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

Why is political polarization rising? Why the centre cannot hold in America, Europe, and psychology

As political events in Europe and America got stranger and more violent over the last year, I found myself thinking of the phrase “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” I didn’t know its origin so I looked it up, found the poem The Second Coming, by W. B. Yeats, and found a great deal of wisdom. Yeats wrote it in 1919, just after the First World War and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence.

Here is the first stanza:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The last two lines point to moral psychology—people full of passionate intensity—as one of the reasons why things fall apart and the centre cannot hold. This analysis fits with many books written about the causes of political violence and genocide (see Baumeister; Fiske & Rai; and my book, The Righteous Mind). It also fits my analysis of why things are falling apart on American college campuses.

I therefore used the poem as the leitmotif of a talk I gave last week at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, in Denver, where I offered my most complete statement ever on the causes and consequences of political polarization. I focused on the causes of America’s political dysfunction and then extended the analysis to Europe as well. Something is going wrong in Western liberal democracies; there is something we’re not understanding.

But as long as I had the opportunity to address the largest gathering of psychologists in the world, I wanted to extend the analysis to psychology too. I showed how we, as a field, have gotten politically polarized, as with so many other academic disciplines, professions, and institutions. We have become part of the problem, and it is damaging our science and our ability to help our clients, patients, and students. I proposed that we must fix ourselves before we can become part of the solution.

Here is the entire talk (54 minutes), including an introduction from Susan McDaniel, the president of APA.

I hope that the talk will be useful in high school and college courses on civics, political science, and social psychology. I am therefore posting the slides, both as a PowerPoint file and as a 12 page PDF file. (I encourage their use by educators at all levels.)

I also hope that the talk will help people to understand our mission here at Heterodox Academy. Polarization and political purification are happening to so many institutions. For institutions that aim to discover truth, such as a university, ideological purification is deadly. Pleasing but false ideas go unchallenged. Unpleasant but true ideas don’t get a hearing. Until we figure out ways to increase viewpoint diversity and to end the intimidation and ostracism experienced by those who question orthodoxy on campus, universities will be part of our national problem, not part of the solution.

- Jonathan Haidt

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Bridging the Divide between Sensitivity to Minorities and Free Speech

While we often study issues related to bridging divisions between liberals and conservatives, there are many issues that aren’t quite as clear cut. We recently studied an event put on by The Village Square concerning the tension between sensitivity to minorities on campus, which sometimes involve limits on what people can express, versus the principle of free speech. Recent controversies at universities like Claremont Mckenna, Yale, and the University of Missouri have highlighted these tensions, with liberals tending to be more in favor of protecting minorities, but also often pitting liberals against fellow liberals.

At the beginning of the event, the liberal leaning audience was indeed more implicitly inclined toward people who want to err on the side of sensitivity toward minorities, feeling that such people were more likely to be good people who they would want to be friends with.  Knowing this, the organizers of the event were able to recruit a free speech advocate who argued their point from a liberal perspective. From the Village Square’s description of their event.

For our Free Speech program we started with a liberal local Rabbi as facilitator who had a very positive relationship with an African American community leader who is beloved locally – and who until recently was a Republican. We knew that Mr. Hobbs had some empathy for both the need to protect minorities and the value of free speech. To complete the panel, we invited Jonathan Rauch of Brookings Institute, who saw the danger of the anti-free speech trends on campus earlier than anyone, originally publishing “Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought” in 1993. Rauch argues that the protection of free speech actually protects and advances the cause of minority students – so he makes a liberal argument for a more classically conservative value. Another quality we liked for our panel is that he’s Jewish, so it gave him something deeply in common with our facilitator (to balance the existing positive relationship between the facilitator and Mr. Hobbs). This very high level of pre-existing empathy and cross-cutting relationships made this program quite easy compared to our usual programs, as well as especially enjoyable – though lacked as much tension as some programs do.

We always arrange a meeting between panelists ahead of the program. This gives them the opportunity to break bread together and bond as human beings, by the time they’re on stage they feel to all like friends. As we met for breakfast the morning of the program, when one panelist shushed me up because he wanted to hear more details from the other panelists about something, I sat back and said to our facilitator “my work here is done.” We call this whole process leading up to whoever is on our stage as choreography. We think it is central in delivering results. By the time the program begins, much of the fate of the program is “baked in.” In fact, one could reverse these principles to engineer a disaster, or pay no attention to them and throw the results out to luck.

Following exposure to Mr. Rauch and the generally friendly discussion between people on opposite sides of the issue, the liberal audience’s opinions about those who emphasize free speech rose to be comparable to opinions about those who emphasize sensitivity to minorities (see the below graph for a pre vs post event comparison).

Free Speech vs. Sensitivity to Minorities Event Results

As we have found in previous studies of events, there was little change in people’s attitudes about the issue.  The generally liberal audience did not feel any differently about protecting minorities or free speech.  However, they did feel differently about those who they may disagree with.  It is this difference that enables people who disagree about issues to work together, and if we can get more friendly conversations across this divide, and get people out of their moral communities, then perhaps we can avoid a repeat of some of the ugly scenes we have seen on college campuses between two groups of people who both have genuinely good intentions.

- Ravi Iyer

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Helping People Sympathize with both Cops and Minorities

When bad things happen, there is a natural psychological tendency to spread blame around.  Consider this piece of psychological research from Joshua Knobe where he shows that when someone causes harm to the environment, they are deemed to be doing so intentionally, whereas when they cause benefit to the environment, they don’t get the same credit.  Unfortunately, we often blame not only people who are directly responsible for a bad event, but members of the “groups” that people involved belong to.

Consider these reactions to recent shootings of both officers in Dallas and civilians by officers.

 


 

 

Fortunately, both of the above reactions are rare and most people realize that it is possible to sympathize with both the police and the minorities who have been killed in recent events.

 

For those of us seeking to understand people’s reactions to events better, with an eye toward defusing conflict, this paper on “Vicarious Retribution” (full text here) provides a good model, bringing together a variety of research, of how such conflict perpetuates itself and how such conflict can be reduced.  Let me highlight 2 passages from this paper that recommend specific ideas for those who want to intentionally reduce the potential for conflict.

copshugprotestors

 

Focus on Feelings of Sympathy for victims:

The final emotion that may be relevant for defusing cycles of retributive aggression is sympathy. Some research suggests that focusing on the harm that has befallen the outgroup (rather than the bad acts of one’s ingroup) elicits feelings of sympathy rather than guilt and that sympathy has a stronger relationship with changing the system of intergroup relations to avoid against future conflict than does guilt (Iyer et al., 2003).

Highlight the individuality of cops and minorities:

The first process that should be initiated (according to Pettigrew, 1998) is decategorization. This approach involves reducing or eliminating social categorization by increasing differentiation and personalization between group members (Brewer & Miller, 1984; Ensari & Miller, 2001; N. Miller, 2002). From our perspective, decategorization (particularly if it is in the form of personalization) is indeed an important first step in breaking the cycle of vicarious retribution.

As with much of what we have found evidence for in reducing inter-ideological divisions, it often comes down to finding common goals (e.g. sympathizing with the families affected by all of the recent shootings and preventing further tragedy) and building personal relationships with others who we might be tempted to stereotype.  Whether you are more naturally inclined to identify more with minority groups or police officers, the current moment is a time when people on either side of the issue can sympathize with those who have lost their lives recently and work together on our collective desire for a safer, less divided country.

- Ravi Iyer

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Bridging the Divide Between Religious Liberty and Marriage Equality

I was recently invited to a small gathering of individuals on both sides of the marriage equality vs. religious liberty debate. These issues aren’t necessarily inter-twined, but there have been several high profile cases where homosexuals who were getting married and wanted to be treated equally by businesses in their community have run into business owners who feel that it is a violation of their religious freedom to be forced to facilitate gay marriages. This divide, between those who advocate for marriage equality and those who advocate for religious freedom, has been at the center of numerous recent state law controversies, with the governor of Georgia vetoing legislation that would have emphasized religious freedom while states like Mississippi and Indiana having passed such legislation.

The takeaway I got from the meeting was that the debate need not be so polarized, and that when good people on both sides of the debate are put into the same room (and there are good people on both sides), they naturally become sensitive to the sincere concerns of others about how they felt in being denied service or having their faith-based motives questioned.  There are many advocates of gay marriage who care deeply about faith and want to be respectful of those who are religious.  And there are many advocates of religious freedom who care deeply about the feelings of homosexuals.  As is suggested in our research, when the debate becomes less about abstract policies and more about finding a way to compromise with people you have spent time with and gotten to know at a personal level, common ground is possible.

This was certainly our experience of the event, but we also have data to this effect.  We were lucky enough to have been invited to survey participants about their feelings before and after the event, concerning people who they agreed with or disagreed with in the context of this debate.  The below chart shows change in agreement to various statements, with positive values indicating more agreement after the event and negative values indicating less agreement.  As you can see in the chart below, after the event, people came away feeling that both issues were more important, that they shared values more with people of the other side, and that they felt less social distance (more willingness to be friends) toward both groups.  There was also more feeling that religious liberty advocates tend to be good people, though little change in attitudes toward advocates of gay marriage, as participants actually came in with surprisingly consistently positive attitudes toward this group already, leaving little room for improvement.  That could be something more general or something specific to this group that was willing to meet, which perhaps did not include the most extreme individuals in each camp.  Still, overall, while the sample size is not big enough for a traditional academic study, there was certainly a self-reported shift amongst a number of people as a result of such a meeting, which was also echoed explicitly by comments by people in the room after the event..

marriage_equality_vs_religious_liberty2

Positive scores indicate greater agreement after the event. Negative scores indicate more disagreement after the event.

“Good People” indicates agreement that people who XXX are good people.  ”Distance From” indicates agreement that If I found out that a coworker was XXX, I would be less likely to be friends with them. “Important” indicates agreement that XXX is an important issue that we should work together to address. “Shared Values” indicates agreement that people who are XXX have many of the same values as I do.   

Our experience of this event dovetails well with what most people know as common sense. Rarely are people convinced by facts as to the error of their opinions. There are good people on both sides of the gay marriage/religious liberty debate and they would do well to get to know each other better, as when people on opposite sides get to know each other first, they produce less polarization….and the potential for policies that respect both groups.

- 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.