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Morality Binds and Blinds

written by Louis Alloro 12 July 2012

Louis Alloro, M.Ed., MAPP '08, is a cofounder of a 6-month Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology Program, Fellow at the Center for Advancement of Wellbeing at George Mason University, and founder of SOMO Leadership Labs, a community intervention. Web site. Full Bio.

Articles by Louis are here.

Jeremy McCarthy ended his great review of Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind by exploring Haidt’s statement, “Morality binds and blinds.” This encapsulates both a challenge and an opportunity. We blindly follow our moral instincts; the foundations are hard to shake even in the presence of rational countervailing reasons. But morality also brings people together with others who hold similar values. While there is no single way to define or describe a moral life, we all have the ability to transcend self-interest, albeit in different ways, and to contribute to the greater good of our own communities.

So, how do we transcend self-interest and contribute to the greater good of our own communities? I had the opportunity to speak with Jonathan Haidt, newly appointed professor of ethical leadership at the NYU Stern School of Business. I asked him for practical applications of his Moral Foundations Theory, in particular, how I, as a SOcial-eMOtional leader, can apply the theory with:

  • My family (where some have politics very different from mine)
  • My consulting work with businesses (where morality is sometimes a dirty word)
  • My work in community organizations (where many turn a blind eye to immoral behavior)
  • Our positive psychology community (where it’s most important we walk the talk)

Here’s what he said . . .

For (my) family

Family Dinner

Haidt suggested that we attend to relationships first. “Put the elephant at ease before addressing the rider.”

I can look for things that the other side is right about, though it is hard to do, because my own morality is like a guard dog preventing me from seeing that they may actually be right. For example, I could say, “Yes, sometimes bureaucratic government agencies are difficult to deal with,” or, “You’re right, too much entitlement spending is going to ruin us. What can we do about it?” Stay open. Inquire. Don’t advocate.

Humans have evolved towards communion to overcome solitude. We need to build high quality connections with one another. In the book, Haidt explained that not long ago, American politicians elected to Congress would move their families to Washington, DC, where the families would come to know one another. This is not the case anymore as Congress people tend to fly in on Sundays and leave on Thursdays. Is it any wonder partisanship is problematic? We need to connect and intentionally build our tribes.

Listening to all points of view

For Businesses

Many disastrous business decisions are made from overconfidence plus the confirmation bias, that is, tending to see only things that confirm previously held views. If you understand the flaws of human reasoning, you understand that better reasoning is possible with co-creation. SOcial-eMOtional (SOMO) leaders set up a culture where it’s expected for people to point out flawed thinking. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman recommends asking the people in a group to write down their opinions and hand them in to be read out loud. That way they aren’t swayed by the first people to speak up or by the loudest voices.

Haidt referred to the teachings of Glaucon, Plato’s older brother: people are more concerned about reputations than they are about money. “You want to set up any organization so that peoples’ reputations are on the line. People will suffer if they do bad things and revel in the glory if they do good things,” he said. In modern times we don’t want people to feel shame, “but I suspect that putting more attention on reputational outcomes would be helpful.” Doing so may minimize backstabbing and deception.

Dancing together

For Community Groups

Many people operate from a scarcity mindset, where for me to win, you need to lose. In community settings, it is also common for people to turn a blind eye when witnessing immoral behavior. Perhaps this is a “protection of the tribe” mechanism, but ultimately it separates people from what’s real.

Referring to his metaphor of humans as hive creatures, Haidt reminded me that we are 10% bee, not 100% bee. While we don’t want to turn everything into a hive, occasionally setting up events to have people move in synchrony can increase their willingness to act for the group.

Listening to Music Together

This reminds me of Cleveland’s Wade Oval Wednesdays, where the community comes together to listen to music, eat food, and dance under the summer night sky. Events like this bind us and help us build social capital, which produces trust. Trust is a crucial ingredient to understanding one another and moving forward.

“You can’t stick ethics into anyone’s head,” Haidt said. Choosing to have an appreciation of difference means seeing them as yin/yang and not good/evil. To earmark another as evil eliminates any space for growth.

For our Positive Psychology Community

The darker side of Haidt’s book shows that we are all flawed hypocrites (do as I say, not as I do). We can each work on being more aware that we are not always right. If we do, people are less likely to perceive our efforts to enroll them into more positive paradigm as threats. Then they will be more inclined to be open to the science that shows what many ancient traditions have taught all along: be good, do good, expect good of others.

Haidt said that he considers himself a social, moral, cultural, and positive psychologist. He wondered if we might do a better job of being open to conservatives in our community. “Are we listening to them? Is the field any way hostile or insensitive? Perhaps what they have to say are things we just literally can’t see,” he said.

I’m trying my best to be open to seeing things differently. Are you?


I highly recommend Jon Haidt’s recent TED Talk: Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence. He’s an amazing teacher. You are also invited to visit SOMO Leadership Labs on Facebook where we discuss applications of positive psychology theory and research.


Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. London: Allen Lane.


Family Dinner courtesy of Drew Bennett
Business meeting courtesy of Yaletown Business Improvement Association
Dancing to the music courtesy of OldOnliner
Listening to music together

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Sherri Fisher 12 July 2012 - 4:56 pm

Very nicely presented, Louis. I enjoyed reading your thoughts interwoven with Haidt’s from your interview with him. It’s a nice way to present it without just giving us a script. Thank you!

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 13 July 2012 - 10:40 am

Very nice interview – make Haidt’s research very applicable and relevant. I especially love this quote: “people are more concerned about reputations than they are about money.” That could be very influential in how we structure incentives in organizations… Thanks for the article!

Louis Alloro 13 July 2012 - 11:44 pm

Thanks @Sherri and @Lisa – It was great to speak with Haidt. I am enamored with him — ever since he presented his hive theory during MAPP. Sent the article to my family members, asking them to lean in and encouraging my own learning. Got this note back from one of them. What do you think?

“Hi Louis, Can’t wait to read it, I’m forwarding it to my home as I am too busy at work to read this now. Regarding your heart comment: Rather than consider it outright advocating, did you ever stop to consider that maybe the inquiry has already been done by some and therefore no further discussion on the subject is necessary. And that the so-called advocating is merely trying to save those who are still seeking truth, to remember what happens when the blind leads the blind…”

Sherri Fisher 14 July 2012 - 10:06 am

My two cents…We all have thoughts “related” to, well, our relationships. Think about it like volleyball. This sounds like someone saying, “Back off” in a very wordy way (“Did you ever stop to consider…” and “No further discussion…), since it is putting the ball back into your court. You could think of it as a spike, or just a soft return. If you are asking for advice, I would say to be gracious and say thank you for reading, rather than exploring what the person “really” means. You might even take the “point”, since sometimes “game over” is just an opportunity to shake hands and have a friendly new game another day. Does that help? 🙂

oz 15 July 2012 - 4:32 am

Louis – so I guess as a SOMO leader (“SOcial-eMOtional (SOMO) leaders set up a culture where it’s expected for people to point out flawed thinking”)you would appreciate the comments that I make on this website pointing out the flawed thinking of PP.

If only everyone has the SOMO mindset!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ben O'Neal 15 July 2012 - 2:12 pm

Louis, what a timely discussion- especially applying the idea that “Morality Binds and Blinds” to the positive psychology community. The positive psychology literature is filled with the advantages of optimism and positive thinking.
Yet, there is very little mention of the enormous influence of Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking- a book that stayed on the NYT best seller list for over consecutive 3 years. He was an arch conservative preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church, and widely criticized, but he deserves some credit for his visionary ideas. William James has fared little better presumably because he gave so many examples of the ecstasy resulting from traditional religious practice. Here is a James quote that anyone can use: “Not God but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is in the last analysis, the real end of religion.” There is almost no mention of religious scripture or palmistry, and no mention of the folk wisdom of well-being expressed in song: Pretend You’re Happy when You’re Blue, Sunny Side of the Street, etc. I suspect neglecting these sources in our literature is due to the fact that “Morality Binds and Blinds,” and that our authors are “bound” to their moral community and “blind” to the insight of those outside of it. Wouldn’t this be a great thesis topic?
For a more recent and insightful video of Haidt’s work, go here: http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Sherri Fisher 15 July 2012 - 4:37 pm

Yes, that Bill Moyers/Jon Haidt chat is well worth watching! Haidt helps explain how we are all prone to flawed thinking, Oz, not just those in the field of PP (or its zesty critics).

Oz 15 July 2012 - 5:58 pm

sherri – touche – but my personality profile and values set mean im less inclined to the mob mentailty

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 16 July 2012 - 2:07 pm

Kahneman also explains how we are all prone to biases – and some have nothing to do with the “mob mentality” or “personality profile” or “values”. And we are blind (largely) to our own biases.

Louis – re: the email you got from your family member – I agree with Sherri. Sometimes, it’s better to just accept than inquire. As someone with a high strength in “curiosity”, I have learned that not everyone sees asking questions and engaging in dialogue as a good thing. Sometimes questions, even open-ended genuine curious questions, still elicit defensive mechanisms.

And family – well it’s family. All families are crazy in their own way and that includes the one that I’m the mother in. I figure my kids will keep a few therapists employed over the years. Consider it my contribution to the economy. 🙂

I come back to “people are more concerned about reputations than they are about money.” I wonder – perhaps people might sometimes be more concerned about reputations and being perceived as right, even above family and relationships? Just wondering…

Oz 16 July 2012 - 2:52 pm

louis – based on your closing comment – I’m trying my best to be open to seeing things differently. Are you?

how might positive psychology be blinding you?

Elaine O'Brien 18 July 2012 - 12:33 pm

Louis, Give yourself a hug! I agree with Lisa and Sherri. Love your writing and your sharing genius Jon Haidt’s Moral Commentary, I appreciate your reflections, the Kahneman “writing down your thoughts”/example, Cleveland’s Wade Oval Wednesdays, and how you tied this story into building Social Capital and SOMA. Well done.

Louis Alloro 18 July 2012 - 4:25 pm

Thanks all for your comments and suggestions.

I do realize I can see my family as “just the way families are” but those of you who know me know — my desire is to challenge that status quo + really be a force for positive change in this, my most meaningful social network. SOMO is all about being change-agents at home, with ourselves first and then with others in our lives.

When people come from an elitist place– “I know better than/more than you” –it sends us right into a threat response, not dissimilar from the days of saber tooth tigers pouncing. With threat comes cortisol – a negative neurotransmitter that takes my thinking and makes it really narrow – tunnel-like. Can you say negativity & confirmation bias? Wowza. Like all humans, I can and do “go there” too, with my own ego getting in the way. With mindfulness, I can challenge my limiting beliefs + really be a force for powerful change in the world.

Mr. Oz — with all due respect, positive psychology (which I define liberally) has done the opposite of blinding me. It’s free-ing me. It’s opening me up in new and beautiful ways. I appreciate your voice and your pushing. Just remember, though, to push, one must be open to the pushing. It’s a dance, after all – comm-unication. Sometimes, in a dance, it feels good to lean in to center. I think this is what ultimately Jon Haidt teaches.


PS. Am heading to Wade Oval Wednesday now. It’s MoTown night. I can’t wait!

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 18 July 2012 - 4:49 pm

Hi Louis – a friendly coaching challenge around your notion of when people come from an “elitist place”… that phrase is strongly value-laden – and if that’s the mindset, it will make communication extremely difficult. Everyone is subject to a confirmation bias – them and you (in general terms). What if it isn’t an “elitist place”?
See you soon!

Sherri Fisher 18 July 2012 - 6:04 pm

Hi, Louis-
Lisa, Elaine and I are all parents. As far as perspective changing goes, I can think of very little that rocks your world quite like becoming a family in that way. Ask them! All of the hopes and dreams that you have for your child can turn that little person into a live Rorschach test, no matter how much you may adore the child and want the child to grow up to become his or her best, independent, authentic self. Your values, dreams, expectations, perceived sacrifices, etc., are expressed into the family that you bring into the world, and for everyone, there are some disappointments inherent in that. Mostly you get over those feelings and the good outweighs the “That’s not what I ordered.” I know that my parents did not look at me and think, “Yep, we should all be like her.” Instead they probably thought, while I was trying to improve the Thanksgiving turkey gravy as the food was getting cold, “She thinks she is such a know-it-all,” or “She didn’t get the gratitude gene” as I, at age 12, returned the Christmas presents that I did not like (Well, seriously, they were soooo not me!). ??? I would suggest that one’s own family is a tough neighborhood for many positive interventions, especially ones which run the risk of being perceived as dealt by a “change agent. Maybe instead let them see you devote yourself to your work, and maybe let them choose how to respond. They may be having the sense that they are not good enough for you if you are suggesting, either directly or through your work, that they need to change. Change is hard, and you have to want to do it. You can still take the yucky clothes back, though 🙂

Louis Alloro 18 July 2012 - 7:58 pm

Ladies — I fear you misunderstood me. I agree with you @Lisa: elitism is a mindset and when one says, “There’s no more discussion. I’ve already done the research” – it’s a fixed mindset. Perhaps elitism is not the best word, but essentially what I mean is that there’s no room for growth.

@Sherri: I believe we are always changing — it’s not a matter of want or not want. It is. In which direction do we grow? That’s the question. I love my family, I need my family. I’m not trying to “change” anyone. I promise. I’m just trying to enroll others in a dialogue that may be more productive than the dialogue that attempts to protect the elephant with the riders’ limited reason. My own included. We need each other.

Change-agents don’t have the answers — just the questions and the vision that we can coexist more peacefully — even to have consensus about politics. That’s why I ended the piece with “I’m trying…” Not perfect. Trying.

As one of my dear SOMO colleagues says, “Our families are our best learning labs.” I believe this to be true.

Thanks for improving the gravy — I appreciate you,

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 18 July 2012 - 9:05 pm

HI Louis – the limitations of communicating over email… 😉 Our families are excellent learning labs for certain things. As for other topics, perhaps not. I agree it’s all learning – and it’s all our own learning. It’s our journey, and while we can invite others along with us, it’s always an invitation which can be accepted, declined or postponed. Perhaps when someone says “there’s no more discussion”, it’s just a declined invitation on that specific topic?

Anyhoooo… perhaps we’ll continue the conversation this weekend at #CPPA2012?

All the best!

Gus 26 July 2012 - 4:31 am

This article was really eye opening. We all really do have certain biases that are hard to look past. It’s so funny how sometimes they can be so obvious to other people.


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