Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility. Provides Online Tools to help people Challenge their own Beliefs & Biases

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 seventh post in the series that details the experiences of Spencer Greenberg, who is the founder of, which produced this political bias exercise, among other programs.

What is your group’s mission?’s mission is to help you make better decisions and avoid bias, both in your own life (e.g. your work, relationships and education), and in decisions you make that impact society at large (e.g. who you vote for and which policies you support).

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

We create free courses, tools and tests designed to help you understand important findings from cognitive science, psychology, economics, and mathematics, and apply these findings in your day to day decisions. We are a non-partisan organization.  A

Our projects include:

Subtitling political debate videos (in collaboration with philosopher Stefan Schubert) to make you aware when factual inaccuracies, ovations, logical fallacies occur:!the-2016-presidential-debates–subtitled/wt7g0

Our political bias test (also made in collaboration with Stefan Schubert), which helps you understand ways which your political views may be biased or inaccurate:

Our Belief Challenger program, which walks you through two evidenced based techniques we developed for helping you challenging deeply held beliefs:

Our Common Misconceptions test, which helps you understand whether you tend to be overconfident or underconfident, and teaches you about common misconceptions you may hold:

We have many other free tools, tests and programs as well.

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?

We have found that people love to learn about themselves, and therefore that offering tests can be a powerful way to make people more interested in important topics like bias and decision making.

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?

We find that people greatly prefer shorter online programs to longer ones, and therefore shorter programs may end up having larger impact overall.

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?  

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, Reducing Certainty of Individual Beliefs, Helping people see their own bias and become motivated to reduce it.

We help people challenge their existing beliefs with programs such as our Belief Challenger program, and our Common Misconception Test.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

ll of our content is free, and available on our website:

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New Research Supports Age Old Ideas for Civility

I recently attended the 2015 meeting for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, which is the main gathering for academic social psychologists. Here, psychologists gather to share their latest and greatest new research. My goal was to find as much research as possible that may be of interest to our Civil Politics readers (e.g. research relating to bringing together groups across moral divisions in their community).

The meeting can be rather overwhelming as there are hundreds of panelists and thousands of posters competing for your attention, each of which may contain several novel research studies. One of my favorite sessions from this year was a panel entitled: “Finding Patterns in a Maze of Data” and emphasized that “Robust discoveries require the recognition of clear patterns that exist across a wide range of data. By finding these patterns, researchers can construct integrative theories that capture broad fundamental truths.” (full program here) While there may be thousands of potential findings to report, they are all often different takes on the same themes and it is in this convergence, across methods, samples, and research groups, that lends credence to any research discovery. At Civil Politics, we use this same method to gather evidence for our recommendations across existing research, new research, evidence and experience from practitioners, and patterns in the news, with convergence leading to greater confidence that improved interpersonal relationships and emphasizing cooperation over competition are indeed robust evidence-based recommendations. Accordingly, below are a number of new research findings that support and provide nuance as to our existing recommendations, as well as findings that suggest new potential recommendations.

Improving interpersonal relationships

The contact hypothesis, which posits that interpersonal contact under the right conditions can reduce intergroup tensions,  was developed 60 years ago, but research continues to this day.  For example, this poster by Kristin Davies of York College, showed how contact can extend to the online world, such that online interactions, especially high quality interactions, with members of outgroups was associated with positive feelings toward those groups.

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The above poster is correlational, so there are many explanations for the relationships found, but when put in context with all the other research on the contact effect, both at this conference and in the literature more broadly, the patterns are quite clear that positive contact can indeed improve inter-group relations.  Another poster from researchers at UCLA used an experimental paradigm and showed a similar effect using a different target group (gender-atypical or overweight individuals), with visual exposure to these groups reducing prejudice.


A related study led by Curtis Boykin at UC Berkeley, shows how surveys of people of different religious backgrounds indicates that the quality of interactions with people of other religions may a persons’ attitudes toward people of differing religions.


This next poster led by Jonathan Cadieux and Alison Chasteen at the University of Toronto, sought to refine the mechanism whereby quality contact with older individuals led to less ageist attitudes, showing that measures of self-other overlap with older individuals helped explain this decrease.


It’s worth noting that the above studies, all in-line with existing research, used varied samples (students vs workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk), methods (surveys vs. experiments), and target groups (by age, race, religion, and body type) and all came to similar conclusions.  It is this kind of convergence that gives us confidence in recommending improving cross-group relationships as a means toward bridging inter-group divisions.

How can we improve cross-group relationships?  Mere exposure is not enough and the above studies emphasize the quality of contact across groups, an idea that has been explored previously in the literature as well.  For example, the below poster, led by Sara Driskell and Mary Murphy at Indiana University, shows how uncomfortable/negative contact such as being forced to touch a stranger, can actually lead to worse inter-group attitudes.


Similarly, this study from Kathleen Oltman at Yale, shows how even imagined negative contact with an individual of another race can lead to more negative attitudes toward the whole group.


The above study did not find that positive imagined contact had the opposite effect, as the effects from negative imagined experience were greater.  This has been found in previous literature, where negative experiences are more impactful than positive experiences, which is something that people bringing groups together should be aware of.  The below poster, let by Pirathat Techakesari of the University of Queensland, explores this asymmetry in more detail.  In an experience sampling study of attitudes of White vs. Asian Australians, they showed that negative experiences may be more impactful for majority groups, but that this asymmetry was not found for minority groups.


Clearly those seeking to bring groups together should avoid exacerbating differences through negative inter-group experiences.  Another potential negative effect that I may not have thought of was presented by Fabian Schellhaas and colleagues, as they expanded on previous research that showed that positive cross-group contact can undermine the desire for disadvantaged groups to mobilize to change the status quo by showing that this happens more when the individuals involved are perceived as typical members of their group.


Finally, the below meta-analysis of extended contact effects, which involves a line of research that shows that seeing other people’s inter-group friendships can improve one’s own inter-group attitudes, further emphasizes the importance of relationship quality, as opposed to mere contact.


In summary, while no study is conclusive and all have flaws, including these, there is a great deal of convergent evidence from new research that confirms and expands upon what we already knew from previous research, specifically that positive experiences with members of other groups leads to better inter-group attitudes.

Fostering Cooperation over Competition

Our second main recommendation for improving cross-group divisions is to foster cooperation over competition.  A number of studies at this conference also confirmed and expanded upon previous work in this area.  Competition often arises from scarcity, threat, and the resulting competition for limited resources that can stave off these threats.  As such, consistent with previous research, reminders of one’s own mortality and the possibility of death are detrimental to inter-group relationships.  Here, Israeli soldiers who were reminded of their mortality showed decreased positive attitudes toward Israeli-Arabs.


More generally, a simulation using public goods dilemmas, led by Bobby Cheon of Nanyang Technological University, showed how threat can lead to an adaptive response where individuals favor their ingroups over others.


Similarly, the below study led by Amy Krosch at NYU, used psycho-physiological measurements to show that scarcity leads to greater lag in encoding other-race faces, suggesting that this may be a mechanism for the dehumanization that often precedes inter-group tension and violence.


Threat and the competition for limited resources does not have to involve physical goods.  Many wars have been started in part due to collective humiliation and the below study led by Liesbeth Mann of the University of Amsterdam, also indicates that group based humiliation can lead to aggression, with the caveat that this may be more true for higher status individuals.


In contrast, in the absence of threat, seeing cooperation amongst those from an out-group actually may lead to a perception of opportunity rather than threat, as this study by Shiang-Yi Lin and Dominic Packer from Lehigh University showed.


Indeed, the lack of a competitive situation can often change the meaning of many things that would otherwise be perceived as threatening.  One interesting talk from the “Finding Patterns in a Maze of Data” symposium by Adam Galinsky at Columbia, showed how competition can lead the same forces that bind us (glue) to fan the flames of conflict (gasoline).  Specifically, intergroup contact, similarity, flattery, and perspective-taking can all actually lead to greater conflict in a competitive context, even as they bind people together in cooperative contexts.


The above research naturally begs the question as to how we get more cooperation and less threat.  One method that is often used is to prime a collective goal or identity that can be shared across groups.  Consistent with this previous research, the below study led by Abraham Rutchick at Cal-State Northridge, suggests that greater perceptions of a super-ordinate identity (e.g. we are all Americans), leads to more bipartisan behavior.


If threat increases competition, and therefore increases intergroup tensions, it stands to reason that situations that reduce threat will increase cooperation.  For example, the below study by Rodolfo Barragan of Stanford showed how increasing perceptions of the goodness of others may increase cross-group collaboration, perhaps by instilling a more global superordinate identity.


At a more psychological level, the below study led by Mollie Price at the University of Missouri showed how mindfulness may reduce one’s anxiety and threat sensitivity, leading to improved inter-group attitudes.


Similarly, feelings of hope, which may be helped by perceptions of a world that is dynamic and changing, can also lead to an improved desire to cross group divisions, as this work led by Smadar Cohen-Chen of Northwestern shows.


One way that competition ensues is when conflicts become moralized.  Here, differences are no longer matters of preference, but take on an existential quality, where the beliefs of another group threaten one’s identity.  In the below work we see work led by William Fraser at UT-Austin,  on how people who have are fused with ideological groups tend have extreme beliefs and behaviors that may exacerbate inter-group tensions.


In addition, this study led by Tamar Kreps at Stanford shows how people who moralize an issue may see the world through the lens of that issue, making it harder to bridge intergroup divisions.


As a result, when we have competitive situations between two morally conflicting groups, we see not just a difference of opinion, but a dehumanization of the other group.  In this study led by Joanna Sterling at NYU, we see this dehumanization measured in terms of less higher order cognition attributions to the other side.


This extremity, singular perspective, and reduced consideration as to the humanity of the out-group can lead to violence.  In the below picture, Matt Motyl, professor at University of Illinois and a board member of Civil Politics, is having work by Nate Carnes from UMass-Amherst explained to him.  The study shows specifically how moral motives can be associated with endorsement of intergroup violence.




The above recap represents just a percentage of the research presented at SPSP 2015, given that multiple sessions occur at any time.  While each year, much new research is presented, a great deal of this research supports old ideas, just in new contexts.  For example, while past researchers may have studied race in the context of school integration, these researchers are studying body image in the context of online settings, yet the variables they use – specifically positive experiences with other groups – remain the same.  Similarly, the idea that tensions often arise between groups that compete with each other for scarce resources, whether they be a piece of land or jobs or a sports championship, is an old line of research.  However, new mechanisms that increase or reduce threat/competition are being explored as there are many avenues toward fostering cooperation between groups.  Hopefully this overview of some of the more pertinent new research can both confirm existing ideas that people trying to bring groups together already have and inform some new ideas as well.

- Ravi Iyer

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Two Evidence-Based Recommendations for Civil Disagreement

Navigating the scientific literature can be difficult as there is so much research being produced these days and so much controversy as to what findings are “real”, that it can be hard to know what evidence-based recommendations to follow.  In order to help provide clarity to the journalists, organizations, and others who get information from Civil Politics, we would like to make two main recommendations.  These recommendations are not exhaustive and there are certainly other avenues of research.  And they are broad, such that the way that they are practiced may vary depending on the situation.  But these recommendations are also broad in terms of the evidence that supports them and this same breadth also provides practitioners options as far as how to effectively practice these recommendations.


Our recommendations:

1. Improve inter-personal relationships – There is a rich psychological literature on how positive contact between groups increases the likelihood that greater cooperation and less demonization across groups will occur.  This can occur either between individuals or at the group level, whereby individuals see that people of their group are getting along with others in the other group (known as the extended contact effect).  The psychological research on this phenomenon dates from the civil rights area, and continues to be replicated in labs across the country to this day, such that we can have confidence in it (see more research here).  Evidence for the utility of promoting positive relationships between groups is not only found in the psychological literature, but also in prominent examples of cross-group cooperation (e.g. Reagan and Tip O’Neill or more recently, Patty Murray and Paul Ryan) and in the successful practices of numerous organizations that work in the community such as A2Ethics, Living Room Conversations and The Village Square.  Intuitively, we all know that relationships matter as much as facts, and so organizations seek to build culture, doctors get to know patients, salespeople get to know clients, and diplomats work to build relationships as well.  Yet sometimes in the heat of a morally charged conflict, we may start to see the other side as personally repugnant, and it is exactly at these times when relationship building needs to occur as it is hard to find common ground with someone you find personally reprehensible.  Many inter-group conflicts actually occur between people who are actually quite alike in many ways (e.g. baseball fans, political junkies, bloods and crips, etc.) and the opportunity exists to take advantage of what people have in common to forge better relationships.  And once the intuitions and emotions are pulling us to cooperate, our views of the facts often follow.

2.  Emphasize cooperative goals vs. competitive goals – In most conflicts, the extremists on each side will seek to emphasize the enduring intractable nature of a conflict.  Consider how both militant Islam and those who are openly anti-Muslim seek to characterize the divide in the same way; as a fundamental zero-sum conflict, and the same could be said of how the far-left and far-right seek to characterize American politics as fundamental battles between good and evil.  Yet there are often goals that are shared by both groups that lead to cooperation, at least amongst those who are in the vast middle (e.g. it is only the shared goal of avoiding government default and shutdown that often leads to the passing of legislation).  There is a vast amount of psychological research that relates to how competition for limited resources leads to inter-group conflict (Realistic Conflict Theory), and researchers are constantly showing how variables that relate to this paradigm (e.g. increased threat or decreased scarcity of resources) impact inter-group relations.  As with our first recommendation, the research in this area is bolstered by the experiences that organizations have had in creating cooperative settings.  For example, the Village Square has held several successful events leveraging Jonathan Haidt’s Asteroids Club paradigm where partisans seek to recognize problems that both sides can agree are real issues and Living Room Conversations attempts to create a personal setting where people can work together on goals that everyone can agree upon: safer communities and reduced prison costs.  There are also many examples from the news where cooperation occurs when a larger goal can be identified (e.g. this recent Politico article where George Soros and Bill Koch work together on prison reform).  We all know that competition breeds animosity, even amongst those who would otherwise be friends, as evidenced in every sports rivalry across the country.  Yet just as sports fans unite to sing the national anthem, so too can those who find themselves divided seek to consciously remember the larger groups and goals that can indeed bring them together and emphasize those.

We are periodically asked by journalists, organizations, and site visitors about crossing moral divisions and are hopeful that these two simple recommendations can help cut through what can otherwise be a rather opaque literature on evidence-based methods.  Both of these recommendations are supported by dozens of articles and hundreds of studies, as well as countless hours of work and experience by practitioners.  At some level, these techniques are intuitive and are things we already know…but they are also things that we often forget in the heat of a debate, and we are hopeful that reminding people to consciously apply these techniques can make a difference.

- Ravi Iyer

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CivilPolitics Annual Report for 2014

The below text is from our annual report produced for 2013-14. The report is also available via PDF. If you are interested in contributing to Civil Politics or working with us, please contact us.

To Our Stakeholders


As of the end of 2014, CivilPolitics had been incorporated for roughly 15 months.  In that time, we have made significant progress in terms of both contributing to our collective understanding of moral conflict and defining our organizations’ unique niche within this world, where numerous other organizations already exist that do complimentary work.  In this report, we’ll talk first about what we have done in 2014, including both what has and what has not worked, and then what that has meant as far as defining CP’s niche going forward.  We will then talk about our plans for 2015.

2013-14 in Review

Our organization’s mission is to facilitate the application of evidence-based methods for improving inter-group relationships.  Our methodology for doing this leverages the unique place that we start from, as a group of academics that also have experience with educating the public about research.  The diagram below illustrates how we expect this to occur, with academic research informing those who are attempting to bridge gaps in the real world, but also with information from real world practitioners informing the questions that need more study by academics.

In 2013-14, we have worked with a number of practice partners directly, providing recommendations as to the best practices suggested from our research. Some examples include:

  • The film makers behind Bring It To The Table, which humanizes both sides of the American political divide
  • A2Ethics, which hosts community events designed to illuminate moral issues in non-partisan ways
  • Living Room Conversations, which has been focused on creating events in California where people can civilly discuss issues concerning prison reform
  • The Nathan Cummings Foundation, with whom we hosted an explicitly cross-partisan dialogue
  • The Village Square, which hosts numerous events in the community designed to bring people together to discuss important issues without rancor

For these organizations, we have provided tactical advice on bridging moral divides, based on moral psychology research.  In most of these cases, we have also worked with these organizations to collect data (examples here, here, and here) as to how their work has impacted the people who attend their events.  The results of this data collection has been mixed in that in each case, we have found evidence for the positive effects that these organizations’ events have on attendees, but the difficulties in collecting the data at scale from relatively busy attendees, whether we tried technological or old-school methods, necessarily limited our sample sizes and therefore limits the breadth of conclusions we can make based on this data alone.  Still, we have published several studies based on this work online, with the idea that all evidence has value.

To further take advantage of what academics can learn from real-world practitioners, we have taken what we have learned from these organizations informally, and sought to formalize that process (see example here) so that we can more directly leverage these groups’ experiences.  The hope is that if the results of empirical work with these groups converges with the specific lessons that practitioners have learned intuitively in the everyday course of their work, then we can be even more confident that the methods used by these organizations should indeed be shared with a wider audience.

Ideally, the best evidence-based practices should be supported by both the experience of practitioners and more highly controlled studies done in academic labs.  Both to provide this convergence and to support our work advising organizations and the public, we have spent a lot of time in 2013-14 examining the existing research for the best recommendations that we could make to practitioners.  We also commissioned a study by Professor Jesse Graham at the University of Southern California, where he and his lab reviewed existing research and made their own independent recommendations.  One of the most encouraging signs for CivilPolitics’ path forward is that the results of this independent research were similar to our own findings and also matched what we found in talking with practitioners, and even what the data we collected from practitioners suggested.

Specifically, there are two recommendations that we feel especially confident about: improving personal relationships and emphasizing super-ordinate goals.  Both of these recommendations make intuitive sense to those who are caught up in moral conflicts, yet situations are often setup such that personal relationships across groups are made a secondary concern (e.g. politicians have less time to socialize with each other) and competition is emphasized (e.g. the permanent campaign).  We see a great opportunity in focusing on these two specific recommendations when communicating with both practitioners and the general public.

Early in 2014, we launched a newly designed website and over the course of the year saw a roughly 50% increase in site visitors from approximately ~2000 visitors per month to over 3000/month on average.  Our internet presence is well indexed by search engines, such that we are able to answer many formal and informal requests for information and ideas that can be used by anyone seeking to improve relations in their community.  Based on requests we have received for follow-up information, some number of these site visitors are journalists seeking information to share with others or educators seeking to make an impact in their classrooms, such that the extended impact of the information we provide goes beyond those who explicitly visit our internet presence.  Still, in 2015, we hope to expand our outreach, leveraging the fact that we are more confident in the specific recommendations to offer that have been shown to be evidence-based from numerous perspectives from both academia and the real-world.

Lastly, we continued to publish and support research in this domain at both the applied and basic levels.  Among the published articles we have published in top peer reviewed psychology journals include research showing how moral elevation can reduce prejudice, how cognitive style can illuminate ideological differences, how nature can lead to altruism, how values can shape foreign policy attitudes and how ideology can lead people to geographically separate.  We also commissioned research from graduate students at the University of Virginia to specifically test five separate ideas for improving intergroup relations.  Beyond the work we have directly led or supported, we have continued to maintain our primary research platform,, which continues to reach hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and educate them as to moral psychology, with an eye toward greater understanding of those we disagree with.  It also collects data that has led to dozens of research publications that inform our understanding of our collective morality.  Building upon this success, we have sought to export this same model of education + data collection to the scientific understanding of religion (at in collaboration with the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion at Boston University.

Finance and Administration

In 2013-14, Civil Politics incorporated and successfully applied for non-profit status as a 501c(3) charity under the US tax code, with contributions tax deductible.  We received approximately $70,000 in 2013-14 from The Village Square, Reid Hoffman and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, of which we spent $40,000 during this period, primarily on revamping our website, legal/administrative startup costs, technical costs to support, and contracted research.  As of January 1, 2015, we have approximately $30,000 remaining and expect our budget for 2015 to be lower than 2013-14, given that some of our initial year expenses were one-time expenditures to set up technical and administrative systems.  We expect to be able to maintain our operations going forward with approximately the same level of resources while continuing to improve the ratio of dollars spent per person reached, keeping that well under the cost of a postage stamp, and also continuing to support more published research on evidence-based techniques for improving inter-group relations, whether on our site or in peer-reviewed journals.

Our Niche

In 2015, we would like to build upon what worked in 2013-14 and continue to leverage our unique positioning between academia and the public.  We still plan to offer measurement exercises for partner groups, but will also offer structured interviews that enable partners to share what they have learned systematically.   We will build upon the literature review that we completed in 2014 by finding and/or supporting research that will complement areas that need more research.  We will continue to leverage our platforms at and  to educate hundreds of thousands of people.  Now that we have more focused, well-supported recommendations to offer, we plan to leverage social media and the press more.  In summary, we plan to continue to spread what we already know about evidence-based methods for improving intergroup relations, while also continuing to support new research in areas where we ought to know more.

- Ravi Iyer
Executive Director

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