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The other side isn’t your enemy: Jonathan Haidt speaks at TEDNYC

With less than a week until America casts ballots in what has become one of the most controversial US presidential elections in history, TED invited the social psychologist and expert on the psychology of morality Jonathan Haidt to talk about our divisions — and how we might heal.

In conversation with TED curator Chris Anderson at TED HQ in New York, Haidt draws on a social science perspective to explain why people on the left and right don’t just disagree with each other these days, they actually think the other side is a threat to the nation.

“We’re tribal — we evolved for tribalism,” Haidt explains. “It’s how we created society. We’re not doomed to always be fighting each other, but we’ll never have world peace.”

On the left, that tribalism has manifested itself with people who want to define their tribe more globally. On the right, the definition stops at local communities and nations. Haidt quotes the UK pollster Stephan Shakespeare, who put it this way: “We are either ‘drawbridge up’ people or ‘drawbridge down’ people.”

Another principle of social science explains why political arguments feel so unreasonable lately: As humans, our intuition comes first, while reason comes second. “Our intelligence actually may have evolved to help us manipulate each other and defend our reputations,” Haidt says. “That’s why you can’t win a political argument with reasoning and evidence.” Add in the internet, he says, and our post-hoc reasoning is ramped up on speed.

There’s also a historical explanation for the current division, Haidt says. The influence of World War II can’t be overstated, because the generation of people who fought and endured it had to learn to come together to endure hardships, making them more cooperative and willing to compromise even years later. The next generation, the Baby Boomers, grew up without the same kind of unifying national event, and never had to confront the fatal consequences of divisiveness the way their parents did. So, he says, it makes sense that they wouldn’t be able to compromise in politics.

So is there a salve for a divided America?

Haidt provides an interesting vision for how we might move forward. America was built on federalism and local control, he reminds us, and conservatives continue to value small government. World War II and then the Baby Boomers put more and more control in the hands of the federal government — in part, Haidt says, as a political maneuver to get Civil Rights legislation passed. But now, he points out, young people today are watching the government, specifically Congress, accomplish nothing at all. “What if young people find ways outside of government to make change?” he asks. “If we can take an awful lot off the federal plate, then people won’t feel the government is dominating their life as much.”

“Both sides are right about something,” Haidt says. “There are a lot of problems in the country, but neither side is capable of seeing them all.” He suggests turning to the ancient wisdom of Buddha, Jesus and Marcus Aurelius for advice on how to drop fear, reframe our differences and stop seeing other people as your enemy. “Be more humble; you don’t know as much as you think,” he says. “Make an effort to meet someone on the other side. Only with people who challenge us can we find the truth.”