Jon Haidt And “The Happiness Hypothesis” – A Long Book Review

The following is something I will send to my clients shortly. It is still in draft form, but I thought some here might find it useful.

[here is a eBook formatted version of the complete letter]

Happiness Hypothesis letter – April 2008

Dear *:

Re: Jon Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis”

I thought you would enjoy the enclosed book on CD. Please accept it with my best wishes. This had been intended as a Christmas gift, then a New Year’s gift, then a Chinese New Year’s gift. One thing after another delayed this letter. So, now “The Happiness Hypothesis” (“THH”) is an April 30th (tax filing day in Canada) gift. I hope that it will make those of you writing large cheques that day feel a bit better.

THH’s author, Jon Haidt, is an up-and-coming social psychologist who teaches at the University of Virginia. THH is one of several books that were published during the past couple of years that treat this topic, and is head of the class.[1]

As its title suggests, THH is about what makes us happy. However, it covers a lot of territory while telling that story. Most of us will find something here that is useful when dealing with customers and colleagues at work, loved ones at home, or looking in the mirror.

This review is long and dense enough that you may want to save it for reading on a plane, or for putting yourself to sleep at night. It is set up so that the main ideas are captured in the section immediately below, plus the conclusion. This amounts to about eight pages. The remainder of the letter summarizes THH in its entirety as well as setting it in context. That amounts to an additional twenty pages and enables my personal objective with regard to a book of this quality – to summarize a lot of useful information in a conclusion I can remember and hence use to influence my behavior.

Ten Ancient Ideas – An Overview

THH is organized around 10 ancient ideas with regard to what makes us happy and the current social scientific research that is relevant to them. Haidt indicates that the first two ideas are foundational to the rest. They are: (1) that the mind is divided into parts (the recently evolved conscious and the much older unconscious, which Haidt calls the “rider” and the “elephant”), and that these often conflict, and (2) to what extent does “thinking makes it so”, as Shakespeare, the Buddha and many other sages have said?

Next, Haidt analyzes two important ideas related to the social aspect of our lives. They are (in their order from the ten ancient ideas) our tendencies: (3) to reciprocate and (4) to be hypocritical.

Having dealt with foundational ideas, Haidt summarizes the research with regard to what actually makes us happy, as opposed to what we assume will make us happy or remember making us happy. He does this by addressing four questions. They are: (5) Does happiness come from getting what we want?; (6) Does it come from our relationships?; (7) Do we need adversity to be happy?; and (8) Does happiness come from being virtuous?

Haidt concludes with a consideration of how two “big” questions: (9) How does happiness relate to the Sacred or Divine?; and (10) How does happiness relate to the meaning of life?

Before summarizing a few of the concepts that caught my eye with regard to these ideas, I will cut to the chase for those with limited time to read this kind of material.

The Bottom Line

We first need to digest and accept the fact that we do not perceive or remember accurately due to our “cognitive biases”. Until we do that, we are not likely to make much progress toward being happier.

Most of our cognitive biases are tooted in our elephant and its need for security.[2] This causes us to have trouble admitting that we or our social group are often wrong in what we perceive, remember and believe. This includes many of our foundational beliefs. If we can’t trust our judgement, we will be paralyzed by fear and indecision, which throughout most of human history would have quickly killed us, and now will at least spoil our golf game.

So, the elephant screens the rider from a lot of disturbing information, regardless of how accurate it may be. The rider, after all, evolved to make the elephant more effective. The rider’s illusion of control and reliable judgement (also caused by the elephant’s need for security) does just this. As a result, however, the rider cuts a tragically comic figure as it rides through life supremely confident in its finery – our own personal Emperor in New Clothes.[3] That parable illustrates many aspects of the rider on the elephant as well as any. And, our difficulty accepting this unflattering reality with regard to ourselves[4] is itself also explained by our elephant’s security deficit, and perhaps best summed up by “Flatland”[5], another classic. There, two dimensional figures struggle to grasp and then explain to others in their world, the third dimension. The moral of the story is that our difficulty in understanding has nothing necessarily to do with a reality that once grasped suddenly seems childishly obvious.

Basic paradigm shifts, such as that illustrated by “Flatland”, are among the most difficult and painful to achieve, while often offering life’s richest payoffs.

Many of our cognitive biases lead to what Haidt calls “happiness traps” – behaviors to which we are instinctively drawn and that make us consistently unhappy. Training our elephant to avoid these is crucial to our happiness.

One of the most efficient ways to remember the important concepts related to happiness is through the use of a formula:

Happiness = S + C + V

That is, happiness depends on our: Capacity for happiness that is set (S) by our genetics and history; the relatively hard to change conditions (C) of our life, and the choices we make with regard to particularly important voluntary (V) or discretionary activities.

Our set happiness range refers to the fact that some of us are naturally more morose, and others more bubbly. The somewhat depressive also tend to perceive reality more accurately than their cheerful peers. We can choose to live so as to move toward the top of our set happiness range, and things like meditation, cognitive therapy and anti-depressants help in this regard. But it does not appear that we can change this range, no matter how much we will this or how many exercises we do. Understanding this helps us to establish realistic expectations, and to identify the strengths which, if developed and regularly used, will enable us to spend more time near the upper end of our happiness range.

The conditions of life relevant to happiness are relatively difficult (and in some cases impossible) to change, and include things like our race, sexual orientation, and the nature of our family and community. For example, a person born into a stable family in a stable democracy with adequate opportunities for education, health care and meaningful employment has a much higher probability of living a satisfied life than an orphan in an impoverished, war-torn country.[6] The gargantuan effort necessary to leave abusive relationships, escape from unstable communities or drag oneself out of poverty pay massive dividends from a happiness point of view.

It is important to note that we are often far more capable of changing the basic conditions of our lives than we believe. THH sheds light on why we tend to unnecessarily stay in unhappiness producing circumstances.[7] On the other hand, the massive effort required to drag oneself from the middle class into the super wealthy category or achieve other significant social status markers, appears to pay negligible happiness dividends unless the process by which these symbols are obtained is itself enjoyable. That is, happiness is about the journey. Those who endure the journey in hope that the destination will pay off are almost invariably frustrated. And continuously arriving at seemingly desirable destinations (buying as opposed to earning, for example) is ironically depressing. Many major life events, such as moving to the climate that seems most desirable, winning the lottery, or becoming a paraplegic have surprisingly small happiness effects.

Understanding how the conditions of our life affect happiness will help to bring into focus the cost-benefit equation with regard to some of our most important decisions. The bottom line in this regard is that for most of us living in the developed part of the world, the “big” issues (race, health, education levels, wealth, etc.) have a much smaller effect on happiness than most of us assume.

Our voluntary or discretionary activities have a much greater effect on happiness than we tend to appreciate. We can choose, for example, to spend more time cultivating our most meaningful relationships instead of accumulating status symbols; we can choose to reduce our commuting time; we can identify our strengths and choose to spend more of our time using them;[8] we can identify the causes for which we feel passion and spend more energy there; we can choose to spend more of our time in environments that are more predictable or over which we have more control; the jack of all trades can choose to master something at a level she has not previously experienced; the expert may push himself out of his comfort zone into a period of chaotic personal and professional growth; etc. Taking action of this kind tends to improve our happiness. However, most of us consistently choose not to do these things.

So, to the extent that we are involved in a relatively intense way in activities that we enjoy because of their nature, not where they lead, we will be happy and things that interfere with this (like long commutes; consistent exposure to irritating noise and unstable or out of control environments; etc.) will reduce our happiness. Happiness is in this small stuff, not life’s seemingly big issues or the achievement of the elephant’s goals.

Haidt is at his best when explaining why we continue to do what has consistently made us unhappy while assuming that this time things will be different. Even more interesting is why, after we have had all of this lucidly explained and have decided to change our ways, so few of us are able to do so. Our elephant and the cognitive biases it inflicts on our rider are largely responsible for much of our tragically errant judgement.

Haidt’s overview of what makes us happy (as well as what depresses us) provides important insight into a host of important business, family and personal issues. How can office environments and career paths be made more attractive to the increasingly “post-materialist” younger generations?[9] How can middle aged people at the peak of their productive capacity be enticed to remain fully engaged in their business or professional endeavors? How can marriages and other long term intimate relationships be continually revitalized? After earning money declines in importance, what kinds of activities are likely to provide fulfillment?

Most importantly, Haidt explains why[10] the richer and hence more focussed on happiness humanity has become, the more depressed we tend to be. Among children and teenagers in particular, clinical depression is now called an epidemic by some medical practitioners.[11] Haidt explains this by noting (as indicated above) that happiness is a by-product – it results from our progress toward goals, not their achievement. Today we effortlessly obtain more than any prior generation dreamed possible and are faced with a supreme irony – we have reached the Nirvana toward which our ancestors climbed, and it turns to dust as we grasp it.

The solution? There is no silver bullet, but it is a good start to understand more about the nature of happiness and why our instincts formed in a radically different environment long ago are not designed to make us happy. Just as overeating every time we had the chance made sense throughout most of human history but does not now, many of our instincts run contrary to our conscious objectives.[12] An increased awareness of why we do what we do makes it more likely that we can train ourselves to behave more functionally.

Importantly,[13] during the last decade or so we have finally accumulated enough evidence with regard to what actually makes people happy, instead of what they think makes them happy or remember having made them happy, to identify the best guide to happy living. Instead of relying upon the typical survey data, social scientists began contacting many research subjects multiple times each day by cell phone, finding out what the research subjects were doing at that moment, and asking questions designed to measure various psychological states. Many hundreds of thousands of data points have been collected in this fashion with regard to a wide variety of different types of people in varying circumstances. This still growing database enables us for the first time to compare what similar people tend to remember feeling in certain types of situations, or think they will feel in that type of situation, to what they actually reported feeling while in that situation. The actual reports differ radically from the remembered or the anticipated experience. However, when confronted with this evidence, our tendency to feel that we are special generally speaking causes people to ignore whatever conflicts with how they either remember they felt, or think they will feel.

For example, the evidence is clear with regard to the stress and unhappiness that results from many aspects of child-rearing. A large percentage of divorces occur near either the birth of a couple’s first child or that child’s thirteenth birthday. However, people tend not to remember the extent to which they struggled with child rearing, and have a difficult time accepting the probability before becoming parents that they will struggle. This misperception is to some degree responsible for our species’ survival. But in any event, the same psychological tendencies that are responsible for most people feeling they are above average also appears to be responsible for how most people react when confronted with research findings that summarize how the population reports their actual, in the moment experience. That is, if what is reported disagrees with what we expect (that is, being a happy parent), we tend to feel confident that we will beat the odds. We can radically upgrade the happiness we experience by accepting that we are likely to react as most other people do in similar situations, and train our elephant to accept and be ready for that.[14]

I suspect that this introduction will be more than enough for most recipients of this letter. Those who want to stop reading here should skim the conclusion and then enjoy THH itself. However, largely for selfish reasons I have written a substantial overview of THH and include that below on the chance that you may find it useful. I often produce documents like this when I discover books that offer insights so important to me that I want to make them part of my worldview. This is part of how I try to train my elephant.

Cognitive Biases

I picked up THH because I wanted to learn more about happiness. To my surprise, however, I found that THH ties directly into one of my favorite topics – cognitive biases – and came at it from an angle that helped me to answer questions I have been chewing on for a long time.

The study of cognitive biases maps our mental blind spots[15]. Those who sell us things and control us in other ways routinely exploit many of these. For example:

· We tend to seek confirmation for our beliefs and to avoid or suppress the perception of evidence that questions them. That is, we are not truth seekers, we are confirmation and affirmation seekers. The more people around us share our beliefs, the stronger this bias is. Our memories, perceptions and judgements all bend to this and the other forces noted below. This has to do with our need for security. This need explains most of our mental foibles, as well as the happiness traps Haidt describes.

· We underestimate the importance of the natural probability of events and so tend to see meaning were there is none. This likely also has to do with our need for security.

· Reality is often more complex than our ability to comprehend it. Since we don’t deal well with the fact that we are often wrong, we unjustifiably simplify what we observe so that we can believe that we understand it. The culprit here is, again, our need for security.

· We are more persuaded by stories, metaphor and analogy than data. We are narrative animals. This is part of our tendency to simplify, and so is also related to our security needs.

· We tend to trust people perceived to be experts more than can be justified. For example, a man dressed in a business suit will tend to be believed, and obeyed, more than the same man dressed casually. Again, this has to do with our need for security. I have likely made the security point by now and so won’t tie the rest of the points into it.

· Vague, distant sources of authority tend to sway us more than present sources. (“You must do this because (science, the Government, God, etc.) says you must” v. “You must do this because I say you must”).

· Our beliefs tend to change in the direction of the things we say (“The Chinese brand of Communism is better than Western democratic capitalism”), even when we speak solely for the purpose of participating in a classroom exercise. If the elephant said it, the rider is under pressure to believe it even if the rider “knows” that it is not true. This tendency is used by sales organizations that have their sales people memorize and publicly repeat their sales messages even if they do not believe them. Over time, sales person buy-in to the message has been shown to go up dramatically as a result of this technique. The “saying is believing” bias illustrates a counter-intuitive connection between our physical actions and our mental states that has been shown to exist in a wide variety of circumstances.[16]

· We tend to reciprocate in unexpected circumstances. For example, a waiter’s tips tend to go up if mints are delivered with the restaurant’s bill.

· Our actions are influenced by context far more than we think. For example, we are more likely to make a donation if we are first asked for something enormous (“Would you be the overnight supervisor in our homeless shelter for the next two weekends?”), and when we decline are then asked for a donation. We also tend to pay more for an item if during the sales process we are shown something very expensive and similar to what we plan to purchase. This explains why stores stock expensive items that they never seem to sell.

· We react far more strongly to the appearance of others than we like to believe. For example, people tend to sue barely negligent doctors who don’t smile a lot, but do not tend to sue grossly negligent doctors who are at the friendly end of the spectrum. In general, physical factors like the height of a male, the attractiveness of a male or female, or how much a person smiles, are far more strongly correlated with social, financial and other forms of success than most of us in the meritocratic West believe.

Much unhappiness is the result of frustrated expectations. So, if we are consistently wrong about reality we will tend to be unhappy. An understanding of how cognitive biases work helps us to establish more realistic expectations and to get more of what we want from life. That is only part of the happiness story, however, and this brings us to where Haidt and his unruly elephant can take over.

The Ten Ancient Ideas

I will now return to Haidt’s ten ancient ideas. First, the two foundational ideas, that the mind is divided into conflicting “rider” and “elephant” parts, and that to an extent “thinking makes it so”.

The Divided Mind

Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the recently evolved[17] conscious part of the mind has limited control over what the elephant does, and the elephant’s tendencies (our instincts) were for the most part developed in an environment that differs radically from the one we must navigate today. For example, the elephant pursues the security and status that will help it win the evolutionary contest to pass as many of its genes as possible on to the next generation. The rider evolved to help in this regard. From a survival and reproduction point of view, confidence in self and one’s group is often more important than accurately perceiving what is going on around us. That is, it is better to be wrong and alive than right and dead. Even today, many contests go to the most confident and loudest self-promoter instead of the most talented. For this reason, an important part of the rider’s job is to justify whatever the elephant happens to do, and the rider does this while believing that it is an accurate perceiver in pursuit of truth and justice. To perform its function, the rider must be unaware of much of what is going on, like sales people who are most effective while unaware of their product’s shortcomings.

The rider’s tendency toward inaccurate perception and overconfidence explains a lot of human behavior that seems irrational. This is why most people believe that they are above average and that their perceptions are accurate and objective while other people are strongly influenced by emotions and biases. It also explains the ease with which most people can pick out flaws in other people’s belief systems while being unable to do so with regard to their own.

The elephant is like tried and true hardware, and the rider like recently developed, buggy software that is under the powerful delusion that it is in control. In contests between the two, the elephant tends to win. It operates automatically and wears down the rider’s will. The elephant can be trained (a laborious process), or manipulated by taking him into environments where his behavior is predictable. Elephants are highly mimetic. For example, if I want my elephant to exercise more and eat less I simply need to get him to spend more time in gyms with other elephants who have been trained to workout, and less time around food.

Haidt uses the rider on the elephant metaphor throughout THH to communicate the tension that exists between our conscious and unconscious selves. Much of what we experience as unhappiness is the result of this tension, and much of what we perceive to be irrational behavior in other people and they in us (but not generally us in ourselves or they in themselves) is the result of what our elephants automatically do on the basis of eons of adapting to an environment that has little in common with our current reality. For example, current research suggests that most people would be happier if they lived closer to work, spent less time commuting, worked less, spent more time engaged in activities related to their most important relationships and causes, and spent their discretionary income more on experiences and less on objects.[18] This would require, however, that we give up the type of status symbol the elephant instinctively pursues, such as higher incomes, larger houses and other visible status social artefacts. As noted, the elephants win most contests of this type, and as a result we tend not to find the happiness we seek.

The elephant, and the automatic processes it represents, is relatively easy to predict. Think about what kinds of behavior are most probable to enhance survival and reproductive opportunities in a primitive environment, and you can predict the elephant’s impulses. This boils down to a simple attraction and withdrawal system that Haidt calls “yuck and yum”. Anything that is likely to improve prospects for survival or reproduction will feel good and attract the elephant (the nice smell of food cooking; the sight of an attractive potential mate). Anything that might prove threatening will repel the elephant (the bitter taste of toxins or a sound in the bushes that might be a predator). And because it’s much more serious to miss a threat than an opportunity for a meal or sex, the elephant has a negative bias. That is, if you don’t notice a ripe piece of fruit, you’ve missed a tasty treat, but if you do not react quickly enough when you hear the sound of a potential predator, you might be dead. So, our brains arewired to react much more quickly and dramatically to potential threats than opportunities for food, sex, etc.

Thinking Makes It So

“There is no reality, only perception.” “As a man thinketh, so is he.”

Countless self-help programs, and many religions and quasi-religions have been built on principles like these, including the recent “Law of Attraction”[19] and “What the Bleep Do We Know”[20] phenomena. There is no doubt that people feel empowered by these ideas, and that they are as literally false as they are metaphorically true.

Current research indicates that we are limited in a variety of ways by our genetics, not to mention the laws of physics. To the extent that we can cultivate a positive attitude, this will enable us to do more or differently than would otherwise have been the case. However, we have limited control over our moods and no matter how positively we think, there are many things we will not be able to change. As Einstein put it, reality may be an illusion, but it is very persistent.

Recent research has taught us a number of significant things about the negative bias mentioned above, and as a result we now know more than ever regarding what we can realistically expect to change in terms of our general attitude toward life and what we should plan to accept.

For example, our negativity bias explains why the mind at rest tends toward depression. By day three of a long weekend or vacation of planned “down-time”, most people feel somewhat depressed unless they’ve kept themselves busy, which would mean they did not have downtime. Watching a lot of television does not create enough mental activity to short-circuit the negativity bias, and accordingly the more television a person watches, the more likely it is that she will be depressed.

One of the best ways to overcome the negativity bias is to spend many hours a day in a “flow” state.[21] This is the mental state that accompanies being engaged in a challenging activity that you regard as meaningful. If the challenge is too great, you will become frustrated and feel stress. If the challenge is not great enough, you will be bored and eventually depressed. The immediacy of feedback is important. It is hard to stay in flow if you have to wait hours to find out if each step you take is on track. Flow is that ideal combination of challenge, feedback and meaning during which time seems to disappear. Evolutionary forces seem to have shaped us to need hours of flow activity per day. This makes sense in light of the tasks our ancestors needed to perform in order to survive.[22]

Ironically, both adults and children tend to believe that they will be happier if they have more leisure. The data indicates the opposite. Children who are permitted to do what they want to do (spend more time watching television, playing video games and hanging out at the mall with their friends) tend to be significantly more depressed than their peers who spend more time doing homework and engaged in active hobbies such as learning to play a musical instrument or participating in competitive athletics. Adults who take early-retirement without finding significant challenges, and hence flow, outside the workplace similarly report increased levels of depression and health problems, and tend to die sooner than their more engaged peers.

So, is the solution to depression remaining busy all the time? While that helps in some ways, it has also made many in the Western world uncomfortable in their own skin. A synthesis of Eastern and Western wisdom appears to be helpful in this regard when it comes to elephant training.

Meditation, whether combined with yogic practices, deep relaxation techniques, cognitive therapy or otherwise, correlates powerfully with reduced levels of depression and increased happiness. It seems to loosen up our mental systems so that they are better able to identify, and adapt to, reality. In fact, a combination of meditation and cognitive therapy has been shown to be as effective as pharmaceutical antidepressants with regard to a wide range of mental illnesses, while providing many other benefits and avoiding the side-effects that often accompany the use of anti-depressants. Cognitive disciplines like meditation, that have their roots in Eastern spiritual traditions, tend to orient us toward the present and its peaceful acceptance, and accordingly provide a healthy counterbalance to the Western tendency to continually look over the horizon. At the same time, ideas with regard to the importance of striving for improvement and passionately embracing life are moving from the West to the East, with many positive as well as negative consequences.[23]

History and literature are full of stories of people who achieved some important insight into their life’s condition, and were changed forever more. The research indicates that while this is possible, it is unusual. Generally speaking, our epiphanies have short-lived effects. This is because they are a conscious (rider) phenomena, and therefore do little about the nature of our elephant. If we want to change the elephant, we have limited tools at our disposal. As already indicated, if we can change the elephant’s environment we can often change its behavior. If the environmental change lasts long enough, this may retrain the elephant. Meditation and cognitive therapy also work, as already noted. Initial positive effects are felt quickly, but significant and lasting change requires consistent effort over long periods of time. Think of this as a life-style change. Pharmaceutical antidepressants are also effective for some people, but have many side effects. Haidt tells the story of how he determined that he hasa moderately depressive personality type, and decided that he should take antidepressants. He encourages their use for people who are positively affected by them. In his case, however, the antidepressants had a side effect — they impaired his memory. As an aspiring academic, this was intolerable. He accordingly, and with great reluctance, gave up the wonderful feeling of calm the antidepressants gave him in order to recover his ability to recall and process information.

Next we consider two important ideas related to the social aspect of our lives. They are our tendencies to reciprocity and hypocrisy.


Virtually every long-lived human civilization has something resembling the Golden Rule near its foundation. It is therefore clear that this principle is of tremendous importance to human society. It is important, however, to distinguish the Golden Rule from the “turn the other cheek” principle, which is prominently featured in the New Testament, and to subject the Golden Rule to a variety of other exceptions. For example, there is a great deal of evidence that something more closely resembling the Old Testament’s “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is the required for successful social groups.

It has been demonstrated, for example, that the most productive behavioural rule in most societies is what has been called “modified tit for tat” and that this is our most common social behavior. That is, when someone cheats us we will not immediately cheat or punish them, but rather we will give them one or two opportunities to reciprocate our fair behavior, and then we will reciprocate their cheating behavior and/or punish them in other ways. In countless social simulations this strategy has been found to outcompete others, and it has also been found to closely reflect actual social behavior. In cases where people constantly “turn the other cheek” when cheated, the cheaters continue to cheat and the group becomes less productive and in some cases collapses under the weight of widespread cheating.

The vast majority of people with whom we deal socially reciprocate our positive behaviors and do not cheat us. However, we occasionally run into cheaters and after we have provided them adequate opportunity to play fair, as already noted, we feel compelled to punish them and warn others about them. From a purely selfish perspective, this does not make sense. The time, effort, personal risk and other resources we expend while attempting to punish a cheater and let our friends and others know about him do not make sense in light of what we as individuals are likely to recover as a result of these efforts. However, what we do in this regard makes sense when the benefits to be gained by our group are taken into account. The damage a cheater can do will be limited if news of his habits spreads, and this saves other people from loss. Accordingly, our tendency to gossip and engage in other activities that alert others to cheaters of various types, while reinforcing the conceptions of fairness within our social groupthat will cause other cheaters to be ferreted out and warnings sent in that regard, are more important than we perhaps appreciate. Similar behavior has been observed in other small herd animals. For example, the bird that sees an approaching predator generally sounds a warning that maximizes the probability that the flock will escape, while drawing the predator’s attention to the warning bird and therefore increasing the probability that it will die. This type of self-sacrificial behavior indicates the importance of our social connections.

A good part of our mimetic behavior can be explained on the basis of our instinct to reciprocate. If someone smiles at us, we tend to return the smile. If someone gives us a gift, we likewise tend to reciprocate. The more we are trying to impress someone, such as while on a date with an attractive potential mate or in a meeting with our boss, the more we are likely to mimic their movements. They lean back in their chair, we lean back in ours; they put a hand on their chin, we follow; they tilt their head left, we incline ours in the same direction, etc. This physical solidarity says louder than words “I am with you, I like you, and I even want to be like you”. When the words we use are inconsistent with our body language, the words are not believed. Studies have shown that body language is much more difficult to fake than words.

Marketing experts long ago intuited what social science has now laid out for all to see, and developed programs around these principles. For this reason, salesmen mirror our movements and requests for donations are often preceded by a small gift, such as the old War Amp keychain license tag and the Hare Krishnas thrusting a flower into people’s hands before asking for a donation. Even the salesman’s smile and cheery “How are you today?” are designed to harness our reciprocity instinct. We feel that it is rude not to reciprocate, and once engaged by the salesman it is more likely that we will purchase. Countless goods advertized for sale are accompanied by a “free gift” that we all know is not free. Nonetheless, sales increase once the “gift” is offered. Waiters’ tips go up if mints are provided along with the bill for dinner.

When negotiating, if one party concedes a point the other party tends to follow, and if not, the first party will be upset. However, the urge to reciprocate does not require symmetry – a compromise needs to be reciprocated, but something small will often do. The opposite side of the coin is that sales people who distribute moderately helpful information or take potential customers to hockey games are often rewarded with multi-million dollar contracts. As an intimate relationship deepens, the process often involves escalating and reciprocal personal disclosures, such as with regard to prior romantic relationships and why they went wrong. But if you go too fast, this can take the relationship off the rails as surely here as a too large gift from a sales person will “not seem right” and make the sale less likely. So, when negotiating anything from a multi-billion dollar deal to the time at which your 15 year old will arrive home on a Saturday night, it is a good idea to put something on the table that you are prepared to give up so that you can reciprocate the compromises you will probably receive. Our children are as irritated by a lack of reciprocity as any business executive.

The better we understand the human instinct for reciprocity the less likely we are to be taken advantage of by others, and the more power we are likely to have over them. Hopefully, we will resist the temptation to improperly use this power. The odds are against this, however, and we are likely to justify whatever we do, because we tend to be hypocrites.


Yes, we are all hypocrites. This appears to have a lot to do with our need to feel secure, and hence justified in what we do. Our rider exacerbates the problem by acting like the elephant’s lawyer. That is, the conscious part of our mind tends to explain our behavior in its most flattering light. We tend to overemphasize the importance of the positive contributions we make in any situation, and to minimize or overlook entirely the negative things we have done while perceiving the positive and negative contributions of other people in precisely the opposite fashion. This means that most people believe that they are better than average spouses, better-than-average roommates, smarter than average, better drivers than average, etc. Intelligence and education levels do not appear to have much of an effect in this regard. A recent study showed that something like 90% of all university professors believed that they perform at above-average levels.

Most of us use something that has been called the “makes sense” stopping rule as we perceive and reason. For example, after we have taken a position or made a decision (such as to buy a particular make of car) we look for evidence that supports it and once we find enough evidence to conclude that our position “makes sense”, our analysis stops. However, when confronted with evidence that contradicts a position we have taken (a bad consumer report with regard to our car that we could have easily found while shopping), we tend not to admit that we were wrong until the evidence is incontrovertible. The more important the position we have taken (“I married the right person” or “My religious (or political) beliefs are justified”), the higher the standard of proof we require before admitting that we are wrong. In many cases, we set the bar so high that it cannot possibly be hurdled. It is easy to do this regarding uncertain phenomena, like politics, religion, global warming, personal relationships, etc. This makes it possible, for example, for people to hold PhDs from Harvard and other similar universities in geology while persisting in their life-long belief that the Earth is about 6,000 years old. The most staggering fact in this regard is that most people – and therefore probably you and me – hold important beliefs that are close to as demonstrably false as young earth dogma, and that we do not falsify for the reasons just noted. If you are like me, as you read that last sentence (and as I typed it), the thought “That can’t really be true about my important beliefs” crossed your mind. This means we are normal. We are close to constitutionally incapable of accepting that we have the usual frequency of the usual human flaws.

When considering the position other people have taken, we tend to believe that they are motivated by emotional and personal reasons that distort their judgment, whereas we are objective and rational. As it turns out, we are relatively accurate in our perceptions of others, and grotesquely inaccurate when it comes to ourselves. This emphasizes the importance of relying upon the judgment of objective third parties regarding our personal decisions. Ironically, the more important the personal decision, the more likely we are to suffer from impaired judgment, the more important it is that we rely upon others’ judgement, and the less likely it is that we will do so.

Studies involving the negotiated settlement of disputes have provided interesting material in this regard. In simulations, when each participant knew which side of the dispute they would be on before reading the materials related to the dispute, more than one quarter of the cases failed to reach a settlement. However when they didn’t know which side of the dispute they would be on until after they had read all of the materials, only 6% did not settle.

Since this tactic is not possible with regard to real disputes, other attempts were made to find ways to “de-bias” disputing parties. Having participants read a short essay about the nature of biases that affect people while attempting to settle disputes proved ineffective. All the participants seemed to do was use the information about biases to predict their opponents behavior, without changing their own. This caused both parties to dig into their positions further and faster. Even worse results occurred when each party was first required to write an essay arguing the other side’s case as effectively as possible. Where this happened, the parties appeared to become better able to refute the other side’s case as a result of understanding it more completely, without appreciating the weaknesses in their own case.

Only one strategy appeared to help real disputing parties reach settlement. This required each participant to read an essay about biases as well as writing an essay about the weaknesses in their own case. This appears to address the essential nature of our essential bias — the inability to see our own case as others are likely to see it.

I’ve noticed something similar with regard to the tax litigation I do. Tax litigation cases, as well as most other kinds of court cases, tend not to settle until shortly before trial. This may be because as trial approaches, the reality that a judge will hear the evidence and form an opinion about it finally begins to sink in. As both clients and lawyers begin to think about the questions the judge is likely to ask and how the judge is likely to perceive the evidence, weaknesses in the case begin to appear that months and often years of preparation before trial did not disclose. This facilitates settlement.

The less we know about other people, the more likely we are to believe that they cannot possibly be correct when they disagree with us. Our tribal tendencies in this regard reinforce what has been called the “myth of pure evil”. That is, we tend to grossly overestimate the bad intentions, ignorance, and lack of moral fibre of those who disagree with us. The less we know about the other people and the more important the issue, the stronger this tendency. Post-9/11, this made it easy for Americans to demonize Muslims, and vice versa. This lack of understanding between groups, coupled with our tendency to be unjustifiably certain that our way is the right way, is near the root of many of humankind’s worst moments.

The negative tendencies described above are part of our elephant, and therefore difficult to change. As already indicated, meditation and cognitive therapy are useful tools in this regard. We can also engage in exercises designed to bring us face to face with our own weaknesses. The settlement exercise noted above exemplifies this. As we attempt to do this, our rider (the elephant’s lawyer) will likely complain. However, as we digest insights with regard to our often disappointing reality (we often make mistakes; many of our important beliefs are false; we are not always above average; etc.), we tend to feel empowered. Our elephant will recognize that the information we are gaining will make us better able to deal with reality, and therefore constitutes a form of power. Haidt also indicates that doing what is “right” in this regard, especially when it is costly for us, will in and of itself produce a flash of pleasure that is associated with what he calls “elevation” – the experience of witnessing moral and otherwise admirable actions.

The more realistic in assessing our own flaws we become, the fewer will be our disappointments, and the happier we are likely to be. And, when dealing with even the most difficult people, we may also harness their reciprocity instinct. Admissions with regard to our own faults and latent hypocrisy tend to produce similar admissions from others. Admissions of our own biases and hence tendency to misperceive, despite our best intentions and efforts, tend to do the same. The road to understanding, compromise and “win – win” is often paved in this way.

Haidt next addresses four ways to happiness that many people have suggested. They are: Does happiness come from getting what we want?; does it come from our relationships?; do we need adversity to be happy?; and does happiness come from being virtuous?

2 thoughts on “Jon Haidt And “The Happiness Hypothesis” – A Long Book Review

  1. Pingback: Will getting that pay raise make you happier? « Rich's Random Thoughts

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