A Conversation With Jonathan Haidt

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on morality, politics, disgust, free speech and intellectual diversity on campus, the enriching effects of LSD, antiparsimonialism, and why economists set all the interesting variables to zero.

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TYLER COWEN: Jonathan is one of the world’s leading thinkers on the political views of individuals. Most recently, he has been involved in a crusade to make the campus environment more intellectually diverse.

He is one of the world’s leading psychologists, has a strong background in cultural anthropology and economics, and basically, is known to us all. If you’re familiar with how the Conversations with Tyler series works, I’ll just point it out again: this is essentially the conversation I want to have with Jonathan, not the conversation you want to have.

On the moral psychology of politics

To start off with a question. Jonathan, you think of people’s political views as stemming from their social intuitions, which are fairly strongly hardwired into them. If I look at politics this year, what I see is we had almost all the pundits, thinking about Republican values, the Republican past, and seeing Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and thinking some mix of those people would be the leaders, because they matched Republican values. And they all have failed, basically. How do we think about this using your constructs?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to see politics as occurring at multiple levels simultaneously. Just as at a university we’ve got psychologists studying individual experiences, we’ve got neurologists studying neurons, we’ve got political scientists and sociologists studying emergent phenomena, that’s what you have to do to study politics.

If you look at the history, if you look at the higher‑level constructs, yeah, it’s bizarre what’s happening. It’s unprecedented, and people expected the past to predict the future.

But what if the emerging social constructs of the Republican Party have been getting progressively out of tune with the moral intuitions and the psychology of the voters? I think that’s what we have seen happening.

COWEN: Here’s what I worry about with that explanation. If I look at local government — state legislators, governors, Congress for that matter — the Republicans seem pretty much in tune with people’s intuitions, because they control all those branches, sometimes pretty solidly, especially at the state and local level. And then at the national level there’s this huge disconnect. So if all the Republicans were losing, it would be easier to see.

HAIDT: National politics is different from local. National politics, I believe, is much more like religion than local politics is. If you take it all the way down to the very local level — who the dogcatcher is, who the treasurer is of the town — that’s all very practical stuff. People are very worried about their property values and things like that. It’s not very ideological.

National politics is much more like a religion. The president is the high priest of the American civil religion — I think that’s what Robert Bellah called it. At the national level it’s often unrelated to what happens at the local level. This is something that Ronald Reagan really understood much better than his challengers. He was able to appeal to the moral intuitions of people about America, making America great. It’s very different from what happens at the state level.

COWEN: Your core categories for understanding how values map into politics — in a second I’ll ask you to explain those — but do you see room for any new category? A lot of people are saying this year, there’s a new category of populism.

My Thomas Friedman–like taxi driver experiences, I’ve spoken to taxi drivers. They say, “I’d like to support either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.” Maybe that’s populism. A kind of new category. But tell us briefly what your categories are and how fixed do you think they are?

HAIDT: My early research, done with a lot of other social psychologists, is what we call moral foundations theory. This grows out of my frustration as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1990s trying to make sense of two things that seemed so obviously true to me. One was that wherever you look people are the same in many ways. We’re obviously products of evolution. Obviously there’s a human nature. Evolutionary psychology has to be right to some extent.

The other is that people are so variable. Our cultures are so variable. Anthropology, cultural psychology is deeply right. The basic meaning of moral terms varies a lot around the world. Cultural psychology has to be right. How do you put these together? But the people who love cultural psychology often are critical. They feel threatened by evolution. The people who do evolution often will dismiss cultural variation.

What I tried to do — I was working with Richard Shweder, an anthropologist, at the time — what I tried to do is look around the world and say, “What are the things that everyone seems to care about? Is there something innate about, say, reciprocity?”

The answer has to be yes. Everywhere you go, in every society, people have something that involves reciprocity, the sense of “I’ve done something for you, you need to do something for me.” That might be that I’ve killed somebody in your clan. Well, you have to kill somebody in my clan. Or we might disagree with that, but we see the logic of reciprocity.

At the same time there’s all these evolutionary theorists like Robert Trivers writing about the evolution of reciprocity. At a time when there were a lot of people in the academy who believed in blank slate notions that everything is social construction, everything could be taught by your society, fairness as reciprocity just stands out. It’s got to be innate. But then it gets built on in very culturally variable ways. That’s one foundation.

Much more briefly, then, care versus harm is another. We’re mammals. We evolved an attachment system. Another is loyalty versus betrayal. We are really good at coalitions. We’re tribal creatures. Another is authority versus subversion. We’re primates. Primates are mostly hierarchical. We’ve got a lot of innate programming that makes us deferential to authority. Another one is sanctity versus degradation.

This is the weirdest one for secular progressives, but it’s one that you see in Kosher laws, and Hinduism, and Islam. You see it in a lot of religions. You see it if you go to a yoga store or someplace where they talk about chakras and toxins. You see it there, too. The idea that the body is a temple and you’d want to guard against impurities.

COWEN: The left‑wing or right‑wing has more worry about lack of purity?

HAIDT: In general, the right. If you look at who moralizes sex, the body, who would be more opposed to using the body as a way to just express your own individual values. It tends to pop up more on the right, but elements of the left have it, again, if you look at yoga.

COWEN: It seems to be migrating toward the left.

HAIDT: That’s right.

COWEN: GMOs, when it comes to food, or buying a t‑shirt from the wrong country is disgusting. If these can migrate, I have this picture of these relatively fixed modules, and left‑wing people have more of some, and right‑wing people have more of others, but we also see them migrating.

How flexible is this?

HAIDT: This is the key idea of these being these sort of modules, that they’re not modules that are going off in your head at the moment of judgment, so much as they are modules in us from birth, and they are what cultures can build upon as you develop. Think about it as like taste buds.

We have these innate taste buds because this is the way our ancestors lived. They ate fruit and meat, and so we have sweet and sour receptors, and we have MSG detectors, which guide us to meat. But we don’t just have a cuisine — here I am, talking to the expert on cultural variations in cuisine, in a sense.

We don’t just have a cuisine that’s based on sweet, sour, salt. Each cuisine is a cultural creation that has to, ultimately, please the same universal taste buds. Think about it for morality. We all have the same, let’s call them six moral taste buds. The sixth one I didn’t mention before is liberty versus oppression.

People resent being forced or told what to do, if they don’t perceive it as legitimate. We have these six moral taste buds, and if you’re raised on a desert island with nobody, maybe you would have them, but they wouldn’t be developed. But, whenever you have a culture emerging, it’s going to build on certain aspects of that and not others.

If you have a warrior culture, if you’re constantly being attacked, boy, is it going to build on the loyalty, the authority, the sanctity ones, to create this tribal consciousness. You can see that in a joke form in fraternities. Fraternities, even on a secular campus, fraternities will build on those tribal foundations.

Whereas, if you go to, say, Amsterdam, or New York, or places that are port cities with a lot of variety, diversity, commerce, those tend to thin down the moral domain. They don’t tend to do a lot with group loyalty and hierarchy. They tend to focus more on, “I’ll tell you what, you don’t hurt me, I won’t hurt you. You honor your contracts, I’ll honor mine.”

This is a more appropriate morality for diversity and for commerce.

COWEN: If we get to a very fundamental question — left‑wing individuals and right‑wing individuals, and let’s take, for now, only America. As people, in other ways, how different do you think they are?

Or, is it just there are these semi‑accidental triggers which have set off certain modules in the left‑wingers and different modules in the right‑wingers, but otherwise they’re going to dress the same, they’re going to treat their spouses the same way, or not? Are they fundamentally different?

The most important finding in psychology in the last 50 to 100 years, I would say, is the finding that everything you can measure is heritable. The heritability coefficients vary between 0.3 and 0.6, or 30 to 60 percent of the variance, under some assumptions, can be explained by the genes. It’s the largest piece of variance we can explain.

HAIDT: Not fundamentally different, but different in predispositions. The most important finding in psychology in the last 50 to 100 years, I would say, is the finding that everything you can measure is heritable. The heritability coefficients vary between 0.3 and 0.6, or 30 to 60 percent of the variance, under some assumptions, can be explained by the genes. It’s the largest piece of variance we can explain.

If you and I were twins separated at birth and raised in different families, our families would pick which religions we were raised in and they would pick how often we go to church or synagogue, but once we’re out on our own, we’re going to both converge on our brain’s natural level of religiosity.

Same with politics, whether you’re on the right or left is not determined by your genes, but you’re predisposed. You find variety and diversity and challenging authority really exciting. If that’s the way you were as a kid, even if you’re raised in a conservative household, once you go to college you’re going to be attracted to more radical left‑wing politics.

COWEN: But, say, hippies aside, do left‑wing people dress differently than right‑wing people, adjusting for some core variables?


COWEN: How do right‑wing people dress?

HAIDT: The core psychology, here, is called openness to experience. People on the left are higher on a variable called openness to experience. People on the right are lower on it, but they’re also higher on conscientiousness, they’re more neat, orderly, they make deadlines. Some really interesting research done by Sam Gosling at the University of Texas at Austin, back when he was a grad student, or professor at Berkeley.

They went into people’s dorm rooms. They agreed, “You just leave your dorm room. Don’t clean up. Just leave. We’re going to take photographs.” They come in, they photograph everything. Another group of students now has to just look at the photographs and guess, “what do you think, liberal or conservative?”

COWEN: If you’re in a swing state in, say, proverbial southern Ohio and in a natural setting you meet a person. With what probability do you think you can guess or forecast if they’re left‑wing or right‑wing? Even-up would be 0.5.

HAIDT: Probably 0.58, 0.57. People are incredibly variable. I’m a social scientist. Our goal is not to predict with perfect accuracy. We’re just trying to extract what are the regularities under the surface that can explain some things of what we see on the surface.

But, look, put it this way. Suppose you’re going to an academic conference. I don’t know about economists but if it was psychologists or people in the humanities, you go into the conference and everybody is wearing a suit and tie. They’re all very neat. You look around, you’d think, “I’m in the wrong room.” You probably are.

What Gosling found, people who are conservative, their rooms are more orderly and neat. They have more calendars, more postage stamps. They’re just better prepared to be orderly and neat and get things done. People on the left had more stylistic elements, more high design elements. They had more varied books. So in a variety of ways, our preferences grow out of our innate temperaments.

What Gosling found, people who are conservative, their rooms are more orderly and neat. They have more calendars, more postage stamps. They’re just better prepared to be orderly and neat and get things done. People on the left had more stylistic elements, more high design elements. They had more varied books. So in a variety of ways, our preferences grow out of our innate temperaments.

COWEN: So this is true in all or mostly all cultures.

HAIDT: Well, that I couldn’t say, the research has not been done.

COWEN: But you’ve studied in Orissa, India. You’ve studied in Recife, Brazil. You must have thought about the questions there and other places you’ve been.

HAIDT: You see this if you look at ancient societies too. Whenever there was an empire, the empire always ran into trouble. At that point, there are those who say, “Our misfortunes are because we have lost the ways of the elders. The gods are punishing us for departing from the wisdom. We need to return!” Those are the people I would bet who if you could transplant them, they would grow up to be more conservative. They feel the moral decay. They feel the loss of the tradition.

Other people say, “No, we need to march forward. We need to radically change things.” There are certain psychological dimensions that are universal. Politics grows up around that.

But the way politics grows up in an open, commercial, secular society is just so different from, say, what I saw in Poland last year where you’ve got this gigantic neutron bomb of communism. What it means to be on the left and the right in Poland is really different from what it means here, because if you’re on the left, you’re associated with the hated communists! So the dimensions of psychology are universal, but the politics that grows up on it is very influenced by local circumstance.

COWEN: Would it be a partial test of your theory if we looked at a lot of different cultures and asked, “Who are the people who dress neatly and who have a lot of calendars and stamps?” to measure whether those were typically the conservatives?

HAIDT: Yes, that would be a test. That would be the claim. If it is true — and here I’m drawing on research by NYU colleague John Jost and Sam Gosling and others — if it is true that the underlying psychological dimension of openness to experience and also conscientiousness, if those are what underlie political choices, then the answer is yes to your thought experiment. It would be great to test.

COWEN: I’m interested in occupational choices. You’ve probably thought about this also.

HAIDT: Oh yeah.

COWEN: If you look at dentists, they’re pretty Republican. Doctors lean heavily Democratic. Superficially, they’re doing similar things. They’re taking care of bodies. Motel owners lean Republican or conservative. But “innkeepers” lean Democratic or liberal. Why do we see these regularities? What are they showing?

HAIDT: If you were to go to, say, India where there’s a caste system, you probably wouldn’t see it very much, but to the extent that the modern economy has opened up more and more choice for people to make career choices to express their values rather than acting on economic necessity, you’re going to see it. This is what we have in what’s called post‑materialist societies.

My father made the choice to be a chemical engineer. He was born in the Depression, he was poor. It turns out he didn’t like that, and he did make the choice to then switch to patent law. But he and his generation were very guided by economic pressures and necessities. You do a job because your uncle has an opening for you.

But ever since you and I went into universities, we’re teaching all these undergrads, they’re thinking, “What’s right for me? What’s the right fit for me?”

It’s the same thing as we were talking about with the clothing. If you are interested in learning new things and trying to change the world and things like that, you’ll be more likely drawn to occupations that have a predominance of left‑wing people.

Hollywood is overwhelmingly left. Perhaps there’s discrimination after the fact but creative areas are almost always heavily left. Police, military, engineering, there are certain things that are more conducive to minds predisposed to conservatism.

COWEN: As you know when one thinks about this problem there is the question of what gets put in the realm of morality? What’s a moral choice? Like in Britain in the ’50s, are you a mod or are you a rocker? But today, that just looks to us like silly convention. Who could get upset over that?

HAIDT: We understand it’s PC versus Mac. That’s really what matters.

COWEN: Correct. What are the forces which determine what gets put into morality and what gets put into convention?

HAIDT: Oh boy, that’s a good question. Things that clearly involve harm, violations of rights, there are certain things that are predisposed to be moralized, but the genius of human beings is because we’re so tribal, we can moralize anything that gets tabbed as being predictive of what group you belong to or being part of “them.” It’s funny, we see this in our politics. The core idea of Obamacare was first proposed by the Heritage Foundation, I think it was. I can’t remember what it was. Was it exchanges? Whatever it is.

COWEN: The mandate.

HAIDT: That’s it, the mandate, exactly. A mandate, that’s interesting. That would seem to be a left‑wing idea because the right in America tends to be wary of mandates. But the economists there concluded there’s some benefit to doing this, so it came up more from the right, but as soon as it was then promoted by Obama in such a tribal and hostile time, then it was tagged as bad. Almost anything that can be associated with an ongoing hot conflict can be moralized.

COWEN: Let me ask you a very concrete question. I’ve had dialogue with people on the left, and I’ve made a harm argument to them. I’ve said, “Based on work by Mark Pauly, if you look at the people who are covered by the mandate, they have to pay more for health insurance than it’s worth, actually most of them. So Obamacare is imposing a harm on them.”

Now generally I agree with your characterization of the left as more worried about harm. But when I make this harm argument, there’s a remarkable lack of interest in it. It could be the data are wrong. It could be Mark Pauly’s paper is wrong. I would grant all that but the striking thing is they’re not interested in hearing about the harm.

HAIDT: Of course they’re not gonna — yeah.

COWEN: Isn’t it the case that people just slot in the harms they want? Conservatives are very sensitive to some kinds of harms, like a deserving white student who didn’t get into Yale because of affirmative action. That to them is a focal harm.

For the left, people not getting adequate healthcare because there’s no Medicaid expansion, that’s a focal harm. Isn’t it more the split of what gets put into harm as opposed to — .

HAIDT: First of all, the idea of the harm foundation isn’t just something that’s happened that is against my interests. We have a visceral sense of seeing somebody physically suffering, crying, we feel compassion for this emotional suffering. Simply saying this policy is going to work against your interests, that really doesn’t activate the harm foundation.

But the more important point is the one that you suggest, which is, once people have taken a position on something, especially if it relates to sacred values — something that has become sacred to them — they’re pretty much impervious to arguments at that point.

Let’s go back to the basics of moral psychology. In my book The Righteous Mind, I boil it down to three principles, we’ve already touched on the second one. The first principle is intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.

The basic fact about moral argument is that we’re not really listening to each other, we’re not actually open to reasoning. We start with our gut feeling or our partisan loyalty, and at that point we become lawyers. We’re really good at being lawyers and knocking down the other guy’s arguments, and giving them our own.

The second principle is there’s more to morality than harm and fairness, that’s the moral foundations that we just talked about. And left and right, while they all have all the foundations, the left tends to focus more on the care, harm, the fairness, reciprocity, not so much on the tribal ones. The third principle is morality binds and blinds. That’s also relevant here, that’s the idea that people are incredibly good at forming groups — the key idea to keep in mind is the Arab proverb, “Me against my brother, me and my brother against our cousin, me and my brother and cousin against the stranger.”

That’s basic social psychology, coalitional psychology. Once it becomes left versus right over Obamacare, it doesn’t matter however good your arguments are, I’m not listening. I’ve got my team, and we’re on a mission to defeat your team.

On intellectual diversity in higher education, microaggressions, free speech, trigger warnings, and all the rest

COWEN: Let’s turn to some of your work on campus, and with this idea of political correctness. I would say you’re the person who’s done the most in a good way to improve the quality of that debate and to make campus life more tolerant or more open. And I’m very appreciative of that. Let me ask you a question about how far this can go. Let’s take your vision of morality based on what you’ve called social intuitionism, and this modularity, where things just get triggered.

If I look at America today, it does seem a more tolerant place than the America that I grew up with.

HAIDT: Oh, yeah.

COWEN: For gay individuals, maybe not all minorities, but many minorities this is very much a positive thing. If morality is fundamentally so nonrational or arational in some key ways, is it not the case we’re always either undershooting or overshooting the target, that we can never hit it just right?

Maybe for America to be more tolerant, you need the norms to be quite crude and blunt, and overstated, and we get this political correctness. Yes it’s bad, but maybe it’s less bad then when we used to undershoot the target?

HAIDT: You need to break it down in terms of what domain you’re looking at. It’s unquestionably true that life in America is getting better rapidly for gay people in particular, and over a long period of time African-Americans, for every minority. So the objective facts are getting better and better and better. But a campus is not America, a college campus is a very very particular community, an unusual community in a lot of ways.

I’ve learned a lot about what’s going on since — thank you for your praise of what I’ve done — it’s due largely to the fact that Greg Lukianoff came to me with this brilliant idea about what’s going on on campus, how the current campus climate is teaching students to think in distorted ways. So that Atlantic article happened to come out just before Missouri, and Yale, and other campuses melted down.

You have to see college campuses as being institutions that were designed or intended to be places where people come up against diverse ideas, they’re challenged, and as within the marketplace — monopoly destroys a lot of the value of the marketplace — if you have a monopoly on ideas in the intellectual marketplace, you kill the marketplace. Campuses are supposed to be places where nobody has a monopoly on ideas, but they’ve become that in the last few years.

Even if things are getting better and better, and especially on college campuses, there’s a paradoxical sense in which the better they get, the worse the protests will be. It’s not coincidental that most of the protests have been at the most egalitarian, left‑leaning schools.

Yale, Amherst, Brown, these are among the most progressive places. Here we need to bring in this really wonderful article on victimhood culture, by Manning and Campbell, are the last names.

If listeners just Google “where microaggressions really come from,” they’ll find I did a summary of this article, it’s this incredibly brilliant article, which points out that — despite things are getting better and better, despite that fact — that actually makes these charges of microaggression proliferate.

Because it’s only when you have a very egalitarian group and you have bureaucrats or institutions that will punish any sort of conflict, then, everybody’s incentivized to plead, “I’ve been harmed, I’ve been a victim,” or, “He’s been a victim, I’m standing up for him.” So microaggression culture, and a lot of the current campus protests, only emerges when you actually get really close to an incredibly egalitarian, open society.

[M]icroaggression culture, and a lot of the current campus protests, only emerges when you actually get really close to an incredibly egalitarian, open society.

COWEN: Say we take the military, a very different environment. The military is not-for-profit, it intersects with corporate America, but it’s not itself a corporation. It can at times be highly inefficient, and we at least try to overcome this by building up an ethos which is in some ways fairly homogenous, and it tells people to behave a certain way, and there are strong group norms, and a lot of sanctions.

One may not like all of that, but typically once sees something like that is needed in the military. Now if we take colleges and universities, they’re big, they’re bureaucratic, they’re not-for-profit, the incentives are not traditional commercial incentives — could it be the case that for higher education to function well it needs these tight, strict norms? Tight, strict norms, will ex post always look in some ways silly, as they can in the military. Maybe this is a semi‑second, third best efficient way of running academia, yes or no?

HAIDT: No. Again, you’re looking at it like you look at these giant systems, and then let’s take that analogy to another giant system, but you have to think about what is each system designed to produce. Diversity is divisive. There’s a lot of social science research on this, the more you make something diverse, the less trust there will be, the harder it is for people to work together.

If you’re the US military, or any military, yes in the ’70s the Army in particular embraced ethnic diversity, and they did a great job of it. It’s actually quite striking that the military has done — that things have gotten better and better and better in terms of racial climate in the military, and worse and worse and worse in the academy, we can come back to that. If you’re the military, you need cohesion, and that’s what they say — above all, unit cohesion, we must have that.

You want to basically bury racial and other kinds of diversity in a sea of uniformity. You want to give people a sense of common mission, you have common uniforms, so you want to make people feel they’re all part of the same — that’s what you do if you need a group to function effectively together.

In the academy that is not our goal. We’re not trying to turn out classes of “our graduating class will go forth, and they will all work together as a unit to accomplish greatness.” No, that’s not what it’s all about. We want clashing ideas.

We don’t want uniformity and homogeneity, we want the benefits of diversity, but the irony is we have so focused on racial and other kinds of demographic diversity, because of the political slant of the university, because of the sacred values of the campus left, we have so focused on that kind of diversity.

There’s this wonderful line from George Will, in some essay he wrote, “There’s a certain kind of liberal that wants diversity in everything except thought.” That’s where we are. We now have almost a kind of uniformity the military has, where everybody’s on the left, which gives us cohesion, but that kills the very function of the university, which is to have diversity of thought, so we can change our minds. We challenge each other in the marketplace of ideas.

COWEN: In the sciences this is not that big a problem, right?

HAIDT: Not at all, that’s correct, except for environmental science.

COWEN: But is it at least possibly the case that we’re seeing the greatest threat to intellectual diversity in some of the areas which matter least, and when the stakes are high we overcome it. Physics looks pretty good, computer science looks pretty good.

HAIDT: No, it’s not — there are two universities now, but it’s not which ones matter more and which ones matter less. It’s what is the sacred value. The sacred value of universities from sometime in the 19th century through maybe the 1980s was truth. Now it was not perfect, but we all talked that way. Look at the mottos of Harvard and Yale — Veritas, Lux et Veritas, it’s right there on the motto, veritas, truth.

We made a big show — it was largely true — of saying this is what we’re here for, we’re here to find truth. But in the 1970s and ’80s as we had a big influx of baby boomers who were involved in social protest, who were fighting for very good causes, civil rights, women’s rights — they flood into the academy in ’70s and ’80s, they get tenure in the ’80s and ’90s, but also in the 1990s, the Greatest Generation begins to retire. There were a lot of Republicans who became professors after World War II.

But the ’90s is the decade where everything flips. At the start of the 1990s, the overall left‑right ratio of the academy, taking all departments, was two to one, just twice as many people on the left as right. That’s fine, that’s not a problem. But by 2005, it had gone to five to one, five people on the left for every one on the right. Those people on the right are mostly engineering, nursing, things like that. If you look at the core — the humanities and the social sciences, other than economics, it’s closer to 10 to 1 or 20 to 1.

In other words, right‑wing, or libertarian, or social conservative voices have basically vanished between 1995 and 2005. This has made us unfunctional, but it’s in the social sciences and humanities where the sacred value has become social justice and the protection of victims. That’s the division. One university of the sciences still pursues truth, the other university in the social sciences and humanities pursues social justice.

COWEN: Let’s say I’m a libertarian, and I notice, I suspect you would agree, that libertarians are somewhat overrepresented on the Internet, intellectual discourse, because of their personality traits which you’ve written about yourself. On the other hand, the universities, especially top universities, are more left‑wing. On net, should I be happy with this tradeoff or upset about it?

HAIDT: No, you should be very upset that your fellow libertarians are wasting their time in flame wars commenting on people on the Internet, while in the academy, where even though libertarians actually have the highest IQ, they’re the best at systemic thinking, they should be overrepresented.

There’s interesting research, I think it’s by Shields and Dunn, somewhere I read this recently, that as people with libertarian leanings go through undergraduate, those who are inclined toward the academy end up concentrating in economics for a variety of reasons.

There are a lot of libertarians in economics. I wish we had more in psychology, I there were more in sociology and political science. So no, you should be upset because libertarians would be the easiest, easiest source of political diversity to spread throughout the academy. It’s very hard to find social conservatives in the academy.

COWEN: Here’s a question from a reader at Marginal Revolution: As you Jonathan have delved into morality more deeply, are there any examples of something you considered harmless before, that now you think may actually be harmful once second, third, etc., social effects are taken into account?

HAIDT: Oh, yes, yes. When I was younger I remember thinking, “Oh, you know, marriage isn’t so important, all that matters is that you — of course you need to take care of the kids, but people should be free to do what they want.” I’ve come to see — so I started off on the left. In fact I got into political psychology in 2004 precisely to help the Democrats because I thought they were getting their rear‑ends kicked by the Republicans who knew how to talk about morality.

Whereas Gore and Kerry just didn’t have a clue. Since I started researching conservatism and then libertarianism, I’ve just found that they make a lot of points that as a social scientist I have to agree, “Oh, that’s a good point.”

The overriding importance of family stability, if you’re raising kids with incredible family stability, they just come out better. In fact they’re much more likely to rise economically than if they’re raised with any sort of family instability. So I think I’m more conservative about family arrangements, precisely because of these second- and third-level effects. Let’s see, what else? I haven’t really changed my views of drugs, I still am pretty pro‑legalization and decriminalization.

I guess in a way I’ve become more libertarian, but with a real sense of respect for what social conservatives say about family stability.

COWEN: Let’s say if people say harmful things — take a classic case. There’s a football team called the Washington Redskins. I’m pretty sure most of its fans, the intent is not offense, but there is an offense there for many people. It’s called a harm, and there are some demands that name be changed. There is a public or social dimension to the name, that if certain groups are insulted enough times maybe there’s a demoralization or other kinds of prejudice become seen as more effective.

How do you think through whether the Washington Redskins should be called the Washington Redskins, and does this not mean that on campus there should be some political correctness?

HAIDT: This is a great question, because these really are tough questions. Just two principles here. One is we all should try thought experiments to reverse the group and see if it matters. I’m Jewish, I think you’re Jewish, are you Jewish?

COWEN: No, mostly Irish.

HAIDT: OK. Suppose it was the Washington Rabbis, it’s not a very fierce sort of name, so we’re the Washington Jews, or anything. Now imagine a football game in which the fans of the Washington Rabbis bring little scissors as though they’re going to circumcise their opponents, and that’s their big chant, “We’re going to circumcise you.” It just sort of makes the whole thing look ridiculous.

I am sympathetic to some of these, even though the main thing I’m concerned about these days is political correctness, the whole culture of microaggressions, the hypersensitivity, I’m very concerned about that. But there is really something legitimate here to having your group be mocked. That I think might be the principle. The worst idea — God, there’s so many bad ideas on campus — one of the worst and most ridiculous ideas is the idea of cultural appropriation.

The idea if you go to West Africa, and you buy a necklace or you buy a shirt, and you come back and you wear it, someone would say, “You can’t do that, you’re appropriating their culture.” That is absurd, cultural evolution requires us to exchange ideas.

COWEN: What about the actual mocks, or semi‑mocks — should private colleges prohibit them?

HAIDT: The private — ?

COWEN: Let’s say you’re Brown or Yale, and students set up a lacrosse team, and they call it the Brown Redskins, and they do some rituals which offend some people. No matter what the intent would be, should Brown or Yale step in and say, “You can’t do that”?

HAIDT: There’s a big, big line between saying, “Brown or Yale should step in and tell people what they can’t — .” In general I think no, in general the idea — .

COWEN: No, they shouldn’t step in?

HAIDT: They should not step in. We should be extremely limited when we say that authorities can step in and change things. The very fact of doing that encourages microaggression culture, encourages students to orient themselves toward appealing to these authorities. The point of the microaggression article is young people these days have become moral dependents.

If somebody insults them they can’t straighten it out themselves, they have to go right to the authorities, and this embroils everybody in eternal battles. College used to be a lot of fun when I went, and now it’s constant conflicts, and that’s going to happen as far as the eye can see.

We should be extremely limited when we say that [university] authorities can step in and change things. The very fact of doing that encourages microaggression culture, encourages students to orient themselves towards appealing to these authorities. The point of the microaggression article is young people these days have become moral dependents.

COWEN: Let me try another analogy on you. You mentioned the army, but take private corporations, and Brown and Yale are in a sense private corporations. Harvard was originally. I wouldn’t call them restrictions on free speech, I think that’s the wrong phrase, but if one’s going to use the phrase that way, there are numerous restrictions on free speech within companies, at the work place.

If you went to the water cooler and said a number of offensive things, you would be asked to stop and eventually fired, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. So if we think of Brown, Yale, or Harvard as like a normal company, isn’t there still even with all the nonsense, a lot more free speech on campus than in actual companies?

HAIDT: Yes, and there should be. Again, a company is organized to be effective in the world. Just like the army where their priority is unit cohesion, in a company your goal isn’t to encourage everyone to express their values and criticize each other, your goal is to get them to work together.

COWEN: But you need a lot of that in a university though, right?

HAIDT: No, you need basic civility. You need people to be able to live with each other, to critique each other’s ideas, and to not then file charges because they were critiqued. Companies live in fear of lawsuits, and labor law is encouraging this more than ever before. Universities are very, very different. Actually, let me suggest something in terms of where to draw a line. We’re seeing now: should the Woodrow Wilson School be renamed? Should Calhoun College be renamed?

I have some maybe funny thoughts on this, but here are couple of principles. One is that the name of your school, or — I went to Yale as an undergrad — your residential college is kind of part of your identity. And so students at Calhoun College, if they want to change that name because it’s offensive to African-Americans and to many people, if they want to change that name I think that they should have that right. I think that’s a good thing.

We just should have a process so that it’s not just the loudest group in the space of one year that gets to do it. There should be a process that says if three-quarters of the people vote to do it, and you take that vote two years apart, then it should be done.

Now, if it’s a question of there’s a statue on campus, there’s a painting on campus — of Cecil Rhodes, I think it’s at Oxford. Rhodes was a big donor, Rhodes was a racist, according to his writings a colonialist, if it’s that there’s a statue on campus, that’s a very, very different matter.

Once they start saying we’re going to put to a vote everything. Everyone gets to opine on whether we take down this, take down this. Before you know it, you’re taking down everything because presumably religious students are offended by certain things, conservative students are offended by certain things, everyone’s offended by something.

You have to have limits, you have to have a process. At present we don’t have a process, we just have outrage stoked by social media and then we have craven university presidents who can’t stand up to the protesters and say, “OK, we’ll do it.”

COWEN: Let’s say you were put in charge of undergraduate admissions at Yale, and you could more or less do what you thought was best without constraint, what would you change?

HAIDT: Oh gosh, I’d change a lot of things. One thing that I would do is I would start admitting for signs that you can contribute to an intellectually diverse environment. That means that I would look for people who — so Yale in particular, but all of the top schools have a huge problem, that they have basically social justice warriors who are so empowered, so angry, that they dominate discourse and you basically have the small illiberal left has completely terrorized the larger liberal left.

Yale right now is quite dysfunctional. Students there say they can’t speak up, they can’t speak up in class, they feel pressure on Facebook, if somebody sends around a petition for some left-wing cause they have to endorse it, even if they don’t want to. Yale’s a mess right now, as a lot of schools are. That should be the top diversity issue, is intellectual diversity. I would stop admitting for social justice cred, in other words, if you say, “Oh, I started this protest group, and we got this overturned.”

Basically I think a lot of students know is the way to get into a top school is show your social justice activism. Well, top schools are now full of social justice activists, and they’re no longer places where people can say anything that contradicts the social justice activists. What’s that old joke? “Doctor, it hurts when I do this. Well, stop doing this.” They should stop admitting social justice warriors and start admitting people they’ve got the guts to disagree.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: We now move to a segment of the conversation called underrated versus overrated. I threw out a bunch of names or concepts, you tell me if you think they’re underrated or overrated and why. Number one, Sigmund Freud.

HAIDT: Well, he certainly was overrated for a long time. In academic psychology his value is essentially zero, so that might be underrated, in that Freud’s ideas about development were completely worthless. But he was a very interesting and provocative writer, and he ought to be read a little bit more in psychology, overrated in humanities. They still rely on him as a psychologist in humanities. Depends where you are in the humanities overrated, in social psychology, underrated.

COWEN: LSD, overrated or underrated?

HAIDT: I would say underrated in that there are — I did a lot of reading about drugs in my late 20s. I was interested to find that there are only a few drugs that people make religions around. I forget the name of the chemical class, but it’s whatever the common compound is in LSD, psilocybin, yagé, those things.

Those drugs all have religions built around them, whereas heroin, morphine, alcohol — I mean alcohol plays a role in religion. So there are some drugs that ruin people’s lives, and there are other drugs that enrich people’s lives.

Psychedelics have an incredibly positive track record in terms of enriching people’s lives versus damaging them. So to the extent that they are rarely used, and widely feared, I would say that they are underrated and I’m basing this on the research that was done in the ’60s and just starting now that when you give people psychedelic drugs in controlled settings, be they cancer patients, or criminals in jail, the therapeutic effects tend to be quite positive.

The moral panic against drugs in the ’60s through the ’80s was too much, and therefore psychedelic drugs in particular are now underrated.

Psychedelics have an incredibly positive track record in terms of enriching people’s lives versus damaging them. So to the extent that they are rarely used, and widely feared, I would say that they are underrated and I’m basing this on the research that was done in the ’60s and just starting now that when you give people psychedelic drugs in controlled settings, be they cancer patients, or criminals in jail, the therapeutic effects tend to be quite positive.

COWEN: I’ve done one of these dialogs with Peter Thiel, and he’s a big fan of René Girard, and his theory of sacrificial violence. Do you have an opinion?

HAIDT: No, many people have emailed me about him, and I know I need to read him, I think he’s vaguely Durkheimian.


HAIDT: So if he’s Durkheimian, then I’m in favor of him. By that I just mean — I don’t want to sound too academic and obscure here — just that if you look at what humans are doing, so much of what we do is weird and inexplicable. But after you read Durkheim, you see, oh, we’re trying to form communities.

We’re trying to form moral communities that will give order, punish deviants, allow us to work together. So if that’s what’s Girard’s about, then I would agree with it.

COWEN: Leo Strauss.

HAIDT: I don’t know enough about him, also on my to‑read list.

COWEN: Reading through a lot of your past work, which I did to prepare for this conversation. This struck me, and I didn’t expect it to be the case, but at times I was thinking more of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist, than I thought I was going to. Underrated or overrated?

HAIDT: Again, well I can’t say, because again it depends where you are. In symbolic anthropology I think he is still quite highly rated, outside of that I think very few people know about him. I read a little bit about, a little bit of his work when I was a postdoc in Chicago with Richard Shweder.

What I remember is just the idea of interpreting cultures as people are making symbols, we live in a rich symbolic world, a world of narrative, we need to interpret those, that I think is quite right, and that’s again what I love about cultural anthropology is it gives you a way of interpreting cultures.

Where it then leads you to deny that there’s also human nature that is based in our evolution, then it becomes a problem. But I just can’t remember which part of those is attributable to Lévi-Strauss.

COWEN: You’re a trained psychologist, in addition to your most famous work, you have a lot of other papers which are very well cited, but less famous for other public intellectuals doing what you’d call traditional psychological research. Here we have these economists, they do what they call behavioral economics, and they tread into the field of psychology, do they know what they’re doing? Behavioral economics, underrated or overrated?

HAIDT: Properly rated right now, with one caveat. We psychologists have long felt, “Oh those economists they’re the only ones that are ever consulted in Congress, and they have all these high‑prestige jobs, they have a Nobel Prize, nobody listens to us.”

Some economists beginning with Robert Frank, and Dan Kahneman, Dick Thaler, the fact that economists have been listening to psychologists, and making our work more well‑known, of course Kahneman did a lot of that work, and he is a psychologist.

That’s all good, I’m thrilled with the way that’s going. The only caveat that I would put which I would say if they don’t do this soon, then they would be overrated, is the behavioral economics work is an example of this wonderful dictum from Robert Zion, the famous social psychologist, which is that cognitive psychology is social psychology with all the interesting variables set to zero.

To the extent that behavioral economists are saying, “Look at a person shopping, what influences their decision? If the apple is at eye‑level — .” They’re looking at lone consumers who are trying to make choices to optimize their outcomes. That’s great work, but that’s setting all the interesting variables to zero. The interesting stuff is all social. It’s what does this say about me? Will I be ostracized from my group?

If behavioral economics becomes more social, which I think will be the next phase, then I would say it would deserve ever‑rising market value.

COWEN: Thorstein Veblen, that was his initial vision for it actually, was that it be quite social and that the idea of a social reference class was central to people’s behavioral biases.

HAIDT: Interesting. Again, this is a critique from outside, but what a lot of people say which sounds right to me is that the early economists were great social theorists. My God, you read Adam Smith, what a brilliant world philosopher, historian, they thought so broadly and you tell me, but it seems there was a weird turn in the mid‑20th century towards mathematics.


HAIDT: I think it made economists set all the interesting variables to zero.

…[E]arly economists were great social theorists. My God, you read Adam Smith, what a brilliant world philosopher, historian, they thought so broadly and you tell me, but it seems there was a weird turn in the mid‑20th century towards mathematics. I think it made economists set all the interesting variables to zero.

COWEN: Antiparsimonialism , underrated or overrated?

HAIDT: Antiparsimonialism, have you any heard anyone say that other than me, is that my term?

COWEN: No, that’s why I asked.

HAIDT: Oh good, then of course I think it’s underrated, because I think — so parsimony is overrated.

Rather here’s what I should say. The pursuit of parsimony is a bad idea. It becomes almost a religious quest, people think, “Oh, if I can explain this phenomenon with one principle, I have won, I have produced a better explanation.” That’s a disaster for the social sciences, maybe it works in physics, but again, people are really complicated, much more so than matter.

People who pursue parsimony, scientists who pursue it and think that the simplest explanation is better than one that’s a little more complicated, that’s a problem. I’m trying to advocate for what I’m calling antiparsimony, or antiparsimonialism.

COWEN: Normatively you’re a pluralist then, and not like a utilitarian, or — ?

HAIDT: Normatively I’m a pluralist, yes. That means that there are many human values, and this is straight from Isaiah Berlin. There are many human values, and if you take one, let’s take liberty. “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Wrong.

Extremism in defense of any virtue becomes a vice, it becomes sick, it becomes something that leads to horrible inhumanity and brutality. Many people try to say well all that really matters is care and compassion.

But if you take that to its absurd extreme you get kind of close to what we have on campus, which is we will destroy anybody’s rights in order to protect these seven victim classes.

COWEN: Some of your core ideas in psychology and also I would say anthropology, if you had to pick a famous movie, or famous novel, or play, that illustrated those, that you would use to teach some of your ideas, what would you point to, and what would your account be?

HAIDT: Oh my God. I should have a great answer to this question. I am so poorly read, my wife makes fun of me that I haven’t read a novel since I met her in the year 2000, I’ve just been so busy reading non‑fiction. Let’s see. Gosh, almost any of these BBC epics, anything that illustrates, I think English aristocratic life in the 19th century illustrates a rich, morally rich society with hierarchy and all those things that have disappeared from modern morality.

I should have a much better answer for you, but I think just reading novels from non‑Western cultures, and I would consider 19th century British aristocracy to be sort of a foreign culture now, just can give you an idea of cultures other than our own.

On Haidt’s earlier research (and what disgusts him)

COWEN: Final segment, let me ask you some questions about your earlier psychological research, because a lot of people aren’t familiar about that. Let me just start with a very direct, personal question. What is it that you find disgusting?

HAIDT: What do I find disgusting? These days I find illiberalism disgusting. The idea that one person takes it upon himself to shout down or shut down someone else, to decide I or my group, we get to tell you whether you can speak or not. I find this really disgusting.

This is I think one of the reasons I’m so upset by what’s going on on campus, is that the certain group of activists decides that somebody’s going to come speak on campus, fine, if you want to stand up and protest outside and hold up signs, that’s fine. But how dare you go in and shout them down so that people who have come to listen can’t hear. I find that really revolting.

COWEN: If I cook some insects and serve them to you with jelly and lime on top, you’d be fine with that, it may not be your favorite, but you wouldn’t say “Oh this is disgusting.” It might just be, “Oh, I don’t like turkey sandwiches.” Which is true, I don’t like turkey sandwiches.

HAIDT: One of my little small moments of insight and I sat in disgust, was when Paul Rozin and I were working with a Japanese colleague, Sumio Imada, and he brought in a can of honey‑covered grasshoppers from Japan, into Paul’s office, in about the year 1990. I was a disgust researcher, and I thought, “OK, good, I’ve never eaten an insect before, I’m going to try it.” I took one, I brought up to my mouth intending to eat it, and my throat just gagged.

I’ve never had such a clear gag response, my throat said no way, you’re not putting that in. I just forced my hand into my mouth, once beyond the lips, interestingly, once it’s beyond the lips then disgust, it’s sort of too late, and then I was able to eat it. But no, I still find eating insects disgusting.

COWEN: Are all kinds of morality compromised in psychopathy?

HAIDT: Are all kinds? We actually have some data on this. The answer is generally yes, because they have no moral emotions. I think there are certain kinds that they can understand a little better, but it hasn’t really been studied well enough because everybody’s been focused on care and fairness as morality. Psychopaths have no sense of care, or compassion, or sympathy.

They’re happy to cheat, they don’t care about fairness, but I think people haven’t really studied group loyalty, tribalism, hierarchy. My prediction is that all forms are compromised. I know there’s a paper, I think I know I’m on a paper that basically has that as the title. But I’m trying to remember how clear the data was on all those, whether it goes beyond just the moral foundations questionnaire.

Yes, as far as I can tell psychopaths have no real morality. They do get angry if they feel disrespected sometimes, but that’s about it.

COWEN: You have some very interesting papers on moral elevation, the idea that you can elevate people and this is an important sympathetic relation, actually Adam Smith wrote about this. You can induce them to be more caring, caring in the good way. You can induce nursing behavior. You can induce all kinds of positive responses.

If a student at, say, Yale, comes up to you and says, “Jonathan, I would like to engage in some moral elevation on campus.” What would you tell them to do?

HAIDT: Moral elevation happens when you display virtues in a way that’s really powerful. Virtues of caring, and compassion, and loyalty tend to be the ones that get written about. Courage, also, can be quite moving. Gosh, in a really politicized climate, what would be elevating? Standing up for principles, standing up for people’s rights to speak.

You’d probably get your head cut off if you tried it. Let’s see, what would be morally elevating on a campus? Usually, people would go for social justice kinds of elevations, showing their devotion to oppressed groups. But that’s kind of a moral signaling.

I don’t know what I would advise that person. I guess I would advise them — the research on the effects of elevation is complicated. I had originally hoped that if I simply showed someone an elevating video, they’d be more likely to help others right afterwards. I didn’t find that.

A few other researchers found it, but it’s a small effect. Because when you’re touched, moved, inspired, it doesn’t make you go out and take action. It’s calming you. I think you have parasympathetic activation. You’re not prepared for vigorous action, but I think you learn more. You take in more, and it can change your values.

COWEN: There is a big debate lately about a replication crisis or supposed replication crisis in many fields, but a lot of it’s been social psychology. What’s your view on that debate?

HAIDT: I have good friends on both sides. They all make incredibly good points. I think Brian Nosek, who’s been leading the charge on the problems in psychology, is largely right. That our methods have been sloppy, which has allowed us to engage in practices where we’re just more likely than we should be to get a significant result. And then of course, that’s more likely to get published.

Given that we find the same problem in cancer research and biomedical research — in almost every field where it’s been looked at — I think that the replication crisis is very real. It should be a top priority for science.

A lot of my work is on how we are not fully rational creatures. We are deeply emotional and tribal creatures. If you have this idealized view of researchers and our null hypothesis significant testing is based on idealized view of researchers who are basically testing samples honestly.

“Well, this could only happen 1 in 20 times by chance,” but we’re not those creatures. We want certain outcomes to happen. We make certain choices unconsciously. We all have to up our game. I don’t think there’s anything special about social psychology. It’s no worse than other fields. But we have been the leaders at actually addressing it, and saying, “Why are we not able to replicate each other’s work so much?”

I actually am impressed that the young generation has really embraced this and simply committing to making your data available — if you know that other people are going to get access to your SPSS file, or whatever, your data file, and they’re going to be looking it over, boy, you’re going to be a lot more careful.

I think just by raising the crisis, raising the alarm last year, the quality of our work is going to go substantially up. I’m really excited by this.

COWEN: What’s the best replacement for religion in modern, secular society?

HAIDT: Oh boy, the best replacement.

COWEN: Good question. Durkheimian question.

HAIDT: Yeah. A few years ago I would have tried to give you an answer and say we should have some other sacred value to replace it, but given what’s happened in the last year on campuses, I’m really afraid of it, because you might think, “Humanitarianism should replace it. We should all have a religion of helping the poor, helping each other.” Now, of course, it’s really important to help the poor. It’s really important to help people who are oppressed.

But once you make it a religion, that means you are impervious to evidence. You are committed to certain religious rituals even if those rituals make things worse. For example, I’ve been studying the research on affirmative action and diversity training. As far as I can tell there’s no evidence that they make things better and there is some evidence that it makes things worse.

Now, it’s messy. I can’t say for sure that they do, but the point is, we seem to be doing things on campus that are making things worse. The activists are largely asking for things that will make things worse. Much more affirmative action, much bigger racial preferences, which will cause much bigger gaps between Asians at the top and African-Americans at the bottom. Which is going to inflame prejudice, not reduce it.

Once you make something a religion, you’re not open to evidence. You do really crazy, stupid things. What I would say is, let’s not have a replacement for religion. Let’s set things up so that there isn’t a big religion that unites us all to take on our enemies. Let’s try to return to a climate in which people find meaning and purpose in their private lives and in their smaller associations, but we don’t have a big sense of national purpose.

COWEN: Last question to finish up. Who is your best and most important critic in any of these areas and why?

HAIDT: Let’s see, my best and most important critic. In moral psychology — boy, it’s hard to think because when you engage in debates with people you tend to see what’s wrong with them. [laughs] My colleague at NYU, John Jost, we’ve had a lot of good discussions together. He critiqued me early on in ways that in fact that led me to formulate the liberty and oppression hypothesis foundation.

Ronnie Janoff‑Bulman at University of Massachusetts, has pointed out that there are some gaps in moral foundations theory that we haven’t taken account, sort of the motivations behind social justice and social change movements.

There have been some people who have critiqued moral foundations theory as it is — .

COWEN: Tell us again what you think the best criticism is, even if you don’t agree with it?

HAIDT: The best criticism is just that we have left some things out, which is surely true. What’s been exciting is to see that there haven’t — there’s one critic, Kurt Gray, who has said that, basically, morality is just one thing, harm.

COWEN: That has to be wrong.

HAIDT: Yeah, I just can’t see — .

He hasn’t really put forth an argument as to why we would even try to fit everything into the procrustean bed. I don’t really see the advantage of that, other than parsimony, he’s a parsimonist. Other critics have simply said, “OK, sure. There must be something innate, and OK, there are probably multiple things.”

If you agree with those two things, then that’s most of the moralist foundations theory, and then, of course, that morality develops on top of those. It’s mostly critics who said, “You left out this,” or, “These two things should be combined.”

That’s the kind of really constructive criticism that we need, because when we started the theory, we put forth these five foundations, and we didn’t say, “This is it. We know these are the five.” We said, “This is our first pass from doing a lot of reading. This our first guess, but let’s see. Let’s see how it evolves.”

COWEN: And, campus life, your best critic.

HAIDT: That’s the funny thing, is that there really haven’t been any. When Greg Lukianoff and I wrote this Atlantic article, it was talked about all over the place. A lot of people told us privately that they loved it, they were often afraid to say so publicly. Almost nothing was written against it, it’s the weirdest thing.

My wife was actually kind of concerned that there would be this avalanche of criticism, and there would be a lot of anger directed towards us, but really, the only things that were written said, “You guys are white males. You’re just defending your privilege.” That’s most of the argument. Other people said, “Trigger warnings actually are kind of useful, even if they can also be harmful.”

That’s about it. It’s been the most amazing thing. There’s been, really, no coherent criticism of what Lukianoff and I have said.

COWEN: Jonathan, thank you for your time. It’s been an honor and a pleasure.

HAIDT: It was a pleasure to talk with you.

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