Confronting Our “Inner Elephant”

TAKEAWAY: An online, self-directed program illuminates why we think the ways we do, how we believe others think, and what we can all do to improve mutual understanding.

The Trolley Problem in ethics has been around nearly as long as trolleys themselves. In it, a person is given an immediate choice: allow a runaway trolley to kill five track workers, or throw a switch to divert the trolley to a siding, killing one worker. The vast majority of people (including ethicists) elect to sacrifice the one over the five. That is, until they face a permutation of the problem, where the participant must deliberately push an innocent bystander off a bridge to jam the trolley and save the five workers. Although the end result is the same—one person killed—far fewer respondents elect to shove the bystander onto the tracks. 

Why is this? And what does it have to do with civil conversation? 

To Jonathan Haidt, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, and Caroline Mehl, Co-Founder and Executive Director of OpenMind, the way people react to The Trolley Problem and its permutation provides an intriguing starting point for applying research into moral psychology. The Trolley Problem is the opening exercise on the OpenMind Platform, an online, interactive program that explores how people form opinions and frame their decision-making. 

Haidt, a well-known moral psychologist, collaborated with Mehl and a group of experts to develop OpenMind in 2017. Since then, it has become the centerpiece of a not-for-profit organization (openmindplatform.org) that hosts workshops for businesses, educators and communities. Haidt and his team look to inspire curiosity about opposing opinions and forge a sense of intellectual humility about one’s own.

OpenMind is organized into five self-administered tutorials—called “Steps”—each of which takes about 15 minutes to complete. Step One opens with the Trolley Problem and goes on to compare the human mind to the interaction of an elephant and rider. The elephant represents a person’s “fast thinking” ability, the part of the brain that handles most daily activity. “Fast thinking” is rapid, intuitive and rooted in emotion, and helps people efficiently process each day’s deluge of information. It also leads to cognitive biases—consistent and predictable mistakes in judgment. Notes the OpenMind narrative, “We are a lot less rational than we would like to believe. We are prone to consistent biases in our judgment and are usually completely blind to them. As a result, we tend to think that others are being irrational, stubborn or hypocritical, while we think of ourselves as being virtuous and rational.” 

This contrasts with the rider, the “slow thinking” dimension of the brain, including conscious reasoning. Slow thinking requires much more deliberate mental effort, and the emotional “elephant” has much more raw power than the “rider” of careful reasoning. That helps explain why the reflexive action of participants in The Trolley Problem is to save the five when it comes to throwing a switch, but to sacrifice them when the stakes are raised to the deliberate demise of an innocent bystander. 

The OpenMind team believes that the best solution to each person’s inherent biases is to seek out ideas and information that challenge one’s existing thinking, and to approach them with an open mind, and that leads to the subsequent steps of the tutorial.

  • Step Two examines how morality develops and why it differs between individuals and across cultures.
  • Step Three introduces the concept of intellectual humility—the ability to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge.
  • Step Four explores the benefits of engaging with those who have different perspectives, difficult as these conversations may be.
  • Step Five offers practical training to make the dialogue easier and to navigate challenging conversations with those who hold opposing views. 
To live virtuously as individuals and society we must understand how our minds are built. We must find ways to overcome our natural self-righteousness, and to respect and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own.

With completion of the tutorial, participants in OpenMind have new tools useful in discussions of all types. Each participant also has the chance to examine personal values through the lens of a “moral matrix” that includes qualities such as Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity and Liberty. The national divide in politics, Haidt posits, reflects how people emphasize some of these qualities over others. 

Does the training work? Uptake is growing: OpenMind has now been used in nearly 700 cohorts. There is consistently positive feedback from those using the training, either in groups or individually. Users appreciate the opportunity to “take inventory” of the values that shape their opinion. Today, OpenMind is expanding their franchise, working on training to help people deal with specific “hot button” issues. Whatever the topic, notes Haidt, “to live virtuously as individuals and society we must understand how our minds are built. We must find ways to overcome our natural self-righteousness, and to respect and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own.”