The Science of Thinking Differently

Jonathan Haidt. Photo courtesy of TED
Jonathan Haidt. Photo courtesy of TED

How to think differently was a theme that linked two recent episodes of On Being, the American Public Media radio show hosted by Krista Tippett. Both episodes, funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, explored the idea that psychology is showing that changing our perception of ourselves and others can be achieved by recognizing how our views are intimately connected to our attitudes.

On May 29th, Tippett interviewed Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychology professor who has been dubbed “the mother of mindfulness”—which she defines as “the simple act of actively noticing things.” Her work suggests that our experiences are formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. “As I’m fond of saying, whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it either mindfully or mindlessly,” she explained. The consequences of being in one state of mind or the other are enormous in terms of whether we experience life as like work or play, as happy or sad. “When we encourage people to be more mindful, we find enormous improvements,” Langer continued.

Tippett also spoke with Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of The Righteous Mind, in front of a live audience at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan on June 12th. The book explores the differences between conservative and liberal attitudes as “personality types” rather than simply as ethical positions.

Haidt’s research starts with the theory that morality is based on the emotions. “When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means,” he explained. He argued that appreciating that difference generates new ways of tackling apparently intractable human disagreements. “If we can all get a better grasp of this moral psychology, we can turn it to our advantage,” he concluded.