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

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.



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..


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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How to Make Real Progress Against Trump’s Incivility

I haven’t written much about Trump, who has taken “incivility” to new heights this election season, in part because there is no trumpevidence that telling large groups of people to be more civil has any value.  There is both anecdotal evidence and research that suggests forcefully telling people to be more civil will backfire.  Incivility and conflict involving large groups of people tends to be a function of a situational dynamic - two groups competing for a goal or a scarce resource like victory in a game or an election – that trumps any direct commandment to be more civil.  The rise of Trump as a political force is an opportunity for us to practice what we preach at Civil Politics and try to understand the dynamics that give rise to the conflict we see, in the hopes of cutting it off at its source.  As has been written in other places, Trump is a symptom, not a cause, and we are likely to see others follow in his footsteps whether he is elected or not.  If we really want a better political dialogue, we need to understand the root causes of Trump’s appeal.

It helps to start with the empirical fact that there are very few truly evil people in the world.  Human beings are uniquely social creatures who survived and thrived by being able to cooperate with hundreds of thousands of others, such that only ~1% of us are “psychopaths” who actually don’t care about others.  A human being who doesn’t care about others is akin to a bee that doesn’t care about his hive.  It’s rare.  The rest of us really do care about others beyond ourselves and try to do what we think is right, even if we sometimes do what others would think of as “evil” as a result.  That definition of “right” may include violence, theft, and incivility in the name of a moral cause (see research on idealistic evilthe dark side of moral conviction or terrorism and sacred values), but there is a moral cause behind most people’s actions, even when we disagree with those actions.

Trump supporters have many moral motivations that many who disagree with him would recognize and value.

- They worry about the lack of jobs for hard-working, but under educated Americans.
- They fear that the system of lobbyists and special interests is stacked against them.
- They think that politicians cannot be trusted to fight for everyday Americans, due to their reliance on donors who line their pockets.
- They feel that their identity and their ability to express their opinions is under attack.

Indeed, many of these positions are emphasized by Bernie Sanders, which is why you sometimes see people who support Trump and Sanders both.  Calling Trump supporters racist, stupid or naive is not only a misleading caricature, but also a recipe for only exacerbating the coarsening conflict that we are trying to avoid, as it drives each side into its corner.  If we want things to get better, research suggests that we have to start from a place of common goals and develop a positive relationship with Trump fans rather than having convincing them why they are wrong as our ultimate goal.  Staging violent protests at Trump’s rallys is the opposite of this.  How can we instead reduce the divisions, rather than inflame them?

Let us acknowledge that we need to do something to help people who want to work hard but are being left behind by an increasingly global and technological economy.  Let us acknowledge that lobbyists and donors have undue influence and work to curb that influence, whether it be through campaign finance or a simpler government with fewer rules to be gamed.  Let us all accept that we want a society where no identity, American or immigrant, religious or atheist, urban or rural, feels threatened and unable to express their opinions freely, and work to make relationships across these divides.  And let us accept that whatever we think of Donald Trump as a person, his supporters are generally ordinary Americans who care deeply about their kids and their communities.  Let’s help them with their concerns as it makes no sense to be someone who cares deeply about poor Americans who simultaneously denigrates many in that group, who happen to support a candidate they disagree with.

To be clear, I do not support Trump or his rhetoric which is deeply uncivil and divisive.  But those who are demonizing Trump’s supporters and disrupting his events are only exacerbating the problem.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” and there is ample research that suggests that forging positive empathic relationships across divisions is indeed the only way to truly heal a great moral divide.

- Ravi Iyer

Ravi Iyer has a Ph.D in psychology from the University of Southern California and has published dozens of articles on political and moral attitudes.  He works as a data scientist at Ranker and is also the Executive Director of Civil Politics, a non-profit that promotes evidence based methods for healing inter-group divisions.
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The Village Square Helps Liberals Understand that Conservatives are indeed Good People Too

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).

villagesquare event graph Jan 20161

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.

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