One of the things that we do at Civil Politics is help organizations conduct program evaluations as part of an effort to understand how the academic research that is largely produced in university settings translates to the real world. We recently studied an event put on by the Village Square on January 12th entitled Created Equal + Breathing Free, where the ostensibly liberal virtue of diversity was discussed alongside the ostensibly conservative issue of allowing religious liberty. The event mirrors ideas from academia that suggest that positive contact between groups can lead to better relationships, especially when the groups collaborate on shared goals (e.g. recognizing a concern that each side brings to the table).
To that end, we asked people who attended the event to agree or disagree with statements about the importance of diversity, the importance of religious liberty, and attitudes toward liberals and conservatives. We asked the same questions before and after the event, to see if the event changed any attitudes and, as we have found before in such work, we found that people’s attitudes about issues are hard to change, but that people do end up liking people in the opposing group more after the event. The below graph shows that attitudes toward all groups increased post-event, with the highest increases amongst those who came into the event with pro-liberal attitudes becoming significantly more likely to believe that “conservatives are good people” (see leftmost bar in the below graph).
37 people ended up completing both before and after event surveys and there was one statistically significant finding – that people were more likely to agree with the statement “conservatives are good people” after the event, as compared to before the event (+ 7.35 on a 100 point scale, t-test t=2.392, p = .022). This was driven almost entirely by the 22 people who started the event with more agreement to the idea that liberals are indeed good people, as compared to the idea that conservatives are good people (the increase was 10.8 points amongst this group), suggesting that the main effect of the event was to convince a generally liberal audience that conservatives are indeed good people too.
Note that the event didn’t change anyone’s mind as to the importance of the issues or make either group want to be friends with the other. The event organizers predicted as much from their experience of the event. But perhaps the simple belief that those who one disagrees with are indeed good sincere people is a step in the right direction for a single night’s work, and for that, we thank the Village Square and anyone who brings people together in their communities in the spirit of collaboration across groups. In our experience, change often happens one relationship at a time.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. If you’re interested in the Village Square’s take on these results, you can read more about their philosophy and their experience of the event here.
During the recent Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton stated that Donald Trump has become a lead recruiter for ISIS. I can’t speak to the accuracy of this claim, and much has been written from both sides elsewhere. However, there should be very little doubt that those who benefit from conflict need the level of perceived competition to be ever greater, in order to justify their combative stance within their own group, implying that the extremes on both sides of any conflict do indeed have common goals. That is true in social science laboratory experiments, natural experiments that occur in the world, analyses of history, in our everyday experiences and yes, it is true with regard to those who benefit from a perceived “clash of civilizations”, such as Donald Trump and ISIS. Indeed, it would be shocking if it didn’t work that way for Trump and ISIS, as shocking as it would be if gravity worked in some places and not others, as these forces are fundamental parts of human nature. We are naturally social animals who are exceedingly good at forming groups and competing with opposing groups. The more competitive the situation gets, the more animosity arises and the more we gravitate toward the most combative amongst our group.
1) Social Science – Thousands of studies have used the minimal group paradigm, whereby the mere fact of assigning a person to a group creates animosity and the more competitive the groups are, the more animosity ensues. The reason the procedure is called “minimal” is that there is no actual reason why any person is put in any group, such that any reason for conflict is simply a result of random group assignment + competition, not any real difference between individuals. During these manufactured competitions, group members are more likely to follow others who suggest attacking the other group.
2) The Natural Experiment of Sports – How do we know that the minimal group paradigm maps onto real world behavior? Millions of people engage in animosity toward very similar others due to the arbitrary assignment of where they happen to live and what sports team they then follow. Thousands of papers have been written to analyze this behavior (I’d recommend Among the Thugs most), but you don’t need academic analyses to know that rivalries lead to violence across sports and countries, as it happens regularly in the news. Importantly, the only thing that often differentiates these groups is the level of competition between them; the greater the competition, the more animosity, and the more opportunity for heroes to arise, who lead their side to victory.
3) History – How do dictators get their populace to follow them, despite their often ineffective leadership? North Korea needs a perpetual sense of threat to justify the terrible conditions it imposes on it’s people. Hitler, Stalin, Pol-Pot, and Putin, in modern times, maintain(ed) their hold on power not by providing a better life for their people, but by “protecting” them from a very dangerous world. The more competition that exists with other countries, the better their hold on power, a phenomenon that has noted by political scientists in the US as well.
4) Everyday experience – A lot of social science and history simply confirms what we already know from our everyday experience. When was the last time that you got into an argument with someone and one party willingly conceded their point of view? The more heated the debate, the less you listen to others, and the fact that social scientists have found this to be true is almost beside the point. Creating a more extreme atmosphere is a great way to shut down reasoned debate and compromise.
5) Trump & ISIS – I don’t doubt Trump’s sincere desire to defeat ISIS, but support for his candidacy has clearly increased as more terrible events occur in the world. Indeed, a prime emphasis of his candidacy is competition with ISIS, China, Mexico, etc, and his proposed toughness in dealing with them. He demonstrates this toughness by being ever more extreme. Similarly, while systematic analyses of terrorist attitudes are sparse, groups like ISIS have often arisen in response to perceived invasions of Islamic territory such as in the Middle East or Afghanistan, and a prime emphasis of ISIS’ propaganda is over-the-top shock videos designed to display toughness, in the face of these threats.
In the end, human beings will rally to a “tough leader” when under threat. Intentional or not, those who demonstrate their toughness through their extreme rhetoric, often benefit from this threat, leading those on either extreme side of any moral division to be strangely aligned in terms of their incentives. Trump & ISIS’ relationship is similar to the relationship between Democrats and Republicans who fundraise off of the extreme words of the opposing side or the Ohio State and Michigan athletic departments, who each earn millions from their rivalry or Hamas and the current conservative Israeli government, who both gain in popularity based on each others’ more extreme actions, or east coast and west coast rappers, whose rivalry led to millions in album sales. Human beings love competition and often, those who promote the competition amongst us reap the rewards. Unfortunately, some of these competitions have enduring consequences and there are times when those of us who would prefer to build bridges rather than walls need to get psychology working for us, rather than against us.
- Ravi Iyer
Arthur Brooks is the President of a think tank that promotes the benefits of capitalism from an economically conservative point of view. He recently spoke at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica as to the virtues of capitalism, in one of 175+ talks he gives every year, to audiences both liberal and conservative, young and old. In academic circles, he is known as someone who has researched philanthropy extensively, including the controversial finding that conservatives give more to the poor than liberals. I’ve always wanted to hear more about his perspective.
Much of his talk was devoted to the idea that if you want to alleviate poverty by the millions, you need a system like capitalism, which, while not perfect, has successfully moved millions of people around the world out of poverty. He was well aware that his Santa Monica based audience may not share his conservative ideals and was explicit in that he felt that while liberals and conservatives may be far apart, they can be brought together through a shared moral goal, specifically attempting to uplift the lives of the poor. Importantly, he emphasized that this has to come from a sincere place, rather than a by product of wanting to enrich oneself.
Indeed, the second theme he emphasized was that attachment to money, not wealth itself, is the cause of much suffering in the world and told stories about how relationships matter more. For example, he cited work from self-determination theory scholars that showed that college students who made and attained relationship goals were happier than students who made and attained achievement related goals. He noted how in his own work, he found that the more people gave to others, the happier they became and the richer they became as well. And lastly, he answered a question in the crowd about how one of the most important things he learned from the Dalai Lama is that there is no division that “warm hearted relationships” cannot help one cross.
As someone who works in the political arena and attempts to bridge divisions, I couldn’t help but notice how his prescriptions for bridging our current political divides mirrors what we recommend here at Civil Politics. It also mirrors a paper we are working on where we show how both liberals and conservatives care about others, just sometimes with a different emphasis on those closer or further to themselves, which can often lead to disagreements as to “who cares more?”. Given how many talks Brooks gives in the course of a year and his bridge building work that should be of interest to readers of this site, I’d highly recommend seeing him speak at a venue near you, if you can.
- Ravi Iyer