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

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.

2015-02-27 13.34.53


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

Read Ahead

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

Read Ahead

A2Ethics Mixes Beer with Ethics for Non-Partisan Fun and Civil Debate

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 first post in this series,  where Jeanine DeLay, President of, shares lessons learned from her organizations’ work.

What is the organization/group that you represent? What is its history in terms of getting involved with improving community relationships? (A2 is a commonly used acronym for Ann Arbor, Michigan), is a nonprofit organization, founded in 2008 to introduce and provide opportunities to talk over community issues through an ethics lens, in addition to or instead of, the usual political and economic lenses characterizing public discussions today.

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

A2Ethics’ signature event is the Big Ethical Question Slam, a competition we made up. The Slam is now celebrating its 5th year–it has become a very popular annual community get-together. In addition, the Slam has appeared in other communities. It hasn’t “gone viral,” but we know of Slams planned for cities in New York, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. And at least one other city has integrated a Big Ethical Question Slam into its community life: Winnipeg, Manitoba. In fact, in 2015, the winner of the Ann Arbor Slam is going to pair off against the winner of the Winnipeg Slam, when A2Ethics and the Manitoba Association of Rights and Liberties, co-sponsor and simulcast the first International Slam-off.

Since our beginnings, A2Ethics has been committed to intergenerational programs, exhibits and events. Further, we do our best to present ethics issues in artful, inventive, open-minded and nonpolarizing ways through collaborations, outreach, and “social weaving” networks.  In November 2013, the Ann Arbor City Council passed the city’s first ever ethics education resolution. This resolution came from efforts by A2Ethics to educate residents about the importance of establishing a basic ethics policy for elected officials in our community. We spearheaded this effort through a series of podcasts called City & Local Ethics.  In February 2014, A2Ethics organized the first Michigan High School Ethics Bowl. Modeled after High School Ethics Bowl competitions in 18 states, the event was co-sponsored with our partners from the University of Michigan Department of Philosophy Outreach Program. The Bowl featured seven student teams from four local high schools who studied and talked over a diverse set of ethics case studies written by local community leaders and professionals.

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?

Recommendations about what has worked well:

1. We try to co-sponsor all of our events and programs with other local organizations. This increases the chance of success–from promotion to participation.

2. With respect to one specific event, The Big Ethical Question Slam, the following practices have been successful:
a. The venue is at an Irish pub. We promote the Slam as a “thinking and drinking” event.

b. The Celtic room (where the Slam is held) only holds 120 people. We believe the intimacy of the room, and the amateur nature of the competition help to make it a welcoming venue for talking about big and controversial subjects. The Slam is also in February–usually a cold night in Michigan. This means only those interested come. We have had the opportunity to move to a larger venue, which would expand the audience, but we have decided to keep it small. We think the attendance limit helps promote civility and convivial discussions too.

c. We try to infuse humor into the evening. Our prizes include a philosopher’s hat–which is really a wizard’s pointy hat (similar to the sorting hat from the Harry Potter stories). The philosopher’s hat is amazingly popular (who knew?); the winning team takes it to their office or school where it is on display for the year. Likewise, the second place team wins a philosopher refrigerator magnet, e.g., Plato, Confucius. These too are strangely coveted. (I don’t want to overdo this!!) Finally, we try to include a few questions (not usually from the public, but ones we make up) that are amusing. An example is one that we took from our friends who created the Winnipeg Slam. They included a series of “zombie” questions the judges had to answer at the end of the competition.

d. Having individuals from nonprofit and for-profit organizations participate as teams brings together people from those organizations to talk about issues they normally wouldn’t discuss. So, the Slam has a team-building function. Second, the organizations competing in the team do not routinely interact. This affords the opportunity to meet people from organizations with different missions and purposes.

e. Audience participation in the Slam, through a scoring card and their role in giving The People’s Choice Award, has had one unexpected benefit. While teams are conferring on a question, the audience members, some of whom do not know the person sitting next to them, are doing the same. We find this to be the most beneficial outcome of the Slam, because the conversations appear to be civil and good- humored.

f. The rules are deliberation rather than debate-oriented. No team gets to respond to the same question. This rule and the fact that teams do not get to rebut or take one position that is, in turn, critiqued by other teams has helped to prevent the event from becoming an occasion for partisan grandstanding and ideological obstinacy. To be sure, this is just a guess!

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?

I would like to parse this question–and separate what we think has not worked well in our efforts with the Slam from what it we think it is important to avoid. I think we would like to be bolder in our approach. We are not seeking to chill or avoid discussions. First, while the event is intergenerational (which is positive), we would very much like to be more inclusive in our team outreach in order to make the event–and even our questions–more racially, economically and politically diverse. For example, we have done a cursory examination of economist Esther Duflo’s work on the decisions that poor people confront in their daily lives. We wonder what kinds of questions we might receive that would be different? Perhaps none. The point is this: when we get a question such as, whether favela tourism is ethical?–how might those who live in a favela answer?

Second, we would like to encourage more than one night of community discussion when ethics matters–actually matter. Is it easier to be civil for just one night? We would like to know.

Third, we live in a one-party enclave. For example, the city of Ann Arbor is electing a new mayor in 2014. The real race, which was contested, occurred in August when there were four contenders in the Democratic primary. Ann Arbor, like other electoral districts in our country, is increasingly a safe haven for one party. Most significantly, only 16% of the registered voters in Ann Arbor actually voted in the primary. This means that only about 14,000 of 90,000 voters are participating in the decision about who leads the city and sets policies that impact all residents. Why is this important for the Slam and for the organization of events like it? The point is that events such as the Slam can try and increase civility, but is the Slam really doing anything other than reinforcing the beliefs of individuals who are already like-minded? And is it the kind of event that increases not just civility, but strengthens civic engagement–such that more voters are going to the polls? Indeed, will an increase in civility, in turn, increase civic engagement? We are interested in learning about this–and we would like to know if we are confused and conflating issues that are really quite different.

Finally (and related to the previous point), we are very interested in teasing out what makes the event a popular ‘success” in our community from what makes for a civil engagement “success.” We haven’t a clue.

These are all reasons we are very enthused about networking with, learning about and even being a part of the research in which your group is engaged.

Regarding what has not worked well, we offer this list:

Overall, in the Big Ethical Question Slam, we have learned good questions, great judges and informed knowledge about a question topic are critical to the likelihood the event will be considered a community success.

1. Problem questions

a.We do not accept questions about abortion or capital punishment.

b.If there are too many “political” questions in a given evening, there are complaints about the meaning of an ethics question v. a political question. For example, if there are too many questions such as: why shouldn’t we regard the purchase of health care insurance by everyone as a civic duty?–as opposed to–is it ethical for a real estate agent to represent both the buyer and the seller? then participants will let us know afterwards and in our feedback queries.

At the same time, if we mix the two carefully, participants do not object. We have not always done a very good job of comingling. We don’t think it necessary to balance them as journalists often do–that is, to get “two sides.” We think, however, it is very hard to discern what audiences consider “political.” That said, we also think that current political questions (featured in the news), alert the “political police” in our audiences. An example would be a question we had about drones and whether their use was ethical in war. The team receiving that question seemed hesitant to respond. When the team speaker did respond, some in the audience hissed. What to do? We would like to be prepared to respond to this potential reaction in the future.

c.Since we solicit questions from the public, sometimes the questions are poorly worded or barely coherent. We have taken two approaches– editing them, or alternatively, leaving them largely unedited. Everyone agrees that all questions should be edited, and where possible, condensed and shortened.

2. Problem Judges

a. If judges are too opinionated in their comments, the audience balks. If judges, however, offer many sides and assist a team with their knowledge of the subject–sometimes giving a resource–they tend to win the crowd over.

b.If judges disagree with each other, that is just fine. If they become adversarial, they lose the wisdom they are imparting.

c. If judges are taken in by emotional responses, e.g., personal stories of families facing end-of-life issues, the teams will object in the feedback we solicit.

d. If judges are not willing to banter and do not have a sense of humor or some humility, they will not be effective.

3. Lack of Knowledge by Responding Teams

a. From where we sit as Slam organizers, our greatest fear is the amount of misinformation some teams impart about a given topic. For example, some of the questions require technical knowledge. If the team does not know the facts, they just continue to pass on information that is uninformed and inaccurate. If the information is wrong, then it is also difficult to discuss whether it is wrong from an ethics perspective.

b.Simultaneously(and seemingly a contradiction), Slam organizers are concerned about reliance on unsourced “facts”–gleaned in many cases, from the internet. For example, last year, teams began to bring notes to the event. While we applaud their preparation, most of the preparation was cited from unsourced facts–and not on ethics issues embedded in the questions. What to do? We are not sure. We could, for example, suggest some sources for teams to use in their preparations–The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy–comes to mind. That said, the Slam is not a class, it is a community event.

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?

Reducing the Perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), Affirming One’s Own Values to make people open to Others, Increasing Cross-Group Personal Connections through Fun, Meals, Talking, etc..

Operationalizing the techniques based on psychological research:

1. Our group is unfamiliar with most of these areas of research. So, we are very interested in learning about them. We can, however, contribute a few thoughts about how we think the Slam does reduce intergroup divisions.

a. Our event is billed as a “thinking and drinking” night. People are coming together for a meal and a beer. Even the judges are invited to have a few beers (sometimes by a team trying to “corrupt” a judge!) Likewise, as mentioned above, we encourage the judges to be sympathetic and good-natured in their “slam” commentaries. For the most part, the judges come through. Our prizes are also fun–from winning the philosopher’s hat to receiving Socrates refrigerator magnets.

c. We also increase personal connections between strangers sitting next to each other through audience score cards. The audience is invited to “judge” the team responses to the questions. After the question is given, there is a time (2 minutes) for conferencing by the teams. After the first Slam, there was some discussion about eliminating this, as the teams get a chance to see the questions a week before the Slam. What we have found is that the audience uses this time to talk with each other about the question to be answered. They discuss their own responses, sometimes with friends, but many times with a stranger, someone who is sitting next to them. It may have the effect of reducing intergroup divisions. We don’t know. We do know that it is that part of the Slam that the audience likes most, through the anecdotal feedback we have received about the event.

b. We wonder whether the check-off “affirming one’s own values to make people open to Others,” applies to the Slam. We think it does-if it means that people who don’t know each other are getting up and publicly proclaiming that they agree with assisted suicide under certain circumstances–or that zoos are ethical. These public declarations about ethics issues posed by the questions are integral to the Slam.

c. The Slam is not a zero sum competition in the sense that no team evaluates another team’s response publicly. They may have ideas they would like to share about how another team responded and what they said. But these are embedded in the conversations that sometimes take place between team members afterwards.

The Slam does NOT, however, give the impression that ethics responses are “just a matter of one’s opinion.” The judges serve to inform participants that there are ethics theories, concepts, techniques and tools that can be very useful and important in responding to the questions raised.

Finally, the organizers hope the Slam gives those attending a sense that they are participating in an event or occasion that actually goes back centuries–when philosophers and the public gathered for a drink and a meal to argue and examine the big ethical questions of their time.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

Read Ahead

The Village Square helps partisans recognize common threats

One of the more robust findings in social psychology is the idea that common goals reduce inter-group conflicts.  Several groups have recently taken this finding into the field, using Jonathan Haidt’s Asteroids Club model, including a dinner we co-hosted with the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  The group that has done the most with this concept is undoubtedly the Village Square, an organization that has put together a series of dinners where liberals learn about conservative concerns, and conservatives learn about liberal concerns, with the idea that people can come together, over food, to learn about issues that everyone should be concerned about.

Part of Civil Politics mission is to examine how research is used in practice and so we recently partnered with the Village Square to survey participants of a recent dinner where liberals learned about conservative concerns about the decline of individual moral behavior and conservatives learned about liberal concerns about moral corruption in politics (also see coverage in the Tallahassee Democrat).   We asked participants in the survey to agree or disagree with the following statements:

  • Liberals are generally good people.
  • Conservatives are generally good people
  • The decline of individual moral behavior is a serious issue that we should work together to correct.
  • The moral corruption of our political process through the influence of money is a serious issue that we should work together to correct.


The first thing we learned is that it is really hard to get people to answer survey questions with no payoff or incentive, and so only 10% of the approximately 150 people who attended completed the surveys.  As a result, the differences below are not statistically significant and consumers of traditional statistics would say that there is no difference.  A Bayesian approach (that I subscribe to) would say that this is relatively weak evidence.  With that caveat in mind, below are the survey results.

Village Square Asteroids Club Survey Results

It appears there were slight benefits as to how liberals and conservatives were perceived by the audience, with both groups being perceived as slightly more good.  However, the most important result is the last 2 bars, where, even in a case where participants already perceived the dual “asteroids” as serious, the event appears to have spurred some participants to take these threats even more seriously.  Research would indicate that forging a common bond should indeed lead to the possibility of greater inter-group cooperation.

That being said, this is indeed weak statistical evidence, given the small sample size and should be contextualized within the results of other Asteroid’s Club results.  Hopefully going forward, we’ll start to see a consistent pattern amongst events, such that sum of such weak evidence, combined with the results of lab studies, tells a consistent story.  If your organization is doing conflict resolution work (any conflict between groups will do, not just in the realm of politics) and would like to be part of that story, please do contact us and we would be happy to setup a similar survey for your event, to see if it does indeed bring people together, as well as to contribute ideas from our research.

- Ravi Iyer


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