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

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

Read Ahead

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.

Read Ahead

Putting Interventions to the Test: A Comparison of Five Techniques to Reduce Partisan Hostility

The growing hostility between liberals and conservatives in the United States is a known problem to many.  However, what to do about it is much less clear.  Various groups, such as the Asteroids Club and the Village Square, have developed their own techniques for promoting civility between the opposing parties.    What my collaborators Matt Motyl, Brian Nosek, Jon Haidt, and I wanted to know was: which strategy is the most effective at reducing partisan hostility?  The following describes the result of our attempt to throw the proverbial “kitchen sink” at this problem, testing the effectiveness of several techniques in one study.  The five interventions we tested come from a collection of active civility groups, past social psychological research, and our own intuitions.

Liberals and conservatives completed our study online, being exposed to one (or none) of our five interventions before completing measures of political attitudes and hostility.  The interventions consisted of:

Self Affirmation- Past social psychological work has demonstrated that being reassured of one’s valued traits leads to less defensive and biased processing of opposing viewpoints. Participants in this condition spent a few minutes writing about a valued personal characteristic and a time that they embodied that trait.

Learning Political Membership Last- People readily form impressions of others, and can be motivated to maintain their opinions in order to remain consistent in their evaluations.  This intervention attempted to leverage this motivation by having participants read about a very positive group of individuals, only to later learn that they had volunteered for the opposing political party.

Observing Civility- People often learn by observing the behaviors of others.  For this intervention, participants watched a video describing the relationship between Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Tip O’Neill.  The video described the two as having a very friendly and respectful relationship, even when the two did not see eye to eye.

Superordinate Threat- Having a common threat can bring groups together.  To create this common threat, we had participants read an article describing the threat of cyber warfare attacks on the United States.  The article concluded by stating that bipartisan efforts had the potential to eliminate this threat.

Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions- Much of current political gridlock stems from a perception of legislation as a zero sum game (any win for the other side is automatically a loss for my side).  This final intervention sought to weaken this perception by describing the consequences of this mentality and the ways it is inhibiting progress.  The article concluded by stating that shedding this mindset in favor of increased compromise could help both sides achieve their goals.

After the intervention phase, participants completed a measure of partisan hostility, indicated their explicit liking of Republicans and Democrats, and completed an implicit measure of political attitudes (the Implicit Association Test), which measured the participants’ nonconscious attitudes toward the two groups.  The goal of these interventions was to reduce hostility, not necessarily make participants like the other side more.  As such, we were most interested in seeing whether each of the interventions reduced hostility relative to the group that received no intervention (Control).  The results are displayed below:

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 10.44.21 AM

Each dot represents the average hostility score for participants in a given condition (with the red bars marking a 95% confidence interval around that value).  Higher hostility scores are indicative of greater hostility.  These results show that each intervention produced the desired effect, that being lower hostility, but the degree to which they were effective varied.  Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions was the most effective intervention at reducing hostility, closely followed by Superordinate Threat (although Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions was the only intervention to approach statistical significance, p = .052).  Of note, none of the interventions reduced implicit or explicit liking for one’s own party relative to the other party.  In fact, most interventions increased partisan preferences relative to the control condition.  This demonstrates that promoting civility need not reduce an individual’s liking for his or her own group.  Rather, hostility can be specifically targeted and reduced without changing these attitudes.

The results of our intervention contest suggest that there are multiple paths to reducing partisan hostility.  However, not all strategies are equally effective.  Interestingly, the intervention that produced the best results (Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions) was the least based on past psychological research.  As such, when trying to reduce the hostility in the current political environment, I advise paying attention to the nuances of the current sources of hostility.  As time goes by, the issues that divide us change.  Our attempts to bridge those gaps should adapt with them.

-Charlie Ebersole

To learn more about the interventions we used, see this document: Civil Politics Contest Study-Materials

To learn more about the study in general, see this project’s page on the Open Science Framework

Read Ahead

Living Room Conversations Builds Trust Across Differences Concerning CA Prison Policy

At CivilPolitics, one of our service offerings is to help groups that are doing work connecting individuals who may disagree about political and moral issues.  These disagreements do not necessarily have to be about partisanship.  One organization that we work with is Living Room Conversations, a California based non-profit that holds small gatherings co-hosted by individuals who may disagree about a particular issue, in order to conciously foster non-judgmental sharing about potentially contentious issues.    Below is a description from their website, in addition to a short video.

Living Room Conversations are designed to revitalize the art of conversation among people with diverse views and remind us all of the power and beauty of civil discourse. Living Room Conversations enable people to come together through their social networks, as friends and friends of friends to engage in a self-guided conversation about any chosen issue. Typically conversations have self-identified co-hosts who hold differing views. They may be from different ethnic groups, socio-economic backgrounds or political parties. Each co-host invites two of their friends to join the conversation. Participants follow an easy to use format offering a structure and a set of questions for getting acquainted with each other and with each other’s viewpoints on the topic of the conversation.

Living Room Conversations is currently holding conversations around the issue of “realignment” in California, which is designed to alleviate prison overcrowding and where many would like to develop alternatives to jail for non-violent criminals.  Living Room Conversations wanted help understanding the effects of their program so we worked with them to develop a survey appropriate for their audience, asking people about their attitudes before and after conversations.  Informed by work in psychology, we looked at how reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy people perceived those on the opposite side of the issue to be, compared to how they perceived them before the meeting.  Results, based on a 7-point scale, are plotted below.


The fact that all scores are greater than zero means that people felt that individuals who disagreed with them on these issues were more reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy compared to how they felt before the conversation (though with a sample size of only 23 individuals so far, only the increase in trustworthiness is statistically significant).

There was still a stark difference between how people felt about those who disagreed on these issues compared to how they felt about people who they agreed with, as respondents both before and after the event felt that those they agreed with were more likely to be reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy.  As well, we asked people about their attitudes about realignment policy and people’s attitudes about the issue didn’t change.  However, civility, as we define it, is not the absence of disagreement, but rather being able to disagree in a civil way that respects the intentions of others.

Moreover, even if people’s minds hadn’t changed with respect to others, individuals felt strongly (8+ on a 10 point scale) that talking with others that hold different views is valuable.  Research on the effects of such positive contact would indicate that if these individuals do follow through on this course, they will likely end up building on these attitudinal gains toward those who disagree.  Given that, these conversations appear to be a step in the right direction.

- Ravi Iyer

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