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

Mark Gerzon of the Bridge Alliance on finding a 3rd political narrative

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 second post in this series,  where Mark Gerzon, Director of The Bridge Alliance, shares lessons from his 25 years bringing people together.

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

The Bridge Alliance is just founding, but I have been active in the field for a quarter of a century. We’ve incubated numerous projects like America Speaks and the US Consensus Council. One of the things the past 25 years has thought me is the limitations of any single project, approach, book, tool, practitioner, or website.  After 25 years, I felt a yearning to help the field mature and become integrated into a coherent movement or soul because I want to have an impact on the American people and my frustration is that the political system has not benefited from this work.  If anything, the political process has deteriorated while this field has been growing.  I want to close this gap so that the system can receive the benefits of the work being done, through the Bridge Alliance.

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

There are many specific strategies that one can read about on our website, but one specific goal is that by the end of 2016, we want a significant percentage of the American people to be familiar with a third political narrative. The first narrative might be that conservatives are better and have the answers.  The second narrative might be that liberals are better and have the answers.  The third narrative is that we have to work together across the political divide to meet the challenges facing our country. Americans working together is this third narrative. 100% of people may not become aware of this as not even 100% follow politics in any form, but if a significant number are at least aware that there is a third narrative, they will no longer be living in a black and white world, but rather living in a technicolor political world.

An example of a specific project we have done that can facilitate this awareness is the set of Youtube presentations we have made available under the Center for Transpartisan Leadership.   The idea was to provide short youtube presentations as an online faculty so that American citizens can meet all the people in this field. The presentations include personal testimonials about what led individuals to be interested in this field as well as practical lessons on how people have created change in their communities.  We have about 20 of these videos going up by the summer, with 12 online now, and the eventual goal is to have 40 or 50 up.

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?

My best answer to that question is detailed in my book, Leading Through Conflict, which reflects the panoramic view I have had within this field, through methods like appreciative inquiry, generative dialogue, non-violent communication, and more.  The table of contents list 8 tools that I have found helpful across techniques (Integral Vision, Systems Thinking, Presence, Inquiry, Conscious Conversation, Dialogue, Bridging, and Innovation).  That being said, I’d like to expand on one recommendation that readers of this post may find helpful that relates to our current efforts.  It had been written about as Systems Thinking or Systemic Change previously.

Specifically, the success of any program is likely to depend a great deal on what happens to get the right people into the room before the meeting even starts.  Too often, people will gather like minded parts of a system into a room and pretend it is the entire system.  They may rationalize this by saying that the other side wouldn’t come, because they are so unreasonable, but that is a very self-serving way of framing things.  Awhile back, I led a retreat where we gathered Al Gore and his team with the people responsible for advertisements against his movie, an Inconvenient Truth.  In order to get everyone in the room, we had to focus on both climate change and energy security.  Similarly, in order to get both liberals and conservatives in the same room, the Bridge Alliance is focusing on both money in campaigns and free speech.  [ Editors note: this is very similar to academic work on finding shared goals and the Asteroid's Club model ]

Where can others learn more about what you do?



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Research suggests that Belief that Groups Can Change facilititates Reconciliation

Recently, I was forwarded a research article entitled “Belief in the Malleability of Groups Strengthens the Tenuous Link Between a Collective Apology and Intergroup Forgiveness” that was recently published in Personality and Psychology Bulletin.  From the abstract:

Although it is widely assumed that collective apologies for intergroup harms facilitate forgiveness, evidence for a strong link between the two remains elusive. In four studies we tested the proposition that the apology–forgiveness link exists, but only among people who hold an implicit belief that groups can change. In Studies 1 and 2, perceived group malleability (measured and manipulated, respectively) moderated the responses to an apology by Palestinian leadership toward Israelis: Positive responses such as forgiveness increased with greater belief in group malleability. In Study 3, university students who believed in group malleability were more forgiving of a rival university’s derogatory comments in the presence (as opposed to the absence) of an apology. In Study 4, perceived perpetrator group remorse mediated the moderating effect of group malleability on the apology–forgiveness link (assessed in the context of a corporate transgression). Implications for collective apologies and movement toward reconciliation are discussed.

In summary, apologies facilitate reconciliation IF there is a belief that groups can change.  A related article was published in Science in 2011, showing that even in the absence of an apology, the induced belief that groups can change has an effect on intergroup attitudes.  You can read the study here and below is that abstract:

Four studies showed that beliefs about whether groups have a malleable versus fixed nature affected intergroup attitudes and willingness to compromise for peace. Using a nationwide sample (N = 500) of Israeli Jews, Study 1 showed that believing groups were malleable predicted positive attitudes toward Palestinians, which predicted willingness to compromise. Next, experimentally inducing malleable vs. fixed beliefs about groups among Israeli Jews (Study 2, N = 76), Palestinian Citizens of Israel (Study 3, N = 59), and Palestinians in the West Bank (Study 4, N = 53) (without mentioning the adversary) led to more positive attitudes toward the outgroup and, in turn, increased willingness to compromise for peace.

Among the more notable things in this last study is that it was done on individuals in the midst of a real intractable conflict that we all have an interest in resolving.  To make this a bit more concrete, I think it is helpful to see exactly what the authors mean by “group malleability” and how it was changed.  In this last paper, the details are here and the belief that groups can change was measured by these 4 items:

“As much as I hate to admit it, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks–groups can’t really change their basic characteristics,” “Groups can do things differently, but the important parts of who they are can’t really be changed,” “Groups that are characterized by violent tendencies will never change their ways,” and “Every group or nation has basic moral values and beliefs that can’t be changed significantly.”

Perhaps more of applied interest to those working to bring groups together is how they manipulated beliefs that groups can change through a scientific-style article.

Manipulation of beliefs. Participants were randomly assigned to the “malleable” or “fixed” condition. They read a short Psychology Today-style scientific article (in Hebrew) describing groups that had committed violence and reporting studies on aggression. These studies suggested that, over time, the groups had (malleable condition) or had not (fixed condition) changed. In the malleable condition the research suggested that violence resulted from extreme leadership or environmental influence, whereas in the fixed condition the research suggested that aggression was rooted in the nature and culture of the groups.

Is extreme and violent behavior “influenced by context and leadership” or is it “entrenched within the nature of individuals and groups”?  Certainly we should encourage the former if we want to improve relationships between groups and luckily there is a lot of research that supports this view as well.

- Ravi Iyer


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Superordinate Goals unite Koch Industries and the Center for American Progress

The best evidence-based recommendations for improving inter-group relations arise when academic research and real-world case studies echo each other.  There has been ample evidence of how shared (superordinate) goals can reduce inter-group tensions in the psychology literature, and this research has spawned events and programs designed to put this research into practice.  We can have even more confidence in this recommendation when we see shared goals uniting people across moral divisions, without any influence from the research community.  Recently, the New York Times wrote about one such case, where the conservative Koch Industries and the liberal Center for American Progress are working together toward a common goal: reforming the nation’s criminal justice system.

From the article:

Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the conservative Koch brothers, and the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based liberal issues group, are coming together to back a new organization called the Coalition for Public Safety. The coalition plans a multimillion-dollar campaign on behalf of emerging proposals to reduce prison populations, overhaul sentencing, reduce recidivism and take on similar initiatives. Other groups from both the left and right — theAmerican Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the Tea Party-oriented FreedomWorks — are also part of the coalition, reflecting its unusually bipartisan approach.

Organizers of the advocacy campaign, which is to be announced on Thursday, consider it to be the largest national effort focused on the strained prison and justice system. They also view the coalition as a way to show lawmakers in gridlocked Washington that factions with widely divergent views can find ways to work together and arrive at consensus policy solutions.

Officials at the Center for American Progress said that they did not make the decision to join the partnership lightly given the organization’s clashes and deep differences with both Koch Industries and many of the conservative groups.

“We have in the past and will in the future have criticism of the policy agenda of the Koch brother companies, but where we can find common ground on issues, we will go forward,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the center. “I think it speaks to the importance of the issue.”

In the face of important issues, people who were previously divided are indeed capable of putting aside previous differences.  For example, political scientists have clearly documented how war brings out nation together in support of our president, across party lines.  These shared goals are actually more common than one might think.  We all have an interest in reducing poverty, increasing employment, improving education, and improving public safety.  It is often simply a matter of focusing more on the policies that can help us achieve our shared goals versus the elections where only one side can win.

- Ravi Iyer

ps. If you’re interested in having a conversation about the issue of criminal justice reform across party lines, I’d encourage you to check out the work of Living Room Conversations, whose work we have previously featured here.


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Extremists are more likely to believe in Conspiracies

One of the core recommendations of Civil Politics is to emphasize cooperation over competition, which often involves getting the silent majority in the middle involved in conflict resolution, rather than leaving it to the extreme partisans on both sides of an issue whose identities are often tied to the conflict.  Congruent with this is recent research led by Jan-Wilem van Prooijen, showing that extremists on both sides are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.  From a blog post written by the lead author on the London School of Economics blog:

Our findings establish a link between political extremism and a general susceptibility to conspiracy beliefs. Although the extreme left may sometimes endorse different conspiracy theories (e.g. about capitalism) than the extreme right (e.g. about science or immigration), both extremes share a conspiratorial mindset, as reflected in a deep-rooted distrust of societal leaders, institutions, and other groups, allied with a corresponding tendency to explain unexpected, important events through conspiracy theories. This insight may be relevant for the question of why those on the political extremes have displayed substantial intolerance of other-minded groups, often with devastating consequences, on so many occasions throughout history.

- 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.