When ‘gut feel’ goes big

Abstract: There really is a powerful ’emotion’ that comes from the stomach…

Regular readers of this column will know that I have been afflicted with a most colourful malady – I tend to become infected with words and phrases. I doubt if there’s a cure for it, and the last time I visited my doctor he literally threw the book at me – it was a rather large copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. Leaving his office, with said book bouncing off the back of my head, I heard him shout, “Come back to me when you have something more worrying than a dose of visceral morality!”

This ‘visceral morality’ thing had been bugging me for a while. Whereas some words and phrases are like burrs and hook themselves to my conscience during my daily stroll through life; others are like lint, coalescing near my navel to be plucked and scrutinised with a mixture of fascination and mild irritation.

But every now and then, a word or phrase leaps up at me like a giant parasite, latching onto me, taking root and refusing to budge, working its way into me and demanding my attention.

And so it was with ‘visceral morality’.

Perhaps the fact that is wasn’t where it should have been made me examine it closer. Like a whirring chainsaw in the hands of child, it seemed incongruent, somehow not only out of sorts, but so out of place as to be shockingly irresponsible.

It was in an interview with Jonathan Haidt, a leading psychologist at the University of Virginia in the US, and he was talking about the tribal world of American politics. In the interview he said, “Gingrich is very skilled at manipulating moral sentiments. He understands visceral morality”.

“Newt Gingrich” and “morality” in the same breath? This is the man who virtually single-handedly made the word ‘liberal’ sound dirty. The same man who, with a string of relations sexuelles illicites thrust proudly into his pants, thought he could campaign to be the next Republican president. The anchor for the seeming sense of illogicality in the psychologist’s sentiment lay in the phrase ‘visceral morality’. I sensed it wasn’t all that it seemed. So, I started scraping away at it to see what lay underneath.

In essence, ‘visceral morality’ is evidenced whenever we display a strong, almost physical reaction to a social situation that provokes moral judgement. It’s so strong that it overrides the more sedate moral temperament associated with rational judgement. It’s when gut feel goes big.

An example: you’re standing in a queue, and someone pushes in. Cultural norm dictates that this is unreasonable behaviour, and so you shake your head and mutter under your breath. However, should someone push a little old lady out of a queue and take her place, you immediately grab the offender by the jacket and haul him out of the queue, and raise your fist with an overwhelming desire to punch him. It’s a gut reaction to a situation that is completely unacceptable – it is an expression of visceral morality.

If there is anything akin to ‘cultural DNA’, then visceral morality is as much a defining feature in our ethical development as brain size is in our physiological evolution. It is a morality that has been learned from experience – drummed into us over centuries through constant social feedback that derides improper behaviour. It becomes a driver of natural selection in our cultural anthropology. It’s almost instinctive.

It’s therefore a popular tool in any successful politician’s arsenal because it invokes a reaction. The wily politician knows the words and phrases that can trigger it and create disruption, even chaos. In Africa, examples are ‘imperialistic’ and ‘white masters’. Any rhetoric loaded with such triggers is aimed firmly to invoke a visceral morality, and it’s a cheap shot.

The craft of a true leader is knowing visceral morality should bind a group, being sensitive to it, identifying the triggers, and carefully using them to craft a call to positive action.

So, do you have what it takes? I imagine you have a notepad on your desk. On a clear page, write ‘visceral morality’ at the top, and underline it. Then see if you can fill it with words and phrases that will do the job.

My gut feel says you can.

Originally published in the May 2012 edition of Leadership magazine