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

Effect of Explanation on Understanding and Position Extremity

1. What They Did-Summary:

This study primarily focused on the effects that explaining one’s position on policy can have on feelings of understanding and position extremity.  198 participants were split into two groups.  One group was asked to rate their support or opposition to six different political policies such as instituting a flat tax or instituting a single-payer health care system.  Next, the participants were asked to rate their understanding of these policies.  Afterwards, they were asked to provide a mechanistic explanation for how two of these policies (chosen at random) work.  Lastly, the first group of participants were asked again to rate their position on and understanding of the issues.  The second group differed from the first in that they were only asked to rate their position on and understanding of the issues after they had provided an explanation of the policies.

The researchers predicted that people who hold extreme positions are under the illusion that they know more about policies than they really do.  Thereby, by having the participants explain how these policies work, they should realize this illusion of understanding and shift to a more moderate viewpoint.

2. What They Found-Results:

The researchers found a significant decrease in ratings of understanding following explanations.  They also found that people’s positions on the issues became significantly more moderate following explanations.  These findings confirmed the researchers’ predictions.

3. Who Was Studied-Sample:

198 U.S. residents recruited using MTurk, 52% male, 48% female.  40% Democrat, 20% Republican, 36% independent, 4% other.

4. Study Name:

Fernbach et al. 2013, Study 1.

5. Citation:

Fernbach, P.,  Rogers, T., Fox, C., and Sloman, S. “Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding.” Psychological Science (2013): 1-8.

6. Link:

7. Intervention Categories:

mechanistic explanation, MTurk, judgment timing

8. Sample Size:


9. Central Reported Statistic:

Understanding: “This prediction was confirmed by a significant main effect of judgment timing: Postexplanation ratings of understanding (M = 3.45, SE = 0.12) were lower than preexplanation ratings (M = 3.82, SE = 0.11), F(1, 197) = 34.69, p < .001, ηp2 = .15.”

Position Extremity: “This prediction was confirmed, with the main effect of judgment timing significant (preexplanation-rating conditions: M = 1.41, SE = 0.07; postexplanation-rating conditions: M = 1.28, SE = 0.08), F(1, 86) = 6.10, p = .016, ηp2 = .066.”

10. Effect Size:

Understanding: t(5) = 5.74, p < .01.

Position Extremity: t(5) = 3.93, p = .011.

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Putting Interventions to the Test: A Comparison of Five Techniques to Reduce Partisan Hostility

The growing hostility between liberals and conservatives in the United States is a known problem to many.  However, what to do about it is much less clear.  Various groups, such as the Asteroids Club and the Village Square, have developed their own techniques for promoting civility between the opposing parties.    What my collaborators Matt Motyl, Brian Nosek, Jon Haidt, and I wanted to know was: which strategy is the most effective at reducing partisan hostility?  The following describes the result of our attempt to throw the proverbial “kitchen sink” at this problem, testing the effectiveness of several techniques in one study.  The five interventions we tested come from a collection of active civility groups, past social psychological research, and our own intuitions.

Liberals and conservatives completed our study online, being exposed to one (or none) of our five interventions before completing measures of political attitudes and hostility.  The interventions consisted of:

Self Affirmation- Past social psychological work has demonstrated that being reassured of one’s valued traits leads to less defensive and biased processing of opposing viewpoints. Participants in this condition spent a few minutes writing about a valued personal characteristic and a time that they embodied that trait.

Learning Political Membership Last- People readily form impressions of others, and can be motivated to maintain their opinions in order to remain consistent in their evaluations.  This intervention attempted to leverage this motivation by having participants read about a very positive group of individuals, only to later learn that they had volunteered for the opposing political party.

Observing Civility- People often learn by observing the behaviors of others.  For this intervention, participants watched a video describing the relationship between Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Tip O’Neill.  The video described the two as having a very friendly and respectful relationship, even when the two did not see eye to eye.

Superordinate Threat- Having a common threat can bring groups together.  To create this common threat, we had participants read an article describing the threat of cyber warfare attacks on the United States.  The article concluded by stating that bipartisan efforts had the potential to eliminate this threat.

Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions- Much of current political gridlock stems from a perception of legislation as a zero sum game (any win for the other side is automatically a loss for my side).  This final intervention sought to weaken this perception by describing the consequences of this mentality and the ways it is inhibiting progress.  The article concluded by stating that shedding this mindset in favor of increased compromise could help both sides achieve their goals.

After the intervention phase, participants completed a measure of partisan hostility, indicated their explicit liking of Republicans and Democrats, and completed an implicit measure of political attitudes (the Implicit Association Test), which measured the participants’ nonconscious attitudes toward the two groups.  The goal of these interventions was to reduce hostility, not necessarily make participants like the other side more.  As such, we were most interested in seeing whether each of the interventions reduced hostility relative to the group that received no intervention (Control).  The results are displayed below:

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 10.44.21 AM

Each dot represents the average hostility score for participants in a given condition (with the red bars marking a 95% confidence interval around that value).  Higher hostility scores are indicative of greater hostility.  These results show that each intervention produced the desired effect, that being lower hostility, but the degree to which they were effective varied.  Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions was the most effective intervention at reducing hostility, closely followed by Superordinate Threat (although Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions was the only intervention to approach statistical significance, p = .052).  Of note, none of the interventions reduced implicit or explicit liking for one’s own party relative to the other party.  In fact, most interventions increased partisan preferences relative to the control condition.  This demonstrates that promoting civility need not reduce an individual’s liking for his or her own group.  Rather, hostility can be specifically targeted and reduced without changing these attitudes.

The results of our intervention contest suggest that there are multiple paths to reducing partisan hostility.  However, not all strategies are equally effective.  Interestingly, the intervention that produced the best results (Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions) was the least based on past psychological research.  As such, when trying to reduce the hostility in the current political environment, I advise paying attention to the nuances of the current sources of hostility.  As time goes by, the issues that divide us change.  Our attempts to bridge those gaps should adapt with them.

-Charlie Ebersole

To learn more about the interventions we used, see this document: Civil Politics Contest Study-Materials

To learn more about the study in general, see this project’s page on the Open Science Framework

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Want to Reduce Political Extremism? Ask How Instead of Why

1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:

 All participants began by rating their positions on six political policies. They then self-assessed their understanding of these policies using a series of 7-point rating scales. Next, some participants were asked to explain in detail how one of the policies works, while other participants were asked only to list the reasons they had for holding their position on that policy. Finally, all participants were asked to rerate both their understanding of the policy and their position on the policy. Participants repeated this process for one additional issue.

2. What They Found – Results:

Those who had had to explain how the political policies worked became less confident in their understanding of those policies than did those who had been asked to enumerate reasons for their positions. Further, participants reported more moderate attitudes towards the issues after giving mechanistic explanations, whereas enumerating reasons led to no such change in position extremity.

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:

MTurk users- 50% male, 50% female

4. Study Name:

Fernbach et al., 2013, Study 2

5. Citation:

Fernbach, P. M., Rogers, T., Fox, C. R., & Sloman, S. A. (2013). Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding. Psychological Science, XX(X), 1-8. doi:10.1177/0956797612464058

6. Link:

7. Intervention categories: 

generating mechanistic explanations, mTurk

8. Sample size:


9. Central Reported Statistic:

 “the decrement in understanding after enumerating reasons was smaller than the decrement following mechanistic explanation, as reflected by a significant interaction between judgment timing and condition, F(1, 110) = 6.64, p < .01, ηp2 = .057. With regard to extremity of positions, there was no change after enumerating reasons, F(1, 64) < 1, n.s. Moreover, as predicted, the change in position in the reasons conditions was smaller than in the mechanism conditions, as reflected by a significant interaction between judgment timing and condition on extremity scores, F(1, 110) = 3.90, p < .05, ηp2 = .034.”

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Self-Affirmation: The Key to Communication

1. What They Did – Summary:
          This study, primarily focused on effects of self-affirmation in the face of counterarguments and values, solely recruited participants who identified as “patriots.” Within a 2×2 study design, the patriots were placed into one of two separate conditions: a convictions salient condition and a rationality salient conviction. Both groups began by completing the beginning of a questionnaire entitled “Study on Personal Characteristics and Life Domains” in which they ranked a list of “personal characteristics and life domains” in terms of importance to their personal lives.

Next the comparison of affirmation vs. threat to ones identity or self was administered. Within the affirmation condition, the participants wrote down a memory or experience in which they felt their number one ranked “personal characteristic” (from the previously ranked list) was salient and why such a characteristic is considered most important to them.  Comparatively the threat condition retold a similar experience in which they unsuccessfully respected or failed to live up to their number one ranked “personal characteristic.”

Next the participants in both the affirmation and threat conditions were given rational vs. conviction salient questionnaires. Both sides were given claims of either rationality or conviction respectively, on which the participants had to self-report a level of agreement. (ex. “At least once in a while, I try to stand up for my values.”) After said questionnaire, the final portion of the study was administered through a fabricated, politically charged document describing terrorist groups arguing in favor of the rationality of the attacks of September 11th.  Reactions were asked of each of the patriots.

Researchers hope to find an interaction between the self-affirming prior exercises and openness to an opposed view of a politically charged topic. (Additional questions throughout the study such as attention to the reading, validity of the answers given and ones self-reported mood during the experiment were asked to understand potential biases in the data.)


2. What They Found – Results:
         Sure enough, researchers found a statistically significant interaction between the conviction salience and affirmation conditions. The “patriots” who were given the affirming prompts as well as conviction prompts were much more likely to accept or review the politically dissimilar article in higher regard than the comparison group. Moreover, threatened and conviction based “patriots” were less open to accepting the article. Such an interaction was not seen between the rationality salient “patriots”, affirming or threatened.
Ultimately, researchers were able to present data supporting self-affirmation as a means to increased openness to opposing ideas and values, a big step towards improving negotiations and communication.

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:
43 total students: 21 male, 22 female.

4. Study Name:
Cohen et al. 2007, Study 2

5. Citation:
Cohen, Geoffery L., David K. Sherman, Anthony Bastardi, Lillian Hsu, Michelle McGoey, and Lee Ross. “Bridging the Partisan Divide: Self-Affirmation Reduces Ideological Closed-Mindedness and Inflexibility in Negotiation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93.3 (2007): 422-24. Stanford University. Web.

6. Link:

7. Intervention categories:
perspective, self-affirmation, negotiation, MTurk

8. Sample size:

9. Central Reported Statistic:
“The predicted, Salience X Affirmation interaction was revealed, F(1, 38) = 4.62, p  = 0.38, MSE = 120.”
“The combination of affirmation and heightened salience of personal convictions promoted relatively less negativity and more balance in thoughts and feelings directed at the communication…. prompt[ing] greater recognition of the importance of the persuasive issue.

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