Which way does your elephant lean?

In my last post, with a bit of help from the Dulux dog, we considered the massive role our gut reactions and emotional connections play in our decision-making.

And what a useful tool they are! Imagine trying to make every decision you face in a day from an objective, factual and scientifically backed up standpoint. It would cripple us! We need our gut reactions to help us successfully navigate our way through our days well and safely. Not to mention with our own individuality in tact!

Useful? Undoubtedly! But also hugely, yet stealthily, powerful. Our emotions can give the impression of creeping cat-like through our lives and societies barely disturbing our carefully thought through, objective thinking; whereas in actual fact they stomp through our decisions and reactions like mighty elephants – as Glynn Harrison elucidates for us.

By the way if you are at all impressed by my use of elucidates please note that I stole it from the Disney film ‘Aristocats’! Let me know if you can tell me which bit.

Harrison points us to the work of social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman who have gathered vast quantities of data illustrating how much of what passes as thoughtful evaluation actually operates at [this] subconscious gut level.

Haidt conjures the picture of a small man riding an elephant.

If the rider is our logical, rational, objective self, the elephant is our intuitive, instinctive self, our gut reactions, our visceral feelings about an issue.

Haidt gets us to understand our quick off the mark gut reaction as the elephant leaning. Inevitably, as a consequence, our logical self (the rider) ‘leans’ before he/she has actually reacted much at all. So he argues, “if you want to change someone’s mind you need to appeal to his or her emotional elephant as well as to the intellectual rider on top”.

Which means you need to know which way his or her elephant tends to lean!

Haidt has produced a convincing body of research to show that our intuitive reactions to moral questions tend to operate broadly along six basic psychological systems, or foundations. In laying out these six systems he helps us to identify the different points of view from which people evaluate a moral question. The main question that each of the six systems ask will differ – because different issues and concerns will take priority.

To give a very basic example let’s consider how different people might react when presented with a menu at a restaurant. When I look at a menu my first port of call is to identify which options are sugar-free, whereas the NTV is more likely to think: “what would I not have at home?” Someone on a very tight budget might look at price first, whereas anyone with an allergy will prioritise that. Some will always choose their main course first and let that determine the rest of the meal, others might be all about saving room for pudding.

So what are the central questions for Haidts six systems?

better story
Photo taken from page 29, A Better Story by Glynn Harrison, IVP 2016

When presented with a moral situation those one the left of the spectrum will primarily be concerned with the individuals involved. Are they safe? Are they being treated equally and fairly? In contrast, the factor linking the three systems on the right is a focus on general moral concerns and big principles binding people together. Are we meddling with a sacred principle here that could put the community at risk? What is the received wisdom on this within my community? Could I do this and remain loyal or would pursuing this weaken community cohesion?

And don’t forget that leaning elephant! These questions are being asked and answered on a largely intuitive basis. When we look at how we respond to the moral questions being asked in our nation at this time – we will start to identify whether our personal elephant has a tendency to lean towards the left or the right.

As I acknowledged in my last post I am a black and white thinker. This does not mean that I respond to everything objectively, without emotion – I am at the mercies of my gut reactions as much as the next person! It simply indicates the direction in which my emotions lean. I ride an elephant that leans to the right as exemplified by my strong emotional reaction to the new status quo settling in and getting its feet under the table seemingly without a carefully thought through logical debate.   

As a right leaner my concerns are as follows: Should we not give more consideration to tradition and past wisdom? Have we really thought about the effect on society in the future? Have we ever stopped to ask where the sexual revolution has got us?

In contrast, however, the general lean of our society is increasingly to the left of the spectrum. When faced with an individual who is suffering ‘society’ wants to make it better for them right there and then, on the ground, at their point of felt need. 

From my right-leaning perspective I evaluate what is happening in our society as an arrogant and presumptuous redefinition of what is right and wrong. I feel anger and incredulity at what is going on. What right do people have to ‘suddenly’ declare that 2 + 2 no longer equals 4?

What I have failed to see is that the whole nature of the question being answered has changed. As society collectivly leans towards the left it isn’t searching for a fixed answer to a fixed question. Rather, it starts with the individual ‘numbers’ involved and adds things up from there to discover what is best for the individual.

And so it is not simply the presence of disagreement that puts barriers in the way of loving fruitful conversation – but rather a totally different understanding of what we are disagreeing about. I can go on objecting until I am blue in the face – but I might as well be doing it in another language! To truly and lovingly engage with others in matters of human sexuality and gender, I need to stop simply telling people my answer to my questions, and start talking about the questions that concern those on the opposite end of the spectrum.

More on this to come no doubt – but to finish I just want to share a Note to Self that has arisen from all this:


Dear Self,
You have much to learn from those whose elephants lean left. You tend towards a lack of compassion towards the individual and a pride in correct thinking. How unlike my Saviour and Lord you are. Jesus always treated those he met as individuals and he always acted with compassion. Glorifying his Father, teaching truth and acting for the good of all never compromised his compassion or desire for the individual’s best. What perfect wisdom! 

Lord, help me to grow in my compassion, to value loving and serving people over promoting certain ideas for the sake of things being ‘right’. Thank you that there is no conflict between what is true and right and what is best. Lord please use me to lead people to your compassion and truth, to the one in whose name I pray now, Amen.  


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