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In Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, the “Humans beings are 90% chimp and 10% bee (XXII)” is the metaphor that means the most to me. I say this because I have experienced the tediousness of that dichotomy countless times. In the third grade, I was a straight-A student: raising my hand to answer any and every question, being the first to turn in tests, and easily completing homework. However, when the time came for group assignments, I struggled mightily. I was unable to take charge – even when I had a helpful idea or comment. It was almost as if I didn’t want to be credited for success for fear of being blamed for failure. The end result was me waiting for others to agree on a direction and then half-heartedly agreeing.
This apprehensiveness in turn created resentment with the other group members. Before I knew it, I became the least desired partner in the class because of my notorious reputation for being uncooperative. I couldn’t become “a cell in a larger body” (XXII). This manifestation intensified my independence and dismissiveness of others. Terrified of the words group and team, I’d work alone whenever possible. “I don’t need them anyway”, I thought. Thus the quote: “Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral codes (XXIII)”; I became set in my ways and developed a self-fulfilling prophecy. This was the “ugly side of my nature” (XXII).
After reading this book, I realized that the chimp in my nature was overriding the bee quotient. As a result, I couldn’t play a meaningful part in a team environment. I was too focused on competing to collaborate. I wasted leadership potential and missed out on great community experiences because I played dumb. These experiences are described by Haidt as “often the most cherished of our lives” (XXII). Why would they want to work with me, invest in my company, or give me credit? I was dead weight. Just there. This made their jobs harder; having to carry me as I dragged by feet.
Haidt’s chimp/bee metaphor will definitely influence my actions in college. I now understand that teamwork make the dream work. Charles Darwin’s studies showed that “the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individuals” (XXII). Having others to rely on is a blessing, not a burden. The goal is to be “binded” to the group for the greater good and not “blinded” by my “petty” selfish desires.
In today’s world, people experience music nearly every day, but few truly recognize it as the phenomenon it is. Music makes humans unique among the world’s animals. We can create, interpret, and enjoy music, and often we do these things as a group. Imagine a concert. The people are loud, energetic, singing, and dancing all together. Anyone who knows me knows that I am generally the opposite of a concert-goer: quiet and calm, rarely singing or dancing. This summer, despite this fact, I went to one of my first concerts. As the concert started, I swayed to the music, amidst the screaming girls around me. A song or two later, I was clapping. Finally, by the end of the concert, I was screaming out the lyrics and dancing along with the rest of the crowd.
How could I, the quiet, calm girl, become the typical concert-goer, screaming and dancing? The answer lies in the metaphor presented in The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt: “Humans are percent chimp and 10 percent bee.” A chimp is an animal that acts as an individual. Bees, on the other hand, work together, acting a part of a group. Not only are humans a mixture of both, but we have the unique ability to switch between these two states of mind. Haidt calls this the “hive switch.” The hive switch is the shift in one’s mind from thinking as an individual to thinking as part of a group. At the concert, my inner hive switch was activated, and I acted like a bee, as part of the whole. My individual qualities were put aside, and I took on the loud, energetic nature of the crowd. In this case, becoming a “bee” was harmless, but in other situations thinking as a group can be dangerous. Knowing about the hive switch is important, because it can help us avoid bee-behavior in dangerous groups. Fortunately, we are only 10 percent bee; thus, as humans, we can better control our group-mindedness and, as an individual, I could return to my quiet, calm self as the music faded out.
The Raging Elephant and the Confused Rider
Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind explores moral psychology in an attempt to explain “why good people are divided by politics and religion”. The author does this by presenting, examining, and defending three main metaphors. The metaphor that spoke to me the most was “the mind is divided like a rider on an elephant”. What this means is our brain, the elephant, automatically makes decisions without reasoning and then we, the rider, rationalize said thinking after the fact. Haidt explains this simply by saying “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second”. This metaphor relates to me personally because I have seen plenty of raging elephants and confused riders in my high school career. When I attended high school I was an active member and officer in a debate club known as JSA (Junior Statesman of America). On many occasions, while participating in conferences, I observed people who are naturally opposed to something, whether it be because of political or religious reasons, but could not find the logic to defend their thinking. The most prevalent example was when a conservative man was speaking to a predominately female audience about why abortion is wrong. After being bombarded with questions that completely eradicated any reasoning he had, the frustrated lad said “I may not be able to demonstrate why it’s wrong, but I know that it is”. Even though the rider’s reasoning was made useless the elephant stood its ground.
Whether or not this knowledge will impact my actions directly remains to be seen. However, if I ever witness someone flustered trying to defend their beliefs I will be less likely to question them, because I now understand that they may have a cultural or religious belief that they may not be able to defend with anything other than “it’s what feels right”. This is the first and most important metaphor in the book because it is first for a reason – the author references it in almost every chapter, even outside part one.
Human nature is inherently selfish. This is a belief held true by many philosophers, as well as anyone familiar with public transportation. There is no team human; instead most function as individuals, keeping to the strict idea that the self is more important than the group.
Only under specific conditions may the needs of the group transcend those of the self. Due to the rarity of this occurrence, Jonathan Haidt choses to describe the human psyche as “90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee” (217). By this he means that for the majority of a human’s existence, the self is in the spotlight. When the ape-like selfishness is surpassed, the human becomes more like a bee in a hive. This is something Haidt refers to as the “hive switch” (256). Haidt explains this bee-like nature, saying that “we have the ability…to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves…in something larger” (258). This experience of being one with humanity is immensely powerful. Moments which trigger the “hive switch” are described by people as deeply meaningful and life changing (256).
An experience such as this occurred during our Orientation. The day had been long. Upperclassmen promised us we would enjoy ourselves as the led us, groggy and skeptical, into the auditorium. Within minutes, a wave of exuberance swept over the crowd. Music was erupting from speakers, so loud one could feel the base vibrating their limbs. Almost without encouragement, everyone dance, we hollered and screamed, and when a messenger silenced us, we stood in awe.
“The Bruins just scored” the man bellowed. The silence shattered with rapture. We became one mind, on voice, roaring with ecstasy for our home team.
When we left that night to our individual dorms, there was an unspoken bond. We had shared something special, though if asked to explain, we could not. In that brief span of time, we were no longer single bodies in a crowded auditorium, but a throbbing existence sharing a moment of triumph. We were a hive.
Thinking Outside the Box
A box of kitty litter ended up giving me a new perspective on life. Perspectives are guided by emotion and logic, two systems that are continuously in conflict. This leads to human irrationality which is best explained by Haidt’s metaphor, “The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” The elephant represents bias, an intuitive belief formulated from personal experience and therefore heavily based in emotion. Likewise, the rider is the rational reasoning that has difficulty reconciling with these predispositions. The discord between my elephant and my rider almost led me to discount important evidence about the benefits of volunteering.
The places where I began volunteering had no work for me, so I had to spend my time sitting around. My friends told me that community service was about my hands getting caked in dirt planting trees and my lungs bathing in the humid air of a soup kitchen. As a result, my elephant sought for a sense of purpose despite my rider recognizing the personal experiences that served as contrary evidence. The foolish optimist in me ultimately won and I gave volunteering one last chance. Upon contacting the local PetSmart, I found myself drenched in the rancid stench of kitty litter, yet making a significant difference in the lives of homeless cats. Volunteering turned out to be meaningful after all, despite my horrible first experiences. These initial attempts simply encouraged a form of bias that distorted reality, creating conflict between my intuition and reason. Nevertheless, by working hard to do my part for the kittens, my elephant and rider were united because my desire to feel significant was satisfied, and the experience changed my very perspective on volunteering. At UMass Dartmouth, I certainly will not let my predispositions stop me from getting involved in a vibrant selection of student activities, which I know to be essential to becoming part of the community.
“The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” Haidt uses this metaphor to describe the relationship between our moral intuitions and our strategic reasoning. Haidt has taught us it is the job of our reasoning mechanism to serve our instincts by trying to make justifications for the things we intuitively feel. There seems to be a predisposition to follow what feels right, even if we may not coherently explain why or how we made a decision. One such example I can recall was in debate club where the topic of gay marriage was brought up.
One afternoon, my teacher had instructed us to write down what our beliefs were regarding gay marriage, including whether or not it should be legalized. Having been raised a Christian all my life, I had strong feelings regarding the sanctity of marriage. My “elephant” was telling me that marriage should be between a man and a woman, based on the set of norms and values I had been indoctrinated with in the church. However, when legalization had been brought up, I could not explain why I believed that same sex couples could not get married. In the Righteous Mind, Haidt described how religion had a large influence in our intuitive reasoning.
In Chapter 11, Haidt provides us with some interesting insights about this socialization process, “Religion is a Team Sport.” Haidt uses the example of religion, to explore how religion provides individuals with a sense of community: “If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior.” In my scenario, I had a set of predisposed set of norms and beliefs due to my religious background, and so my rider became a servant to my elephant. This was the reason that I could not explain why same sex couples couldn’t legally marry. In addition, Haidt supported David Hume’s theory that morals come from intuitions, and reasoning serves and supports our intuitions. Because I believed that marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman, my reasoning wanted to serve and support this by saying gay marriage should not be legalized.
It used to be hard for me to understand why everyone is not a liberal. Jonathan Haidt explained this feeling in The Righteous Mind using the metaphor “The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors” (xxi). Haidt explained that people have six receptors that represent six moral institutions. The left depends on activating one or two of the receptors, but the right depends on activation of all of them. This metaphor explained to me that the tastes I like most are the tastes that everyone likes most.
Before reading The Righteous Mind, I felt resentment toward people who were not liberals. How could it be right to not put the needs of individuals first? The most important thing to me, and other liberals, is helping others. I put this above traditional structures in the United States, such as family or religion. But it has become clear to me not everyone feels this way. Others are reliant on the other aspects of morality. In the chapter “Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?” (319-399), Haidt reassures the reader this is okay. That it is important to have two differing political sides. Haidt brings up two issues, first being lead is gasoline. Government regulations helped remove lead from gasoline, something that was harming children all over the United States, causing low IQ and other issues. This is an example of a liberal action. The government stepped in to regulate big business, and it helped many individuals (349). The other issue is providing welfare to inner city poor, specifically in the 1960s. Providing welfare to these areas “reduced the value of marriage, increased out-of-wedlock births, and weakened African American families (361)”. If a more conservative approach was taken, and little to no welfare was provided, these areas might have been better off. In this way the conservative approach is better. Upon reviewing these two examples, I have come to a conclusion that liberals and conservatives are essential to this country; it is all right for many people to be conservative, because it creates a balance in the United States. This constant tug-of-war is important to the country. Having people with different tastes is important to the functioning of this country, not only in politics, but in religion, healthcare, and more.