Jonestown and
The Righteous Mind

PS140O: Projecting Power

Prof Wasow and Pia Deshpande




  • Quizzes

    • Week 6, Tues 2/20
    • Week 9, Tues 3/12
    • Week 12, Tues 4/9

Why Jonestown?

Model thinking

Chapter 1: Where Does Morality Come From?

Perspectives on origin of morality

  • Nativist answer
    • morality is innate; morality comes from nature
    • moral knowledge is native in our minds; preloaded

Perspectives on origin of morality

  • Empiricist answer
    • morality comes from childhood learning (nurture)
    • children are blank slates at birth

Perspectives on origin of morality

  • Rationalist answer
    • morality is self-constructed by children on the basis of their experiences with harm
    • essence of psychological rationalism: We grow into our rationality as caterpillars grow into butterflies
    • rationality is our nature; good moral reasoning = the end point of development

Perspectives on origin of morality

  • Lawrence Kolberg’s six-stage progression in children’s reasoning about the social world
  • pre-conventional, conventional, post-conventional
  • scientific justification for a secular liberal moral order
    • predefine morality as justice
    • denigration of authority, hierarchy, and tradition
    • support worldviews that were secular, questioning, and egalitarian

Perspectives on origin of morality

  • Elliot Turiel’s Moral rules
    • rules related to “justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other”
    • children recognize that rules that prevent harm are moral rules (they don’t treat all rules the same)
    • realization that rules that prevent harm are special, important, unalterable and universal = foundation of all moral development
    • morality is about treating individuals well; about harm and fairness

Beyond rationalism

  • Groups create supernatural beings to order their societies
  • Morality often involves tension within the group linked to competition between different groups
  • “purity” and “pollution” rules (e.g., food taboos; keeping categories pure)
  • Most non-Western cultures moralize many practices that seem to have nothing to do with harm

The great debate

  • Richard Shweder, psychological anthropologist, differences in how Oriyans (Indian) and Americans thought about individuality, morality
  • Two ways to balance to order society (balance the needs of individuals and groups)
    • sociocentric: placing the need of groups and institutions first
    • individualistic: placing individuals at the center

The great debate

  • Theories of Kohlberg and Turiel were produced by and for people from individualistic cultures
  • In Orissa, morality is much broader and thicker; almost any practice could be loaded up with moral force
  • Even in the US, the social order is a moral order, but it’s an individualistic order built up around the protection of individuals and their freedom

Haidt’s study: Gut feelings

  • “Harmless taboo violations”: short stories about people who do offensive things, but do them in such a way that nobody is harmed
  • pit gut feelings (esp. disgust and disrespect) about important cultural norms against reasoning about harmlessness; which force was stronger
    • Turiel: reasoning about harm = the basis of moral judgment
    • Shweder: Turiel’s prediction should hold in individualistic secular societies but not elsewhere

Gut feelings research design

  • 3 x 2 x 2 design (12 groups, 360 interviews)
    • 3 cities: Southern Brazil, Northeastern Brazil (Recife), Philadelphia
    • 2 levels of social class: high or low
    • 2 age groups: children (10-12 years) and adults (18-28 years)
  • results in support of Shweder

Gut feelings results

  • the size of the moral-conventional distinction varied across cultural groups
  • effects of city: Porto Alegreans moralized more than Philadelphians; Recifeans moralized more than Porto Alegreans
  • effects of social class: lower-class groups moralized more than upper-class groups
  • effects of age: children moralized more than adults
  • effects of social class much larger than the effect of city

Gut feelings results

  • all the differences found held up when perceptions of harm are controlled: filtering out those who perceived harm, the cultural differences got bigger, not smaller
  • the moral domain goes far beyond harm (most subjects said the harmless-taboo violations were universally wrong even though they harmed nobody)
  • the moral domain varied across nations and social classes

Moral reasoning

  • Many subjects tried to invent victims (38 percent claimed that somebody was harmed)
  • Most of these supposed harms were post hoc fabrications
  • Even when subjects recognized that their victim claims were bogus, they still refused to say that the act was okay
  • Moral reasoning being a servant of moral emotions \(\rightarrow\) challenge the rationalist approach that dominated moral psychology


  • Why reject the rationalist answer?
    • The moral domain varies by culture
    • unusually narrow in Western, educated, and individualistic cultures - Sometimes called WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic
    • sociocentric cultures broaden the moral domain to encompass and regulate more aspects of life


  • People sometimes have gut feelings that can drive their reasoning, examples: disgust and disrespect
    • Moral reasoning is sometimes a post hoc fabrication
  • Morality can’t be entirely self-constructed by children based on their growing understanding of harm, e.g., culture
  • Morality can be innate (evolved intuitions) and learned (culture)
    • We are born to be righteous, but we have to learn what people like us should be righteous about

Discussion: Are there foods you consider “disgusting” but which are harmless?

Discussion: Are there actions you consider “disrespectful” but which are harmless?

Let’s hear from: Elias, Megha, Aissata, Dunyia

Chapter 2: The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail

Reasoning and moral intuitions

  • Plato: reason could and should be the master

  • Jefferson: equal partners, independent co-rulers

  • Hume: reason as the servant of the passions

Reason and emotions

  • Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio: brain-damage patients, do not feel; cannot make decisions

    • gut feelings and bodily reactions = necessary to think rationally

    • reasoning requires the passions

  • Hume’s model fit best

Cognition and emotion

  • Emotions long thought to be dumb and visceral
  • Emotions are a kind of information processing
  • Contrasting emotion with cognition is pointless
  • Moral judgment is a cognitive process
  • Two kinds of cognition: intuition + reasoning

Dual process model

  • The mind is divided into parts (rider + elephant)
    • rider = controlled processes (e.g., conscious reasoning)
      • consicious, effortful, easily disrupted by cognitive load (“reasoning-why”)
    • elephant = automatic processes (e.g., intuition and emotion)
      • rapid, automatic, effortless (“seeing-that”)
    • the rider evolved to serve the element

Moral judgment and moral reasoning

  • Can people make moral judgments just as well when carrying a heavy cognitive load as when carrying a light one?
    • yes, no effect of cognitive load
  • People make moral judgments immediately and emotionally
  • Moral reasoning is mostly a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people have already made
  • support Hume

Moral judgment and moral reasoning

  • We can see the rider serving the elephant when people are morally dumbfounded
    • strong gut feelings about what is right and wrong
    • struggle to construct post hoc justifications
    • even when the servant (reasoning) comes back empty-handed, the master (intuition) doesn’t change its judgment

Social institutionist model

  • Start with Hume’s model + make it more social

  • Intuition is the main cause of moral judgment (intuition comes first)

  • Reasoning typically follows moral judgment to construct post-hoc justifications

Social institutionist model

  • Moral talks serving strategic purpose (to influence other people)

  • Social-persuasion link: other people influence us constantly just by revealing that they like or dislike somebody

  • Moral reasoning is about winning friends and influencing people

How to win an argument

  • Moral reasons are the “tail wagged by the intuitive dog”
  • We cannot change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments
  • If we want to change someone’s mind about a moral or political issue, we need to talk to the elephant first

How to win an argument

  • Elicit new intuitions (not new rationales)
    • no matter how good our argument is, its’ not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode
    • we need to see things from the opponent’s angle as well as our own
    • empathy is an antidote to righteousness (it’s difficult to empathize across a moral divide)

Recommend Hidden Brain Podcast

Figure 1:

Discussion: What are some examples of people guided by intuition in Jonestown?

Let’s hear from: Mar, Emma, Michael, Anata

Chapter 9: Why Are We So Groupish?

Example: 9/11 in US

  • Haidt begins with an evocative example
    • In the days after 9/11, he is compelled to put up an American flag decal on his car
    • This goes against his liberal leanings and priors against American exceptionalism
    • He wanted to display his team membership in some way
    • Brubaker describes “Groupness as event”

Victorious Tribes?

  • Natural selection is often thought of occurring at the individual-level (or sometimes at the gene-level)

  • However, in social species, it is possible there is group-level selection such that effective groups are more likely to survive and to be selected

Is there group-level selection?

  • One story: A particularly fast herd of deer who cooperate well will survive over a herd that is slow and uncooperative

  • Counter story: “the fastest deers were selected, regardless of group membership. Or the most cooperative deers from any herd would be selected, on average, compared to the least cooperative deer”

What about free riders?

  • Also there is an issue of the free rider problem

  • Why put in effort if you don’t have to?

  • If you’re willing to be noble and sacrifice your life for your group, your genetics are definitely not passing onto the next generation

Multilevel selection

  • Natural selection can happen at multiple levels. For example, at the level of the individual and the level of the group

  • A gene for self-sacrifice would be selected out in individual selection, but selected in at group level selection. Unless a species was ultrasocial (like bees, termites or ants), such a trait could not survive

  • Haidt argues humans have become more like bees and act as a group organism

Exhibit A: Major Transitions in Evolution

  • Haidt defines some major transitions in evolution:

    • single cell \(\rightarrow\) multicell \(\rightarrow\) group \(\rightarrow\) ultrasocial (ex. hive, city)
  • Collaboration and sociality and ultrasociality were selected for!

Are we ultrasocial?

  • We exhibit ultrasocial behaviors such as
    • the need to defend a shared nest (ex. Defending one’s territory, country)
    • rallying around the flag, etc.

Exhibit B: Shared Intentionality

  • Human cognition diverged from the cognition of other primates because we have shared intentionality
    • Shared intentionality is the ability to carry a mental representation of a collaborative task
      • Ex. I pull down a branch while you pluck fruit off of it. We then share the meal
  • “You’ll never see two chimps carrying a log”

How did we become ultrasocial?

  • Ultrasociality was achieved in two steps

    • Developing shared intentionality
    • Developing group-mindedness
      • “The ability to learn and conform to social norms, feel and share group-related emotions, and ultimately, to create and obey social institutions, including religion” (Haidt, Ch 9, page 16).

Exhibit C: Genes & Cultures Coevolve

  • Cultural innovations can lead to genetic mutations (ex. keeping cattle can lead to lactose intolerance)

  • Could cultural innovations in morality lead to genetic changes?

  • Richerson and Boyd argue yes!

  • Recommend

    • Robert Wright’s Nonzero
    • Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

Tribal instincts hypothesis

  • “Human groups have always been in competition to some degree with neighboring groups”

  • The groups that figured out (or stumbled upon) cultural innovations that helped them cooperate and cohere in groups larger than the family tended to win these competitions” (Haidt, Ch 9, page 20).

Cultural evolution

  • Innovations could include:

    • Using symbolic markers to show group membership (dyad pairs: wedding rings, group memberships: tattoos, clothing, circumcision)

    • Learning to live well in groups for survival was called self domestication

    • Those with antisocial impulses they could not control were likely to be kicked out groups and killed

Exhibit D: Evolution Can Be Fast

- When selectively breeding animals like foxes for domestication, changes in behavior and physical appearance occur within thirty generations. That is extremely fast

  • If humans domesticated themselves, is our pace similar? Is it getting faster?

  • According to the Human Genome Project, evolution greatly accelerated during the last 50,000 years

It’s Not All About War

  • Group selection does not require war or violence

  • Whatever traits help groups to survive better could be traits selected for in this long run

  • Example: environmental catastrophe

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)

Director: Stanley Nelson

  • “Foremost chronicler of the African American experience working in nonfiction film today.”
    • MacArthur “Genius” Fellow
    • Peabody recipient (2016)
    • Lifetime Achievement Award (National Academy of Television Arts Sciences, 2016)
    • National Medal in the Humanities (Then President Barack Obama, 2013)
    • Also directed The Murder of Emmett Till (2003)

How do we see power work in Jonestown?

Let’s hear from: Spencer, Daniel, Zayar, Serenidy