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About 500 people of all ages and political stripes packed the L.V. Eberhard Center on Grand Valley’s Pew Grand Rapids Campus Tuesday night to hear social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explore why politics and religion have the power to divide people, during his presentation “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.”

Haidt’s presentation was described as entertaining and smart by audience members. He discussed how understanding moral intuition can help point the way toward mutual understanding, and wondered aloud why history and civics courses in high school aren’t teaching students about conservatism and liberalism as complementary ideas. 

“These are traditions that are pursuing visions of the good,” Haidt said. “Why don’t we have teachers that come in front of the class who are different from each other and respect each other and even joke about it? Wouldn’t that take some of the poison out of it and make it seem like it’s OK to talk about these things without hating each other?”

Haidt explained that happiness and satisfaction in the general public is rarely thought about on a consistent plane; rather that our perceptions of life are often compared to the well-being of others, or to our own past experiences. He cited a visual example, comparing an image of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address to a picture of a furloughed federal employee protesting on the steps of the Capitol during the government shutdown in early October. 

“Can we do anything? Can the U.S. government do anything?” Haidt asked. “Relative to our optimism about our government from 50 years ago, things are bad, things are really bad, and we’d generally prefer to have hemorrhoids than to have congressmen.”

Haidt said that polarization in Congress, polarization in the populace, and a distinct lack of trust in government are driving forces behind behaviors that divide people, and that his research demonstrates that individuals will reason their way to whatever judgements they’ve already made for intuitive or emotional reasons. 

After explaining cultural and political shifts that have driven religions and political parties apart, Haidt said the best bet to fix the cultural downturn in Washington is for millenials to focus on state-level changes that would implement campaign finance reform and change how districts are drawn to create more diverse districts where congresspeople wouldn’t be rewarded by constituents for adopting ever-more extreme views on either the left or right side of the political spectrum. 

The program “The Righteous Mind” was the third installment in the Hauenstein Center’s 2013-14 “American Conversations” series, which runs through May. Upcoming speakers in the series include author and columnist Amity Shlaes, journalist and historian Colin Woodard, and former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe. The topic of each event centers on a “Common Ground” theme.

Haidt joined the New York University Stern School of Business in July 2011. He is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership, based in the Business and Society program area.

Haidt is a social psychologist whose research examines the intuitive foundations of morality. His most recent book is the New York Times best-seller “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.” 

Select clips from Haidt’s speech are available in the video player above, and footage of the entire event is available online.