What is Moral Foundation Theory and why should you care?


Founded by Jonathan Haidt and other social psychologists, Moral Foundation Theory proposes that innate and universal psychological systems are the foundations of intuitive morality. Each culture constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations. The five foundations are:


1) Care/harm—the instinct to protect others.


2) Fairness/cheating—the instinct to punish cheating.


3) Loyalty/betrayal—the instinct to support one's own "kind" and punish treason/betrayal.


4) Authority/subversion—the instinct to obey and respect hierarchy.


5) Sanctity/degradation—the instinct to be disgusted by revolting things. 


At Pathos, we are guided by this insight. People don't size up arguments the way a judge scores a debating tournament. People quickly form opinions based on moral intuition. They aren't motivated by their material interest, they're motivated by their moral interest. It isn't that reason doesn't figure into it; it does, but only to support a conclusion already arrived at based on moral intuition. It used to be axiomatic that a compelling message had to have both an emotive and cognitive component—that it had to appeal to both the heart and the head. It turns out we only had it partly right. Emotion drives the decision and reason is only deployed to defend a decision already reached. Emotion is the master, reason the servant.


The principles of Moral Foundation are a new approach to understanding and changing public opinion and behaviour. If you want to thrive, reframe perspective, and communicate with real impact, start by rooting your efforts in this solid ground.