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

Two Evidence-Based Recommendations for Civil Disagreement

Navigating the scientific literature can be difficult as there is so much research being produced these days and so much controversy as to what findings are “real”, that it can be hard to know what evidence-based recommendations to follow.  In order to help provide clarity to the journalists, organizations, and others who get information from Civil Politics, we would like to make two main recommendations.  These recommendations are not exhaustive and there are certainly other avenues of research.  And they are broad, such that the way that they are practiced may vary depending on the situation.  But these recommendations are also broad in terms of the evidence that supports them and this same breadth also provides practitioners options as far as how to effectively practice these recommendations.

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Our recommendations:

1. Improve inter-personal relationships – There is a rich psychological literature on how positive contact between groups increases the likelihood that greater cooperation and less demonization across groups will occur.  This can occur either between individuals or at the group level, whereby individuals see that people of their group are getting along with others in the other group (known as the extended contact effect).  The psychological research on this phenomenon dates from the civil rights area, and continues to be replicated in labs across the country to this day, such that we can have confidence in it (see more research here).  Evidence for the utility of promoting positive relationships between groups is not only found in the psychological literature, but also in prominent examples of cross-group cooperation (e.g. Reagan and Tip O’Neill or more recently, Patty Murray and Paul Ryan) and in the successful practices of numerous organizations that work in the community such as A2Ethics, Living Room Conversations and The Village Square.  Intuitively, we all know that relationships matter as much as facts, and so organizations seek to build culture, doctors get to know patients, salespeople get to know clients, and diplomats work to build relationships as well.  Yet sometimes in the heat of a morally charged conflict, we may start to see the other side as personally repugnant, and it is exactly at these times when relationship building needs to occur as it is hard to find common ground with someone you find personally reprehensible.  Many inter-group conflicts actually occur between people who are actually quite alike in many ways (e.g. baseball fans, political junkies, bloods and crips, etc.) and the opportunity exists to take advantage of what people have in common to forge better relationships.  And once the intuitions and emotions are pulling us to cooperate, our views of the facts often follow.

2.  Emphasize cooperative goals vs. competitive goals – In most conflicts, the extremists on each side will seek to emphasize the enduring intractable nature of a conflict.  Consider how both militant Islam and those who are openly anti-Muslim seek to characterize the divide in the same way; as a fundamental zero-sum conflict, and the same could be said of how the far-left and far-right seek to characterize American politics as fundamental battles between good and evil.  Yet there are often goals that are shared by both groups that lead to cooperation, at least amongst those who are in the vast middle (e.g. it is only the shared goal of avoiding government default and shutdown that often leads to the passing of legislation).  There is a vast amount of psychological research that relates to how competition for limited resources leads to inter-group conflict (Realistic Conflict Theory), and researchers are constantly showing how variables that relate to this paradigm (e.g. increased threat or decreased scarcity of resources) impact inter-group relations.  As with our first recommendation, the research in this area is bolstered by the experiences that organizations have had in creating cooperative settings.  For example, the Village Square has held several successful events leveraging Jonathan Haidt’s Asteroids Club paradigm where partisans seek to recognize problems that both sides can agree are real issues and Living Room Conversations attempts to create a personal setting where people can work together on goals that everyone can agree upon: safer communities and reduced prison costs.  There are also many examples from the news where cooperation occurs when a larger goal can be identified (e.g. this recent Politico article where George Soros and Bill Koch work together on prison reform).  We all know that competition breeds animosity, even amongst those who would otherwise be friends, as evidenced in every sports rivalry across the country.  Yet just as sports fans unite to sing the national anthem, so too can those who find themselves divided seek to consciously remember the larger groups and goals that can indeed bring them together and emphasize those.

We are periodically asked by journalists, organizations, and site visitors about crossing moral divisions and are hopeful that these two simple recommendations can help cut through what can otherwise be a rather opaque literature on evidence-based methods.  Both of these recommendations are supported by dozens of articles and hundreds of studies, as well as countless hours of work and experience by practitioners.  At some level, these techniques are intuitive and are things we already know…but they are also things that we often forget in the heat of a debate, and we are hopeful that reminding people to consciously apply these techniques can make a difference.

- Ravi Iyer

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CivilPolitics Annual Report for 2014

The below text is from our annual report produced for 2013-14. The report is also available via PDF. If you are interested in contributing to Civil Politics or working with us, please contact us.

To Our Stakeholders

Overview

As of the end of 2014, CivilPolitics had been incorporated for roughly 15 months.  In that time, we have made significant progress in terms of both contributing to our collective understanding of moral conflict and defining our organizations’ unique niche within this world, where numerous other organizations already exist that do complimentary work.  In this report, we’ll talk first about what we have done in 2014, including both what has and what has not worked, and then what that has meant as far as defining CP’s niche going forward.  We will then talk about our plans for 2015.

2013-14 in Review

Our organization’s mission is to facilitate the application of evidence-based methods for improving inter-group relationships.  Our methodology for doing this leverages the unique place that we start from, as a group of academics that also have experience with educating the public about research.  The diagram below illustrates how we expect this to occur, with academic research informing those who are attempting to bridge gaps in the real world, but also with information from real world practitioners informing the questions that need more study by academics.

In 2013-14, we have worked with a number of practice partners directly, providing recommendations as to the best practices suggested from our research. Some examples include:

  • The film makers behind Bring It To The Table, which humanizes both sides of the American political divide
  • A2Ethics, which hosts community events designed to illuminate moral issues in non-partisan ways
  • Living Room Conversations, which has been focused on creating events in California where people can civilly discuss issues concerning prison reform
  • The Nathan Cummings Foundation, with whom we hosted an explicitly cross-partisan dialogue
  • The Village Square, which hosts numerous events in the community designed to bring people together to discuss important issues without rancor

For these organizations, we have provided tactical advice on bridging moral divides, based on moral psychology research.  In most of these cases, we have also worked with these organizations to collect data (examples here, here, and here) as to how their work has impacted the people who attend their events.  The results of this data collection has been mixed in that in each case, we have found evidence for the positive effects that these organizations’ events have on attendees, but the difficulties in collecting the data at scale from relatively busy attendees, whether we tried technological or old-school methods, necessarily limited our sample sizes and therefore limits the breadth of conclusions we can make based on this data alone.  Still, we have published several studies based on this work online, with the idea that all evidence has value.

To further take advantage of what academics can learn from real-world practitioners, we have taken what we have learned from these organizations informally, and sought to formalize that process (see example here) so that we can more directly leverage these groups’ experiences.  The hope is that if the results of empirical work with these groups converges with the specific lessons that practitioners have learned intuitively in the everyday course of their work, then we can be even more confident that the methods used by these organizations should indeed be shared with a wider audience.

Ideally, the best evidence-based practices should be supported by both the experience of practitioners and more highly controlled studies done in academic labs.  Both to provide this convergence and to support our work advising organizations and the public, we have spent a lot of time in 2013-14 examining the existing research for the best recommendations that we could make to practitioners.  We also commissioned a study by Professor Jesse Graham at the University of Southern California, where he and his lab reviewed existing research and made their own independent recommendations.  One of the most encouraging signs for CivilPolitics’ path forward is that the results of this independent research were similar to our own findings and also matched what we found in talking with practitioners, and even what the data we collected from practitioners suggested.

Specifically, there are two recommendations that we feel especially confident about: improving personal relationships and emphasizing super-ordinate goals.  Both of these recommendations make intuitive sense to those who are caught up in moral conflicts, yet situations are often setup such that personal relationships across groups are made a secondary concern (e.g. politicians have less time to socialize with each other) and competition is emphasized (e.g. the permanent campaign).  We see a great opportunity in focusing on these two specific recommendations when communicating with both practitioners and the general public.

Early in 2014, we launched a newly designed website and over the course of the year saw a roughly 50% increase in site visitors from approximately ~2000 visitors per month to over 3000/month on average.  Our internet presence is well indexed by search engines, such that we are able to answer many formal and informal requests for information and ideas that can be used by anyone seeking to improve relations in their community.  Based on requests we have received for follow-up information, some number of these site visitors are journalists seeking information to share with others or educators seeking to make an impact in their classrooms, such that the extended impact of the information we provide goes beyond those who explicitly visit our internet presence.  Still, in 2015, we hope to expand our outreach, leveraging the fact that we are more confident in the specific recommendations to offer that have been shown to be evidence-based from numerous perspectives from both academia and the real-world.

Lastly, we continued to publish and support research in this domain at both the applied and basic levels.  Among the published articles we have published in top peer reviewed psychology journals include research showing how moral elevation can reduce prejudice, how cognitive style can illuminate ideological differences, how nature can lead to altruism, how values can shape foreign policy attitudes and how ideology can lead people to geographically separate.  We also commissioned research from graduate students at the University of Virginia to specifically test five separate ideas for improving intergroup relations.  Beyond the work we have directly led or supported, we have continued to maintain our primary research platform, yourmorals.org, which continues to reach hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and educate them as to moral psychology, with an eye toward greater understanding of those we disagree with.  It also collects data that has led to dozens of research publications that inform our understanding of our collective morality.  Building upon this success, we have sought to export this same model of education + data collection to the scientific understanding of religion (at exploringmyreligion.org) in collaboration with the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion at Boston University.

Finance and Administration

In 2013-14, Civil Politics incorporated and successfully applied for non-profit status as a 501c(3) charity under the US tax code, with contributions tax deductible.  We received approximately $70,000 in 2013-14 from The Village Square, Reid Hoffman and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, of which we spent $40,000 during this period, primarily on revamping our website, legal/administrative startup costs, technical costs to support YourMorals.org, and contracted research.  As of January 1, 2015, we have approximately $30,000 remaining and expect our budget for 2015 to be lower than 2013-14, given that some of our initial year expenses were one-time expenditures to set up technical and administrative systems.  We expect to be able to maintain our operations going forward with approximately the same level of resources while continuing to improve the ratio of dollars spent per person reached, keeping that well under the cost of a postage stamp, and also continuing to support more published research on evidence-based techniques for improving inter-group relations, whether on our site or in peer-reviewed journals.

Our Niche

In 2015, we would like to build upon what worked in 2013-14 and continue to leverage our unique positioning between academia and the public.  We still plan to offer measurement exercises for partner groups, but will also offer structured interviews that enable partners to share what they have learned systematically.   We will build upon the literature review that we completed in 2014 by finding and/or supporting research that will complement areas that need more research.  We will continue to leverage our platforms at YourMorals.org and CivilPolitics.org  to educate hundreds of thousands of people.  Now that we have more focused, well-supported recommendations to offer, we plan to leverage social media and the press more.  In summary, we plan to continue to spread what we already know about evidence-based methods for improving intergroup relations, while also continuing to support new research in areas where we ought to know more.

- Ravi Iyer
Executive Director

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Hack4Congress Identifies Tech Ideas to improve Cooperation

While there is a lot of research on many variables that increase inter-group civility, a large number of them can be grouped under the general category of improving cooperation/reducing competition (see lit review here).  As such, I was particularly interested to read about #Hack4Congress‘ work that attempted to find technological solutions to improve cooperation.  Among the winning ideas were 2 that specifically related to improving cooperation:

DICO is designed to allow other systems to access and incorporate the information provided by DICO to enhance other institutional processes of Congress through a central database.  Using DICO, a system can identify cross-partisan coalitions that are based on shared interest in particular issues.

The Dear Colleague website is an alternative to the eDear Colleague mailing system currently used by Members of Congress to request other members to co-sign letters, brief them on happenings on the Hill and send voting alerts. As opposed to the current system that functions primarily as a bulk mailing list, our website enables collaborative law making…

You can read more about the winners and contest here.  Social psychology teaches us that the mere desire to cooperate doesn’t always win out over situational barriers.  Improving cooperation may be a stated desire of both parties, but actual cooperation may require the creation of new tools that facilitate a cooperative environment, such as those identified in this project.

- Ravi Iyer

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Making Politics Less Personal

Recently, Thomas Edsall wrote an interesting essay in the New York Times covering work done by various academics, including Jonathan Haidt, who is one of the founders of Civil Politics.  In this article, Edsall suggests that:

The work of Iyengar, Talhelm and Haidt adds a new layer to the study of polarization. In seminal work, scholars like Nolan McCarty, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, political scientists at Princeton, Yale and Berkeley, respectively, have stressed the key role of external factors in deepening our political schism, including inequality, the nationalization of politics, immigration and the fast approaching moment when whites will no longer be in the majority.

There are many factors that contribute to polarization and certainly these political factors are part of the equation.  Yet the intuitionist view that we have found evidence for at Civil Politics, suggests that the reasons we see increasing personal polarization is less a result of political or economic factors and more at the level of the personal.  Indeed, such vitriol is not just found in politics, but also in completely artificial settings like sports.  These political factors can all be boiled down to a single personal factor, that also exists in the sports realm: group competition.  Given this, our view would be more in line with what Iyengar suggested to Edsall in the article:

In an email exchange, Iyengar speculated on a number of reasons for the increase in polarization:

Residential neighborhoods are politically homogeneous as are social media networks. I suspect this is one of the principal reasons for the significantly increased rate of same-party marriages. In 1965, a national survey of married couples showed around sixty-five percent agreement among couples. By 2010, the agreement rate was near 90 percent.

The result, according to Iyengar, is that “since inter-personal contact across the party divide is infrequent, it is easier for people to buy into the caricatures and stereotypes of the out party and its supporters.”

Competition, whether for racial equality or the NFL championship, is going to lead to personal negative feelings and without the balancing factor of other positive personal relations, you get the kind of intense dislike described in the article.  In that way, politics is a sport just like any other.

- Ravi Iyer

 

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