Why understanding gut reactions is key to building powerful social movements

Activists need to recognize and utilize their intuition as well as their rational minds.

Brian Martin
10 February 2016

This article was first published in Waging Nonviolence.

Brian Martin.jpg

The intuitive mind is like an elephant and the rational mind is like its rider. Credit: Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

Many protesters are driven by their emotions, including anger at injustice and sympathy for victims of oppression. Acts of resistance, such as by Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in December 1955, can trigger an outpouring of support. Yet, at other times, people are acquiescent to injustice. What happened to their emotional responses?

Insights into the role of emotions in nonviolent action can be obtained from studies by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues into “moral foundations.” These are six basic factors that shape human judgments about good and bad—care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity—and they have great relevance to activists.

In this article I describe Haidt’s perspective on the operation of the human mind and examine each of the six moral foundations for their relevance to nonviolent action.

Our two minds

Most people think they have a single mind, the one we recognize every day when we think. However, Haidt, like other psychologists, subscribes to the view that humans have two minds. One, the intuitive mind, usually operates without conscious awareness, and is automatic and high-capacity. For example, if you notice a dark moving spot in your visual field, you don’t have time to consciously calculate its speed and direction; instead, you instinctively duck to avoid the rock. The second, higher-order human mind, the rational mind, is slow, careful and requires more effort.

In practice, people often make a decision about right and wrong based on their gut reactions, using the intuitive mind, and then use their rational mind to produce a rationalization for the decision. Haidt developed some ingenious scenarios that would cause perplexity, because people had an intuitive response but no rational justification for it.

Haidt calls the intuitive mind the elephant and the rational mind the rider, sitting on top. The rider imagines it is in control, but actually the elephant usually goes its own way and the rider has no choice in the matter. If you’ve ever had a discussion with someone about whether nonviolent action can be more effective than violence, you may have observed this phenomenon. If the other person is sure violence always triumphs over nonviolence, then it doesn’t matter how many arguments or examples you bring up: they will always dismiss or counter them with some different argument or example. Their intuitive mind is convinced about the superiority of violence, and their rational mind keeps coming up with ways to justify this belief.

The intuitive mind, or the elephant, is also responsible, in many cases, for automatic responses to violence. A protester might want to remain nonviolent, yet when physically attacked be provoked into fighting back. This is the intuitive mind overriding the rational mind. Nonviolence training is an attempt to overcome this automatic response. However, it usually takes weeks or months of changed behavior before the intuitive mind changes its assessment and adopts a new automatic response.

The problem is that the rational mind cannot communicate directly with the intuitive mind: it’s not possible to switch automatic responses overnight. Nevertheless, the intuitive mind can be influenced, but more gradually. If you change your behavior — for example pretending to be outgoing and confident when actually you feel shy and insecure — eventually the intuitive mind will respond to the changed behavior and adopt different automatic responses. It’s like the saying, “fake it until you make it.” This applies to developing a commitment to nonviolence as much as anything else.

The operation of two minds can also be observed in all sorts of public policy debates — for example, over gun laws, drugs, abortion and vaccination. Politicians, like others, have their gut reactions, and can be impervious to arguments and evidence. Their elephant drives their beliefs, and they can come up with all sorts of strange justifications for these beliefs. The rider searches for any justification that sounds halfway plausible and latches onto it. An endless “war on terror” has become an article of faith for many politicians, and it seems nothing can dislodge it.

The two-minds hypothesis is fruitful for understanding how people respond automatically, without careful consideration. The intuitive mind generates a gut response, and the more intelligent a person is, the easier it is to come up with a plausible justification for this gut response.

But what determines a person’s gut response? Haidt says six “moral foundations” influence human judgments about right and wrong. He argues that each moral foundation has an evolutionary rationale, and he and his collaborators have carried out ingenious experiments to show the influence of each moral foundation in people today.


The first moral foundation is care for others; its opposite is harm. In evolutionary terms, care for children was essential for the survival of human groups, and this care response has become generalized so that many people care about strangers and about nature.

The care response is highly important for most people. It can be triggered by images, for example the famous photo of a napalm-burnt child in Vietnam and, more recently, the photo of a dead refugee child on a beach in Turkey. These images of harm create concern. The care response inspires people to protect their own families, but also to help strangers, support welfare policies and join tree-hugging actions.

Haidt calls the moral foundations the “first draft of human nature.” The care response may have some instinctive basis in the human mind, but it can be modified, and often is. Politicians, corporate executives, religious leaders, advertisers, and all sorts of lobbyists and campaigners seek to direct the care response to serve their priorities. Governments raise the alarm about terrorists, invoking the need to protect citizens from harm. On the other hand, governments hide the harm caused by their own terrorist actions, such as invasions, drone strikes and torture. They may condemn the targets of their attacks as terrorists, criminals or aliens, namely as not worthy of being cared for.

Many political struggles thus involve continual attempts to trigger the care response for desired goals and to inhibit it for undesired ones. Nonviolent activists should be aware that in challenging repression and oppression, they can draw on people’s care response, but that their opponents will try to manipulate the care response in different directions.


The second moral foundation, fairness, can be seen in children who feel cheated if their siblings receive a larger helping of food or a more desirable gift. Fairness is a powerful motivator in campaigning. The Occupy movement’s slogan “We are the 99 percent” appeals to people’s sense that it is unfair that the richest 1 percent of the population has such a large proportion of total wealth.

Fairness is an extremely potent factor in nonviolent actions. When police beat peaceful protesters, many people see this is unfair: One side is using force whereas the other is not, and this is a violation of a gut sense of justice. When police shoot a defenseless person, they will try to hide their action or denigrate the victims as a threat, and thus reduce or deter the fairness response.

Fairness is the basis of one of the most powerful tools serving nonviolent campaigns: political jiu-jitsu. This occurs when police or troops attack peaceful protesters, generating public outrage and causing an increase in support for the campaigners. This occurred due to beatings of protesters during the salt satyagraha in India in 1930, the massacre of protesters at Sharpeville in South Africa in 1960, and the massacre of protesters in Dili, East Timor in 1991. For these attacks on protesters to backfire on the attackers, many people need to see them as unfair and information about them must be communicated to receptive audiences. The fairness moral foundation helps explain the importance of protesters maintaining nonviolent discipline: If some activists use violence, the encounter seems more like a fight and the fairness response is diluted.


The third moral foundation is liberty; its opposite is oppression. According to Haidt, humans have a natural tendency to support liberty and oppose oppression, something vital for most nonviolent campaigns. Indeed, it helps explain why nonviolent action is most commonly used for rather than against greater freedom. However, rulers seek to suppress the liberty response through laws, surveillance and policing. Corporate managers suppress the liberty response among workers through bureaucratic systems of hierarchy and the division of labor. The liberty response can also be channeled into less significant domains: Fashion trends are labeled transgressive and pet products sell themselves as “revolution.”

The three moral foundations of care, fairness and liberty are powerful allies for nonviolent activists. The challenge is to overcome the techniques used to modify and suppress these evolutionarily conditioned responses. However, the next three moral foundations — loyalty, authority, and sanctity — less easily align with activist methods and goals.


Loyalty had survival value in human evolution: In a group of a hundred early humans, disloyalty could threaten the group’s capacity to deal with threats. The loyalty foundation is most natural for small groups in which you know most members. In many contemporary societies, though, extended families are breaking down. Governments attempt to redirect the loyalty response to the nation or state, most obviously through national holidays, remembrances and in war-fighting. This has no evolutionary analog: modern-day loyalty to nation or state involves identification with thousands or millions of people who are strangers except for a label. Yet this abstract loyalty to an imagined community can be manipulated — for example to fight enemies or oppose immigration.

Inside large organizations, loyalty is mobilized by employers to support managerial control. This is especially notable within the military and police, which are defenders of the state and often the immediate antagonists of protesters.

Campaigners often come up against the loyalty response: Governments commonly attempt to paint challengers as disloyal, as traitors and as threats to the social order. A few protesters may embrace this identity, but it makes more sense to try to build loyalty to something different. In a campaigning mode, there is loyalty to other protesters. A few individuals might feel loyalty to abstract concepts like freedom and equality, but for most people loyalty to individuals or groups is more potent. Possibilities include loyalty to the oppressed, to the working class, to the 99 percent, to the global community, to future generations and to nature.

More commonly, campaigners transfer their loyalty to their own leaders, especially charismatic ones. When challenging repressive regimes, loyalty shifts may unseat a ruler but then become the basis for a new repressive ruler. This suggests that finding a suitable recipient for the human loyalty response should be a priority for nonviolent activists.


The moral foundation called authority can pose a dilemma for activists. Many people automatically defer to authority, whether this is government leaders, corporate executives, church leaders, police officers or family patriarchs. In this context, there can be a gut reaction against challengers to authority, something seen in the antagonistic emotional response to spies, whistleblowers, heretics, and, in patriarchal cultures, outspoken women.

The authority response varies from person to person and situation to situation, but overall can pose a problem for protesters, who inevitably challenge some form of authority: They are seen as subversive. This helps explain why it is easier to gain support to defend, for example against a military coup, than to bring about social change.

One way to counter the authority response is to distinguish between good and bad leaders, so it is seen as legitimate to challenge bad leaders and reasonable to acknowledge good ones. Campaigners point to the corruption, abuse and human rights violations by current rulers, thus weakening the authority response as applied to them. However, there is a risk: deference to authority may be transferred to new rulers, who in turn become as corrupt and authoritarian as the old ones. Campaigners seeking to unseat a ruler and help transform a society need to find new sources of authority, for example the authority of local community groups. Shared authority is less likely to be oppressive. In families, shared authority is a way for equality between men and women to be compatible with the authority response.

In systems of dispersed authority, such as capitalist markets, in which many members play multiple roles (for example as buyer and seller), the role of the authority response is less clear. The authority in such cases is the system itself: Rules need to be followed. Global justice campaigners, opposed to corporate domination, can tackle particular instances of exploitation — for example, poorly paid work in unsafe conditions — more readily than the market system and its rules. But by the same token, the authority response is probably more powerful when attached to authority figures, such as bosses, than to abstract systems of rules in markets and bureaucratic organizations.

An especially important role for the authority response is within the military and police, who are usually defenders of the existing system of rule and have been trained to obey their commanders. For police and troops, the loyalty and authority responses combine; campaigners against a repressive government, or against an oppressive policy, need to either appeal to the commanders or appeal directly to troops. In either case, in the long run there is the problem that troops will support some new ruler. Perhaps the ultimate solution, for creating a nonviolent world, is dissolving authority systems based around use of violence and replacing them with ones based on participatory alternatives. Much more needs to be done on this.


The final moral foundation is called sanctity; its obverse is degradation. The word “sanctity” has connotations of religion, and certainly religion is tied with this moral foundation, but there are other elements too. Try this: First swallow, then spit into a clean glass and drink your spit. If this seems disgusting, it’s your sanctity response speaking through your gut reaction, because there’s no logical difference between the two actions.

The sanctity response can be triggered by food — there are prohibitions in several religions and cultures — sexual behavior, and a host of religious and political symbols. Manifestations of the sanctity response include the outrage of Muslims over cartoons making fun of Mohammed, of patriots over burning of the flag, and of animal rights activists over factory farming.

Governments and religious leaders, and their followers, foster particular sanctity responses. The U.S. government, for example, tries to make being American something sacred. This effect is so powerful that many U.S. peace activists avoid seeming unpatriotic and claim that they too are pro-American and do not criticize U.S. troops in foreign wars, but only the war-making itself. In the United States, thus, patriotism has become something sacred, and making fun of self-styled patriots can trigger the same sort of rage that occurs elsewhere over making fun of religious prophets.

Rather than buying into government-promoted sanctity responses, activists can develop their own. In some circles, maintaining strict adherence to nonviolence or following formal consensus decision-making procedures rigorously can become new bearers of sanctity responses. Language is another arena in which purity is expected in some groups — for example, avoiding language that is racist, sexist or ‘species-ist.’

The questions for nonviolent activists are whether to challenge conventional sanctity responses — like pledging allegiance to a flag — and whether to promote their own new sanctity responses — for example, about the purity of nonviolence. Answers will not be easy but are worth pursuing.


People’s intuitive feelings about right and wrong are powerful influences that affect recruitment into social movements, participation in actions, strategic choices and relationships with each other. Governments and other powerful groups do what they can to shape these intuitive feelings. Activists need to take them into account and work out their approaches.

There are two important lessons from Jonathan Haidt’s research on intuitive moral psychology. The first is that most people are primarily driven by automatic reactions, what Haidt calls the elephant; these reactions are then justified by the rational mind, the rider that usually goes along with the elephant’s preferences. The implication is that activists need to recognize intuitive responses and build campaigns taking them into account.

When planning actions and campaigns, it is worth paying attention to the six moral foundations — care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity — that are the criteria people use to make judgments about right and wrong. However, the application of these foundations is constantly being shaped by “moral entrepreneurs,” including governments, advertisers, media and religious leaders, who seek to mobilize human feelings for their own advantage.

Three of these foundations — care, fairness and liberty — are a natural fit for nonviolent activists, and deserve attention to ensure they are used to maximum effect. Three other foundations — loyalty, authority, and sanctity — are more likely to be obstacles when activists challenge repressive systems. The challenge is to know how to counter the manipulation of these responses when they serve oppression, and to develop alternatives.

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