Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

The Dark Side of Political Engagement. Unsolicited Advice for Brigade Media.

I recently read with interest the news that several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are attempting to “fix” political dialogue in this country through a well funded new venture called Brigade Media.  From this Time Magazine article:

With backing from early Facebook investor Sean Parker, Brigade Media LLC has already raised an impressive $9.3 million in funds to improve civic engagement from the federal level down to state and local politics

Guided by its scrappy startup ethic, Silicon Valley has disrupted entrenched industries from hotels to rental cars to pizza delivery, but a group of tech barons are raising the stakes with what may be their biggest challenge yet: American democracy.

As someone whose primary identity bridges the worlds of tech startups and using social science to bring people together, I’m excited to see where this effort leads.  However, I would caution tech entrepreneurs about confounding moral engagement with more productive disagreement, given research on the dark side of moral conviction.  Specifically, research in social psychology suggests that as people get more morally engaged with an issue, they also may become more rigid about those beliefs.  That is not to say that civic engagement is destined to decrease civility, but rather to highlight the potential pitfall in equating greater knowledge with more productive disagreement.  Research would suggest that efforts that promote relationships (e.g. see the work that our partners at The Village Square do) and/or promote super-ordinate goals (e.g. the Asteroids Club paradigm), at the same time that they promote civic engagement, may indeed lead to more productive civil debate.

- Ravi Iyer

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More Information does not necessarily lead to Civility

A recent article by Ezra Klein at Vox.com eloquently makes an argument that we at CivilPolitics have also done a lot of research in support of – specifically, that if you want to affect many behaviors, you cannot just appeal to individuals’ sense of reason.  The article is well worth a complete read and is excerpted below, but the gist of it details a simple clear study by Dan Kahan and colleagues, showing that individuals who are good at math stop using their rational skills when the use of those skills would threaten their values.

How was this shown?  Consider the below table of results of a hypothetical study on whether a skin cream helps individuals with a rash.  Did the skin cream work well?  Simply scanning the numbers may give you the impression that the skin cream did well, as 225 is the highest number in the chart, yet if you look closer at the numbers, you’d find that the use of the skin cream is actually more likely to do harm than good, when compared to not doing anything at all.  However this kind of logical reasoning takes effort.

math-problem

 

Kahan’s work shows that we aren’t willing to make this kind of effort when the results would conflict with our values.  Specifically, when confronted with a ideologically charged political question (e.g. gun control) framed in the same terms, individual skill at math no longer predicts being good at solving such a problem .  Instead, one’s ideology was the main predictor and this was true for both liberals and conservatives.  From the article:

Presented with this problem a funny thing happened: how good subjects were at math stopped predicting how well they did on the test. Now it was ideology that drove the answers. Liberals were extremely good at solving the problem when doing so proved that gun-control legislation reduced crime. But when presented with the version of the problem that suggested gun control had failed, their math skills stopped mattering. They tended to get the problem wrong no matter how good they were at math. Conservatives exhibited the same pattern — just in reverse.

Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart. Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.

Consider how utterly insane that is: being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.

If more information is not the solution to producing civility, than what is?  Our expertise at Civil Politics.org is in social psychology, which often concerns the subtle influences that can affect our non-rational side.  While we are still working on a comprehensive set of recommendations (check our blog for continuing progress and research), our social psychology page details a few simple principles that one can use in addition to providing information.  Specifically, getting people to like each other more can make them more open to opposing arguments.  Providing a non-oppositional framework also creates space that allows for more civil thoughts.  These themes also run through the work of organizations we work with, such as Living Room Conversations and The Village Square, which, consciously or not, effectively use social psychological principles in their work.  Whether you are more convinced by research in the lab, case studies, or a combination, the evidence is clear – more information, by itself, will not bring groups closer together.  To do so requires considering the many emotional and psychological motivations that we all have.

- Ravi Iyer

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Ukrainians Illustrate how Super-Ordinate Goals Unite Groups

A relatively mature area of social psychology shows how competition breeds contempt and cooperation breeds liking.  This is a rather intuitive and simplistic finding, yet there are likely things that competing groups can do to foster cooperation that they may not be considering.  Just as brothers may fight, but unite against outsiders to their family, so too may competitors unite in the face of some super-ordinate goal.  Sometimes such a goal just needs to be made salient.

Vladimir Putin is making such a goal salient in the Ukraine.  From this New York Times article:

“Yanukovych freed Ukraine and Putin is uniting it,” said Iegor Soboliev, a 37-year-old ethnic Russian who heads a government commission to vet officials of the former regime. “Ukraine is functioning not through its government but through the self-organization of its people and their sense of human decency.”

Mr. Soboliev is a former investigative journalist who grew frustrated that carefully documented revelations of government misbehavior — which he says “wasn’t merely corruption, it was marauding” — were having no impact. He and a few friends formed Volya, a movement dedicated to creating a country of “responsible citizens” and a “state worthy of their trust.”

“People in Odessa, Mykolaiv, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk are coming out to defend their country,” Mr. Soboliev said. “They have never liked the western Ukrainian, Galician point of view. But they are showing themselves to be equally patriotic. They are defending their country from foreign aggression. Fantastical things are happening.”

Just as in American history, where people rally around the flag in the face of external threats, so too are Ukrainians uniting at a time which could be marked by competition to fill a power vacuum.  This is one area where ecologically valid examples mirror lab studies of the importance of super-ordinate goals in uniting groups.  People who want to unite groups that may otherwise be prone to less productive competitive behavior may want to consider following Putin’s lead and introducing super-ordinate goals amongst would-be enemies.

- Ravi Iyer

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The First New York City Asteroids Club Dinner

The Asteroids Club is any group of people  with diverging political views who gather not to debate, but to listen to the other side explain why it is concerned about certain threats. The metaphor is meant to capture the fact that there are many threats coming at the United States–like asteroids scheduled for direct hits—yet each side of the political spectrum focuses on a few of them and ignores or discounts the asteroids that most worry the other side. As John Stuart Mill said in 1840: “in almost every one of the leading controversies… both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though in the wrong in what they denied.” The Asteroids Club is a novel format for bringing people together, over a meal, for a discussion in which each side helps the other to see more clearly. The format has been developed by The Village Square, in Tallahassee Florida.

The Nathan Cummings Foundation hosted the first New York City Asteroids Club dinner on February 26, 2014, in the home of its president, Simon Greer. The foundation is in the process of updating its research and funding portfolios, and its leaders were interested in learning more about the issues of income inequality and the causes of poverty. They were also interested in developing relationships with experts from diverse perspectives who could help them understand these complex topics. Simon and I therefore chose the two asteroids of rising income inequality (a topic of greater concern on the left), and declining rates of marriage and family stability (a topic of greater concern on the right).

This report is intended to be useful for anyone interested in hosting future dinners, or in bridging the political divide more generally. However, we note that we decided to invite experts from right and left to the first dinner, rather than ordinary people, to maximize the degree to which we could learn about the best thinking and research on these topics. This dinner may therefore not be representative of what will happen if the Asteroids Club format is rolled out and used widely by civic groups across the nation.

Preparing For the Dinner

We ran the dinner using the Chatham House rule, which says that participants are free to write about the event, but cannot reveal the identities or affiliations of the speakers. So we will simply say that we invited two very prominent and well-respected journalists, one clearly identified with liberalism, one with conservatism. We asked these two co-hosts to suggest additional people they wanted on their “team.” (We had hoped to avoid the terms “team” or “side,” but it was hard to do so.) These two co-hosts then nominated several other experts, and took a few suggestions from Simon and me about experts we know on both sides. All 10 people who were invited accepted the invitation. The final dinner was attended by 18 people: 6 liberals, 6 conservatives, Simon and me (who served as co-hosts), and four observers affiliated with the foundation. The expertise in the room was extraordinary, including journalists, economists, activists, and people with experience in government and policy-making.

Two weeks before the dinner, we assembled a list of readings nominated by the participants and posted them all in a google document that we used to share information and coordinate the evening. Because these prominent participants were all extremely busy, we did not push for them to do much preparation beforehand, although we did encourage them to read one or two articles from the other side, and to watch my TED talk that introduced the idea of the asteroids club.

The Dinner

The evening began at 7:30 with drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and unstructured socializing, which was quite cross-partisan. At 8:00 the two teams convened separately to go over final plans for their presentation. (In retrospect we should have encouraged the two teams to do more of this online, before arriving at the dinner). Around 8:30 everyone moved into the dining room and sat in seats that had been assigned to ensure a good mix of people at each of the two long tables. Simon welcomed everyone to his home and presented the Hebrew conception of two kinds of argument: machloket l’shem shamayim – argument that is for the sake of heaven which is intended to better discern truth and move the world forward,  and 2) machloket she’lo l’shem shamayim – an argument that is not for the sake of heaven, but is just for the sake of itself or for the sake of being controversial. Argument in pursuit of truth is considered sacred in the Jewish tradition.

I then explained the history of the Asteroids Club format, and went over the groundrules, including the Chatham house rule, the exact schedule, and the role that I would play as timekeeper and moderator. Each of the participants then offered a 1-minute introduction of him- or herself. We then served ourselves dinner from the buffet, and began the structured discussion. The schedule that we intended to follow was this:

9:00 begin Asteroid #1: rising inequality, liberal side presents
–15 minutes to describe the threat; why this matters, why it’s urgent….During this time, the listening side gets to ask a few brief elaborative questions, but hold argumentative questions for the next step.
–5 minutes for “telescope” time — conservatives ask critical questions, request more info, challenge assumptions.

9:20 begin Asteroid #2 family breakdown, conservative side presents
–15  minutes to describe the threat; why this matters, why it’s urgent…. During this time, the listening side gets to ask a few brief elaborative questions, but hold argumentative questions for the next step.
–5 minutes for “telescope” time — liberals ask critical questions, request more info, challenge assumptions.

9:40: dessert served, short break
9:45 Integrative discussion, 20 min.
–10 min: Return to Asteroid #1: Inequality. Go deeper: what does the liberal side most want to change, address, or at least have understood (taking into account family breakdown)
–10 min: Return to Asteroid #2: Family Breakdown: Go deeper: what does the conservative side most want to change, address, or at least have understood? (taking into account rising inequality)

10:05 Concluding discussion and resolutions.
10:30: End of formal discussion, take closing survey.

The schedule we actually followed was close to this, but because we were running behind and because there was clearly a surprising amount of agreement on what aspects of poverty were of great concern, I decided to merge the two parts of the integrative discussion into a single discussion of what really matters – what issues either side had raised that seemed to elicit at least some assent from the other side.

In general there was bipartisan agreement that income inequality has been rising in recent decades, although there was NOT bipartisan agreement that rising inequality itself was a problem that needed to be addressed. There was, however, bipartisan (though not necessarily unanimous) agreement that the following issues are concerns or problems, and that we would be a better country if we could address them:

  • Dignity, and the indignities disproportionately suffered by the poor

  • Distrust of government and democracy

  • Waste: the financial squeeze and inefficiency caused by “arms races” as people spend more money to attain “positional goods” such as a home in a good school district.

  • Lack of opportunity for large segments of society; The waste of human potential among the poor.

  • Declining motivation and economic dynamism – which can be stimulated by moderate degrees of inequality (this point was noted by a liberal)

  • Abuses of power, which becomes easier for those with a lot of money

  • Separateness – having communities that are cut off from the mainstream of society; having low social trust and cohesion.

In general there WAS bipartisan agreement that marriage rates and family stability have declined in recent decades. There WAS bipartisan agreement that these trends are bad for society, and that it would be good if we could find ways of reversing the trends. There was a very high degree of bipartisan concern about poverty, especially for its pernicious effects on children. There was also a consensus that the people who suffer most from these trends are single mothers (who bear the main costs and stresses of raising children under often adverse circumstances) and their sons. Daughters suffer too, of course, but there was consensus that boys’ outcomes are more adversely affected by the absence of a father, and these adverse outcomes then set up a feedback loop for the next generation in which there are way too few stable, employed, and marriageable young men who could break the cycle of father-absence.

The Post-Dinner Assessment

We are working with my colleagues at CivilPolitics.org to develop assessment tools that can be used by any organization running any kind of civility-enhancing event. For future events, we will send all participants a link to a web-based survey  a few days before the event, then pass out a paper questionnaire at the conclusion of the event, then send out a web-based followup survey a week after the event, to assess the effects of the event on attitudes about the asteroids, and about the people on the other side. For this first dinner, with 12 super-busy people, we only obtained four responses to the first web survey. (You can see that first survey here. Future versions will be much more extensive.) We therefore decided to focus our efforts on obtaining measures of the key variables at the conclusion of the evening. Did people come to see the asteroid presented by the other side as a clearer or more pressing threat than they had before the dinner? That is the central goal of an Asteroids Club dinner.

We collected responses from all 6 liberals and from 5 of the conservatives.  For each asteroid, we asked participants whether their views had changed regarding both the PACE of the threat and the SEVERITY of the threat.  For example, here is the exact text of one of the four main questions:

How has tonight’s discussion influenced your beliefs about the severity of the problem of income inequality for the USA?
___I now see it as a much less severe problem than I did a week ago
___I now see it as a slightly less severe problem than I did a week ago
___The discussion did not influence my beliefs in either direction
___I now see it as a slightly more severe problem than I did a week ago
___I now see it as a much more severe problem than I did a week ago

The graph below shows the results. Let’s start with family decline. The liberals (shown on the left half) DID move in the desired direction. They now see it as a more rapidly approaching threat (gold bar, 4 moved), and a more severe threat (purple bar, 5 moved). The conservatives did not really move on family decline, nor did we expect them to. (The gold bar doesn’t even show  because nobody moved.)

On inequality, the story was quite different. No conservative moved at all on the speed of the change (which is why the blue bar does not show), and the only movement on severity came from a single conservative who said that he/she now sees the problem as “slightly less severe” than before. (The liberals also showed no movement on inequality, except for a single participant who said “slightly more severe” than before.)

What can we make of this pattern?  It appears that the asteroids club format worked for the family decline asteroid. The conservatives presented the asteroid, the liberals listened, and then came to see it as a greater threat. This is very encouraging.

But it is harder to know how to interpret the results on the inequality asteroid. The lack of movement could have resulted because A) the liberal team made a weaker case about inequality than the conservatives had for family decline, or B) the conservatives were less open-minded and willing to listen, or C) the facts about inequality and its harms are truly more ambiguous and contestable than they are for the family decline asteroid. My conclusion from the background reading, and from the conversation during the dinner, is that C is true and is at least part of the explanation.

We also asked: “Compared to other discussions about policy and politics you’ve had in politically ‘mixed company,’ how enjoyable was this ‘asteroids club’ format?”  We offered 5 choices, ranging from “much less enjoyable” (scored as -2) to “much more enjoyable” (scored at +2). Six respondents said “much more enjoyable,” one said “about the same,” and four said “slightly more enjoyable.” There was no significant difference between the liberals and conservatives, which is quite encouraging

 

Conclusions and advice for future Asteroids Club dinners:

Based on the data above, and on comments made by participants after the dinner, I draw the following conclusions and lessons:

1) The format is enjoyable and promotes civil interaction. Sharing a meal in a private home seems to have made people particularly polite and open.

2) It is difficult to do two asteroids in a single 2 hour discussion. There are advantages to doing two – it led to a sense of balance and fairness. But at least 3 hours of discussion would have been needed to cover both.

3) Relationships matter, and it takes time to get to know each other and develop trust. Ideally, asteroids clubs will be true clubs, with a stable membership that meets every month or two.

4) The exact instructions for each part of the evening matter. More work is needed, drawing from experts in negotiation and facilitated discussion, on how to optimize the integrative discussion and conclusion.

5) More “warmup” exercises could be tried. We kept this evening fairly direct and cerebral – focused on the ideas and research. But future events could begin with more activities to build trust and cohesion, such as singing the National Anthem, or doing introductions in a much more personal way, or pairing off in bipartisan teams for short initial discussions, and then having participants report to the group by introducing their partner and his/her main concerns.

The bottom line is that we created a novel social situation which called for openness, trust, and collaborative thinking, and the participants rose to the occasion. There was no partisan sniping and not a shred of hostility. People sometimes made points that supported the other side. Many on both sides expressed a desire to continue the conversation. Which we will do, in a way soon to be announced.

If you are interested in hosting an Asteroids Club dinner yourself, please visit: www.AsteroidsClub.org

Jon Haidt

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.