I hope to see you all at the Western Planner Conference in Great Falls in August 2016! It’s a fabulous opportunity to see some iconic landscapes and enjoy learning with your colleagues.

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming in 1974. Contact him at

Published in the February/March 2016 Issue

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