Diagramming "The Righteous Mind"

Posted on August 6, 2020

A Visual Mnemonic

Mnemonics are tools for remembering things. I haven’t read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for years, but I still have easy recall of his categorization of ideas that motivate moral reasoning. The mnemonic that has helped my recall of this concept has stuck with me because it has two layers of compression. Here are some icons I made, organized in a grid—the most basic version of the mnemonic:

In combination, Haidt argues that these six flavors explain anyone’s sense of morality. They are: harm (minimizing harm), sanctity, authority, loyalty, fairness, and liberty.

Do the pictures make these concepts more memorable? Somewhat: they’re more concrete and have more character than the words alone. What really helps about this diagram is that the pictures were chosen in a way that can help recall when they’re paired together. Each row of iconography coheres around a visual concept, so if you can only remember one of the items in the row, hopefully you can fill in the other icon by prompting with its pair. The dagger and the cross are both cross-shaped, the crown and the dog are both symbols from heraldry, and the scales and the manacles each themselves contain pairs. If, when designing a visual mnemonic, you can give your visual an internal logic, it will be more likely to do its job effectively.

Reducing Heirarchy

The first mnemonic is decent enough, but the ordered nature of the list implies in the order in the importance of the moral flavors the icons represent. It’s right that harm should be first (this is foundational to most systems of morality), but it would be hard for me to rank the rest of the moral flavors. I moved the icons to a ring, equally emphasizing all of them:

A mnemonic with more equal emphasis on the component elements of morality. The pairings are still apparent in their arrangement opposite one another in the diagram.

Why Not More Data?

Here’s another advantage to moving beyond the table format: this organization of the moral elements in a circle enables the addition of more data. Haidt describes the appeals the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States make two different moral elements in the chapter titled “The Conservative Advantage.” Rather than tell you about it, I’ll add his opinions on these party positions to the graphic.

Haidt writes that “Republicans since Nixon have had a near-monopoly on appeals to loyalty (particularly patriotism and military virtues) and authority (including respect for parents, teachers, elders, and the police, as well as for traditions). And after they embraced Christian conservatives during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign and became the party of”family values," Republicans inherited a powerful network of Christian ideas about sanctity and sexuality that allowed them to portray Democrats is the party of Soddom and Gomorrah." Haidt doesn’t introduce liberty until later, but my reading gives a monopoly on that element to Republicans, too.

When I picture the mnemonic in my head, it doesn’t have words annotating the icons, so it looks something like this, which I think is a little cleaner once you know what the icons represent:

This version also has the benefit of getting around labeling the dagger as “harm,” which I think might confuse people because every other element in the graphic states something desirable rather than something negative.

In conclusion, I hope this post illustrates the potential graphics have for compressing data on multiple levels to allow for easier recall. If you want to remember something, drawing it might help, but your drawing will be more memorable if you can introduce more internal structure.