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Jonathan Haidt Interviewed by Tom Munnecke

Jonathan HaidtTom Munnecke interviewed or rather had a casual feeling conversation with Jonathan Haidt about how he came to positive psychology, his exploration of uplifting emotions, and different types of evolutionary processes.

Among the topics & questions covered are:

How Jonathan Haidt got to positive psychology?

By studying disgust Jonathan Haidt got to positive psychology. In graduate school he studied morality, justice, and fairness. It was mostly about areas that we in the “West” don’t generally consider to be part of the domain of morality. Much of it was about taboos related to the body such as sexual taboos. Then Jonathan specialized in disgust and purity and pollution. His early work was on how we use disgust as a moral emotion such as hypocrisy or sexual violations. This led him to ask if there is also an “opposite” feeling, times when we feel elevated, at awe, or noble. And as he explored this question he realized that this emotion has not yet been studied within psychology and so it began…

What the Akumai meetings were about?

Jonathan was among the eighteen young researchers who were invited by Martin Seligmanto meet in Akumai (Mexico). The intent was to give these young researchers a chance to spend time together and build relationships that will help carry the field of positive psychology forward.

Jonathan Haidt was then exploring a range of uplifting emotions.

For hundreds of years art, beauty, and music have been thought to evoke feelings of ennoblement. So Jonathan and his coauthor wrote a review paper and found that very little has been done in terms of work looking into feelings of ennoblement. Among the few who were interested in this area was William James, who looked at the variety of religious experiences and the fairly lonely voice of Abraham Maslow who had in the past explore this area under what he referred to as “peak” experiences. But Jonathan goes on to say that empirically there wasn’t really anything that has been done yet and so he started to do some work in his own lab but studying awe proved to be difficult within the lab environment. For now Jonathan could not demonstrate what a sense of awe does to an individual but he hypothesizes that feelings of awe will change people’s perspective, make them less petty, and less concerned about the details of their daily life.

Among the other topics covered:

– Tom Munnecke brought up the concept of Pattern Languages by Christopher Alexander.

–Jonathan highlights the evolutionary processes of group and cultural selection in addition to the competitive evolutionary processes such as competition between genes and individuals. He also adds that evolutionary processes, in particular gene selection, work quicker than we previously thought.

– With growing understanding conscious evolution will become a reality via social policies and/or institutions that will have a positive evolutionary benefit to us but Jonathan says our guided efforts often backfire. Some of these are numerous crises that we have brought onto ourselves are over population, and environmental and political issues. 

– The question Tom poses to Jonathan is, “How would we connect ourselves to have positive effect [on our evolution]?” Jonathan mentioned a number of related issues and one of them was that we need to utilize our closer connectivity that came in part about through the internet making geographical distances less of an obstacle. But for now Jonathan is skeptical about us using our potentials for the common good due to the complexity of such undertakings. At the same time he does think that ultimately it will become a reality. 

– Tom suggests that a search and amplify approach rather than plan and execute would be more effective. In other words he suggests an approach of finding great ideas and amplifying them, much the same way Google’s search self organizes. Tom calls these auto-catalytic systems because they feed on themselves and by doing so they get better. This is unlike a library which requires librarians to keep them organized and working. Google’s search results are composed of user created content and with more content Google’s algorithm can further improve its results; a self-reinforcing cycle. In much the same way Wikipedia is written and edited by individuals and as the content grows it attracts more users who in turn write more and better content. Tom calls for technology that looks for what is systematically working (or what is relevant like in Google’s case) and then amplifying it by putting our energy into these system.

– Then Tom asked how do you define and/or identify what is working? Jonathan thinks that if we get the constraints right (such as laws and policies) then the natural evolutionary mechanism of the free market will get us to the right solutions. 

– What is degradation and elevation? The human mind, according to Jonathan is pre-structured or pre-designed to think in several dimensions: One of them is authority/hierarchy based and another one is founded on the concept of God and goodness “up above” to the Devil or evil “below.” He points out that this view occurs in so many cultures that it seems to be a part of our makeup.


Munnecke, T. (2008, December 10). Jon Haidt Interview in Santa Barbara [Video file]. Video posted to


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