Saturday Morning Rounds June 13, 2020 - The difference between liberals and conservatives, and how you can use it in negotiations

Posted by BossB, MD on June 13, 2020
BossB, MD

What we're reading

We really should re-name this section because of all the videos we feature here. This week's featured content is a TED talk about the moral roots of liberals and conservatives.

It would be well worth the 18 minutes to watch anytime, but it feels especially important in today's charged political environment. And don't worry, this way of looking at people's values carries HUGE insights for how to succeed in negotiations - we'll connect those dots for you in our "tip of the week."

The lecture in this video is built upon a foundation of research which shows that there are 5 foundational moral values:

  • Harm/care
  • Fairness/reciprocity
  • Ingroup/loyalty 
  • Authority/respect
  • Purity/sanctity

Liberals have a 2-channel morality that focuses almost exclusively on harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.

Conservatives, in contrast, have 5-channel morality that values all of them more equally.

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Great! We can stop reading because we finally have a research-backed explanation for why "the other side" is the woooooorrrrssssst, amiright?!

Not so fast.

In the words of the TED talker himself:

"If our goal is to seek a deeper understanding of the world, our general lack of moral diversity here is going to make it harder, because when people all share values and morals, they become a team. And once you engage in the psychology of teams, it shuts down open-minded thinking."

This quote was an especially salient moment, because just before it he had established (a) that liberals are generally far more open-minded, and (b) that in the TED room where he was giving this talk, there were hundreds of liberals, a couple dozen libertarians, and only about 10 conservatives.

Which takes us back to the 5 values, specifically ingroup/loyalty:

  • We're prone to it - "Tribal psychology is so deeply pleasurable that even when we don't have tribes, we go ahead and make them because it's fun"
  • It's counter-productive to our goals - "You can't just go charging in saying 'you're wrong and I'm right' because everyone thinks they're right, and a lot of the problems we want to solve require us to change other people."

This idea of there being an "other side," of there being teams at all, is one of the biggest impediments to actually creating the change we want to see.

At the same time, there are real moral problems that need solving and real malicious, bad-faith actors in the world whom we need to oppose.

So what to do?

Step outside the moral matrix - even if for just a moment - to get a 30k-foot view.


First, understand that liberals and conservatives essentially exist to form a balance with each other on change vs stability, and that they're both right:

  • "Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed, they want change and justice" 
  • "The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve, it's really precious, and it's really easy to lose" 

We like to think of it in terms of an analogy: imagine that humanity is all in one big car, together.

Liberals are trying to drive to the destination - equity and justice and our species' highest calling ("the progressive march of history") - as quickly as possible.

Conservatives are trying to keep the car from flying off the road at high speed so that we actually make it in one piece.

Same destination, different roles.

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According to the TED talk, now that we've established the necessarily dualistic nature of this eternal dance, we can take a cue from the great insight that most asian religions share with us:

Not only are the two sides necessary parts of the same system, but one cannot see that system in its wholeness unless one zooms out from their respective "side" and takes a proverbial "30,000-foot view."


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And "seeing the system in its wholeness" is the first step to changing it, because it allows us to come back into the system and change the people therein.

Who we're following 

Today's featured "TED talker" is none other than Jonathan Haidt (@JonHaidt). Haidt is a social psychologist who studies morality and business ethics at the NYU Stern School of Business. His mission "is to use research on moral psychology to help people understand each other and to help important social institutions work better." He's authored a number of spectacular books (including our very favorite primer on positive psychology), and is just an all-around good faith public intellectual - a category of person that we could use a lot more of in today's world.

BBMD tip of the week

So what can all this research about value systems and talk of moral dualism teach us about negotiation?

A lot, as it turns out.

See, the foundational pillars of our negotiation system share a lot in common with Haidt's recommendations. For long-time readers of this newsletter, these ideas might feel like review, but it's mastery of the basics - as opposed to advanced technique - that separates a negotiation expert from a novice in any field, and negotiation is no exception. So, here are the basics:

  • Be Other-Centered: Try to think about the other person first - understand their goals and fears, frame things in terms of what's in it for them, and generally keep them in the center of your attention because as Haidt said, "a lot the problems we want to solve require us to change other people."
  • "Grow The Pie" > Zero-Sum: In a zero-sum game, there is a winner and a loser. However, in a dualistic system we're both fulfilling our necessarily contrasted roles in order to get to the same destination. And in such systems, a win for one the is palatable for the other is therefore balanced, making it a win for all. We like to use the analogy of growing the entire pie rather than focusing solely on the size of your slice.
  • Assume Best Intent (and Intelligence): Whenever you find yourself at odds with someone, ask yourself this simple question: "how could an intelligent and well-intended person come to this conclusion?" This will help you to paint your counterpart in the best light possible, thereby strengthening your counterpoint when you present it, and even more importantly avoiding defensiveness in them.

Develop these as habits of interpersonal interaction, and we guarantee that you will go a lot further and faster toward your destination that would otherwise be the case.

Quote we're contemplating

“If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you.” - Jonathan Haidt

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Have a wonderful weekend, y'all!