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

Pondering Your Internal Conflicts May Help You Stereotype Others Less

Recently, Chadly Stern and Tali  Kleinman (of NYU and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), published a paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science detailing how activating a “conflict mindset” in an individual can get them to perceive outgroup members as less dissimilar than they might otherwise believe.  Specifically, across  three separate studies, they found that asking participants to write about a time when two of their important goals conflicted, led individuals to perceive smaller difference in policy preferences when comparing themselves to members of the opposite political party.  Given that exaggerated perceptions of differences with others can lead to “symbolic threat” that worsens inter-group relations, it may be true that considering personal conflicts could be a reasonable way to indirectly reduce inter-group divisions.

From the paper:

In three studies, we examined whether activating a reasoning process that fosters the consideration of alternatives (a conflict mindset) reduces the extent to which individuals consistently overestimate how different outgroup members’ attitudes are from their own attitudes. In Study 1, tacitly activating a conflict mindset reduced the overestimation of outgroup dissimilarity compared to a control condition. Study 2 ruled out the alternative explanation that conflict reduces the tendency to overestimate outgroup dissimilarity through diminishing effortful thought. Study 3 showed that a conflict mindset, but not an accuracy incentive, reduced the tendency to overestimate outgroup dissimilarity. Additionally, Study 3 demonstrated that reductions in perceived self–outgroup distance explained in part why a conflict mindset attenuated the overestimation of outgroup dissimilarity.

It appears that people’s default tendency is to assume that political outgroup members’ attitudes are more different from their own attitudes than they actually are (e.g., Robinson et al., 1995). We propose that this default tendency can be changed by activating a reasoning process that bridges the perceived distance between oneself and outgroup members. Specifically, we propose that the tendency to overestimate outgroup dissimilarity could be reduced by tacitly activating a mindset (i.e., a general mode of processing information; Gollwitzer, 1990) characterized by
the consideration of conflicting perspectives (Nickerson, 2001).

In other recent work, researchers have shown how incorrect beliefs about others can reduce prospective trust and cooperation.  No single method is likely to work in all cases or for all people, but as a tool in the toolbelt of conflict resolution (see this page for more such tools), perhaps greater reflection of one’s own internal conflicts can help bridge some divisions.  If anyone tries this in practice, please do contact us as we would love to document your experiences, positive or negative, such that others can learn from that experience.

- Ravi Iyer

 

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Psychological Patterns evident in Reactions to the Iran Nuclear Deal

Whether the deal that has been reached will or will not stop Iran from getting nuclear bomb is a question better left for experts in atomic energy and weapons, but there are some psychological processes occurring in reactions to the deal that are quite common and bear pointing out.

- The people who are most concerned about their side getting a bad deal in both Iran and the US are the ones who both are simultaneously are convinced that their side got the worst of it.  Just as those on the extremes of the Democratic and Republican party are most quick to criticize any compromise, so too are those who are most partisan in the Iran-US divide most likely to disagree with the compromise, even as they disagree in opposite directions, each saying that the deal is tilted toward the benefit of the other side.  This converges with work in psychology on how extreme beliefs often lead people to be more critical of mixed evidence.  The Iran deal is a long and complex document and each side can find what it needs to in order to prove it’s case.

- It is psychologically more healthy to believe that one has control than to believe that one does not.  So naturally Obama believes that this deal will control Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even as no verification scheme is perfect.  And critics of the deal insist they could indeed get a better deal, even as those efforts would be dependent on other countries like Russia and China to keep or increase sanctions.  Clearly, there is a lot more uncertainty as to whether this deal will work or whether a better deal was possible.

In the end, the bias of our organization will almost always be toward compromise over conflict.  That being said, given what we know about human psychology, we’ll be looking for the analyses of non-partisan experts who talk in probabilistic terms over the certain language of the most partisan analysts to truly evaluate this deal.

- Ravi Iyer

 

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Observations across Transpartisan Organizations from David Nevins

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the fourth post in the series detailing the experiences of David Nevins, who has been involved with numerous organizations active in the work of bringing people together across political divides, and who also has founded the Nevins Democracy Leaders program at Penn State University, which provides an education in transpartisanship leadership for promising students.

What specific programs do you work with? Briefly describe how you got to where you are.

As a businessman from Pennsylvania for almost 40 years, who never was involved in politics until 4years ago, I’ve become frustrated with the unbridled lack of civility, crippling partisanship and dysfunctional gridlock that is preventing our country from solving the serious problems we face on a daily basis.

For this reason about four years ago, I became involved with an organization called No Labels. No Labels is a bipartisan movement of 600,000 Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to the simple proposition that common sense solutions to our national challenges exist, and our government should be able to address and resolve those challenges successfully. I served on the Executive Board of No Labels for two years.

About two years ago, as a Society of Fellow at the Aspen Institute, I focused my efforts on supporting the Aspen Rodel Fellowship in Public Leadership, a program designed to support political leaders committed to sustaining the vision of a political system based on thoughtful and civil bipartisan dialogue.

More recently, I became involved and support Next Generation, a program of the National Institute of Civil Discourse that works with state legislators to cultivate a culture where discourse and collaboration typify public policy development.

I am now leading an effort as a co-founder and Executive Team member of The Bridge Alliance to build a shared identity, raise visibility, strengthen and expand the numbers of organizations and individuals dedicated to collaborative civic problem solving and collaborative policy innovation in the United States.

Currently I also am the co-creator and benefactor of the Nevins Democracy Leaders program, a program within The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, based in the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State University  The Nevins Democracy Leadership program that I am the benefactor of and have helped to design and create will institute the following programs with the inception of the program in the fall of 2015:

a) For one­ or ­two semesters, the Penn State students selected for the program will participate in collaborative dialogues amongst themselves (and with guest lecturers) to learn the skills of civil political discourse and critical thinking necessary for a problem solving approach to governance.

b) Every Leader will gain practical experience (for a summer, semester, or full year) working as an intern with an organization committed to improving American politics.

c) Each year, Leaders who have returned from their internships will share their experiences with the new cohort of students joining the program.

d) In the coursework and various events leading up to their internship, Nevins Leaders will analyze and discuss historical texts and contemporary commentaries on topics such as democracy and leadership. We will identify a small core of courses beyond Rhetoric and Civic Life that can help prepare Leaders for their internships, though Leaders will not be obliged to take those additional courses.

e) Prospective and future Leaders will also have the opportunity to hear from past years’ Leaders, who will give presentations and participate in discussions on their experience. An effort will also be made to bring in inspiring speakers, perhaps as part of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s ongoing speaker series, who can bring to students their practical experiences in community building, politics, and democracy.

What has worked well in the programs/events that you have been involved with? From your experience, what advice would you give others?

As to specific advise as far as things to do to replicate the successes of the programs I have been involved with,  I would suggest a high level of collaboration with the stakeholders you are working with. I believe that enhancing communications, knowledge sharing, and general collaborative techniques helps the leaders of the programs I am involved with refine and improve the programs they are leading.

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  What might you add to these ideas?

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, reducing the perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), showing examples of positive relationships , showing examples of cross-group unexpected agreement or disagreement , reducing certainty of individual beliefs

Additionally, the importance of understanding the mission one has established is the key to success of any program. It is easy to get distracted by the chaos and uncertainty involved with a new project or movement, and thus the importance of defining and staying focused on one’s mission cannot be overstated as one of the most important factors for the achievement of success.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

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How Dialogue and Listening lead to Common Ground from Project Citizen’s Suzanne Soule

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the third post in the series detailing the experiences of Suzanne Soule, who worked as the Director of Research for the Center for Civic Education for over a decade.

What is the organization/group that you worked with? What is it’s history in terms of getting involved with improving community relationships?

I worked as director of research for the Center for Civic Education for a little over a decade. We worked with youth in the United States and Emerging Democracies to try to get them to be engaged citizens, through programs like We the People and Project Citizen.

What specific programs/events/curriculum do you run? Briefly describe what it is you do.

Most of the students in these countries did a program called Project Citizen. Despite all the talk about uncivil discourse in the US, we are a lot further along than these emerging democracies. We at least have a forum and a conversation, whereas in a lot of these places, there is no forum and people may just walk out of the room, when confronted with conflicting opinions.  Most of the best lessons for resolving inter-group divisions could be learned from our work with post-war emerging democracies. We did research in Boznia/Herzegovina, Palestine, and other emerging democracies that had a history of totalitarianism that had issues with transparency and corruption. In these places, there is not a history of open dialogue, so there was a lot to be learned in creating such a space.

Young people would conduct research on a problem in their community that they chose and propose a solution based on their research to elected officials.  In a place like China, they may also go to the media and increase pressure on officials. We partnered with local organizations as there is a lot more autonomy at the local level for change, within emerging democracies as well as places like China.  This wouldn’t have worked without the local partners as you can’t do these things from the outside.

Students vote on which problem they should address. There would be winners and losers and some students would end up on a project that they didn’t necessarily care about. The teachers worked to give them a reasonable role in the project as there is often a difficult moment where their chosen issue has lost, but in all the years I worked on Project Citizen, I’ve never noticed a time when a student wasn’t able to eventually contribute. The contribution may end up large or small, but they all end up contributing something, even if it isn’t exactly the issue they would have chosen, which has implications for getting people to work together on collective action from different perspectives.

What has worked well in your programs/events? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what specific advice would you give them as far as things to do to replicate your successes?

What I think works well in getting a student to work towards a group goal that they didn’t initially endorse is to figure out what a students’ skills are and seeing how that relates to the problem. If they are good artists or good interviewers, how can we help them shine so that they can do really good work leveraging those skills and buy in. 

They also work together in groups, so seeing the others inspired in the group works wonders. Over time, their initial ideas about the ideal project fade and the group project gains momentum.

In conversations with adults, it also helped that the students did a lot of research, so the adults were often convinced by the students because of their empirical knowledge.  Students were trained to evaluate the status kuo and were often critical of existing policies. and able to effect change because they had lots of evidence. Public officials who would be threatened by adults making the same recommendations were far more open to a group of 12 year olds. They were much more open. They often got a lot more of what they wanted from the public officials than we thought was possible. Youth often melts the hearts of hardened people…the heart opens and there is an element of surrender.

What have you tried in your progams/events that has NOT worked well? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what advice would you give them as far as things to AVOID doing?

It doesn’t work if the problem is chosen from the outside. There needs to be some time spent on finding out what they care about themselves with a lot of listening and open dialogue. I had to stop going in with a questionnaire and just listen to what concerned them and what was really problematic. Often they would come back to the problems I listed, but there was more buy-in if they came up with it themselves. There was more discourse and willingness to do the work as they were invested rather than thinking that there were these “Americans” coming in telling them what to do.

As far as the public officials we talked to, if there was any possibility that the officials would be shamed or put on the spot, then it would close dialogue. But if there were a possibility for positive PR or an award…or to talk to their own constituents/voters, people were very open. Having people far removed from them telling what to do would also close things down.

 

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  What might you add to these ideas?

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, Reducing the Perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), Showing Examples of Positive Relationships , Reducing the Perceived Differences Between Groups, Showing Examples of Cross-Group, Unexpected Agreement or Disagreement , Reducing Certainty of Individual Beliefs, Increasing Cross-Group Personal Connections through Fun, Meals, Talking, etc..

I would like to emphasize listening at the outset. Careful listening that leads to finding common ground.  It gives space for people to realize that they often have the same problems in divided societies and it improves relationships for people to realize that people unlike them have the same issues. It humanizes the other side.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

http://www.civiced.org

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