The Atlantic

Understanding America’s Moral Divides

Psychological research helps explain why conflicts are so intractable when morality is involved.
Source: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Morality is “like the temple on the hill of human nature,” writes the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “It is our most sacred attribute.” People cherish this sacred sense of right and wrong, put it on a pedestal and surround it with spears, to defend it against attacks. The nearness and dearness of people’s morals means that conflict becomes particularly entrenched when morality gets involved—neither side wants to yield sacred ground.

It doesn’t help that most people think they are more virtuous than others. Many studies over the years have found what’s called a “better-than-average” effect—that when asked to compare themselves to the average person, most people will say they’re smarter, friendlier, more competent, etc. A recent study found that this effect is much more extreme for moral traits like honesty and trustworthiness.

“Everyone viewed themselves as though they were at the top of the scale,” says Ben Tappin, a graduate student in psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, and an author of the study. The study went on to say that this makes people’s self-inflated morality more irrational than their bumped-up views of their intelligence, or friendliness. In the latter two realms, there was more variability—one person might think they were a little smarter than average, another might think they were a genius, another might think they were a little below average.

“Most people consider themselves paragons of virtue; yet few individuals perceive this abundance of virtue in others

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