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By Reagan Hilton

Photo Credit: Jeramie Lu

Kurt Gray is a social psychologist dedicated to unraveling the complexities of our moral minds and finding pathways to bridge political divides. Although he almost pursued a career as a geophysicist, a harrowing night in the Canadian wilderness redirected his journey toward the fascinating world of psychology. With a PhD from Harvard University, Gray now leads the Deepest Beliefs Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also heads the Center for the Science of Moral Understanding, which seeks innovative ways to reduce polarization, and is involved with the New Pluralists, aiming to foster a morally pluralistic America. Gray’s prolific research, spanning over 120 journal articles, delves into how our perceptions of harm underpin moral and political disagreements. His insights have been featured in esteemed publications like The New York Times, The Economist, Scientific American, Wired, and on NPR’s Hidden Brain.

In his TEDx Reno talk, Gray addresses the pervasive issue of moral and political polarization, offering a fresh perspective on why we disagree. He begins by debunking the common belief that people with different political views have fundamentally different moral minds. Instead, Gray posits that our moral sense is universally centered around the concept of harm. Regardless of our cultural or political backgrounds, we all care deeply about preventing harm to ourselves and others. This shared moral foundation means that when we encounter moral disagreements, they are often rooted in differing views about who is most vulnerable to harm.

Gray’s talk delves into the evolutionary roots of our moral psychology, explaining that our ancestors’ need to protect themselves from predators and other human threats has shaped our modern moral sense. He argues that while we all agree on the importance of protecting the vulnerable, our political differences stem from divergent assumptions about who or what is most at risk. For instance, debates on issues like abortion, immigration, and policing often hinge on conflicting perceptions of victimization and harm.

Photo Credit: Jeramie Lu

To bridge these divides and foster more civil conversations, we can draw three essential steps from Gray’s insights:

1. Connect Before You Converse: Start by connecting with the other person on a human level. Share your own everyday fears and worries and invite them to do the same. This helps build a foundation of mutual understanding and respect before diving into contentious topics.

2. Invite Personal Stories: Encourage others to share their personal experiences related to the topic at hand. Personal stories create empathy and make it easier to understand the motivations behind others’ beliefs. This approach is often more effective than throwing around statistics and facts.

3. Validate Their Feelings: Acknowledge the genuine concerns and feelings behind the other person’s moral beliefs. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but recognizing their perspective as valid can defuse tension and promote a more respectful dialogue.

By recognizing our shared goal of harm prevention and following these steps, we can engage in more productive and empathetic conversations. Gray’s TEDx talk is a compelling blend of scientific insight and practical advice. Through his research and engaging presentation, Kurt Gray provides valuable tools for fostering a more understanding and cohesive society, helping us bridge divides and reduce polarization.

What steps will you take to foster more civil conversations in your own life? Let us know in the comments of Kurt Gray’s TEDxReno Talk here:

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