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

Why is political polarization rising? Why the centre cannot hold in America, Europe, and psychology

As political events in Europe and America got stranger and more violent over the last year, I found myself thinking of the phrase “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” I didn’t know its origin so I looked it up, found the poem The Second Coming, by W. B. Yeats, and found a great deal of wisdom. Yeats wrote it in 1919, just after the First World War and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence.

Here is the first stanza:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The last two lines point to moral psychology—people full of passionate intensity—as one of the reasons why things fall apart and the centre cannot hold. This analysis fits with many books written about the causes of political violence and genocide (see Baumeister; Fiske & Rai; and my book, The Righteous Mind). It also fits my analysis of why things are falling apart on American college campuses.

I therefore used the poem as the leitmotif of a talk I gave last week at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, in Denver, where I offered my most complete statement ever on the causes and consequences of political polarization. I focused on the causes of America’s political dysfunction and then extended the analysis to Europe as well. Something is going wrong in Western liberal democracies; there is something we’re not understanding.

But as long as I had the opportunity to address the largest gathering of psychologists in the world, I wanted to extend the analysis to psychology too. I showed how we, as a field, have gotten politically polarized, as with so many other academic disciplines, professions, and institutions. We have become part of the problem, and it is damaging our science and our ability to help our clients, patients, and students. I proposed that we must fix ourselves before we can become part of the solution.

Here is the entire talk (54 minutes), including an introduction from Susan McDaniel, the president of APA.

I hope that the talk will be useful in high school and college courses on civics, political science, and social psychology. I am therefore posting the slides, both as a PowerPoint file and as a 12 page PDF file. (I encourage their use by educators at all levels.)

I also hope that the talk will help people to understand our mission here at Heterodox Academy. Polarization and political purification are happening to so many institutions. For institutions that aim to discover truth, such as a university, ideological purification is deadly. Pleasing but false ideas go unchallenged. Unpleasant but true ideas don’t get a hearing. Until we figure out ways to increase viewpoint diversity and to end the intimidation and ostracism experienced by those who question orthodoxy on campus, universities will be part of our national problem, not part of the solution.

- Jonathan Haidt

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Helping People Sympathize with both Cops and Minorities

When bad things happen, there is a natural psychological tendency to spread blame around.  Consider this piece of psychological research from Joshua Knobe where he shows that when someone causes harm to the environment, they are deemed to be doing so intentionally, whereas when they cause benefit to the environment, they don’t get the same credit.  Unfortunately, we often blame not only people who are directly responsible for a bad event, but members of the “groups” that people involved belong to.

Consider these reactions to recent shootings of both officers in Dallas and civilians by officers.




Fortunately, both of the above reactions are rare and most people realize that it is possible to sympathize with both the police and the minorities who have been killed in recent events.


For those of us seeking to understand people’s reactions to events better, with an eye toward defusing conflict, this paper on “Vicarious Retribution” (full text here) provides a good model, bringing together a variety of research, of how such conflict perpetuates itself and how such conflict can be reduced.  Let me highlight 2 passages from this paper that recommend specific ideas for those who want to intentionally reduce the potential for conflict.



Focus on Feelings of Sympathy for victims:

The final emotion that may be relevant for defusing cycles of retributive aggression is sympathy. Some research suggests that focusing on the harm that has befallen the outgroup (rather than the bad acts of one’s ingroup) elicits feelings of sympathy rather than guilt and that sympathy has a stronger relationship with changing the system of intergroup relations to avoid against future conflict than does guilt (Iyer et al., 2003).

Highlight the individuality of cops and minorities:

The first process that should be initiated (according to Pettigrew, 1998) is decategorization. This approach involves reducing or eliminating social categorization by increasing differentiation and personalization between group members (Brewer & Miller, 1984; Ensari & Miller, 2001; N. Miller, 2002). From our perspective, decategorization (particularly if it is in the form of personalization) is indeed an important first step in breaking the cycle of vicarious retribution.

As with much of what we have found evidence for in reducing inter-ideological divisions, it often comes down to finding common goals (e.g. sympathizing with the families affected by all of the recent shootings and preventing further tragedy) and building personal relationships with others who we might be tempted to stereotype.  Whether you are more naturally inclined to identify more with minority groups or police officers, the current moment is a time when people on either side of the issue can sympathize with those who have lost their lives recently and work together on our collective desire for a safer, less divided country.

- Ravi Iyer

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How to Make Real Progress Against Trump’s Incivility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Ravi Iyer

Ravi Iyer has a Ph.D in psychology from the University of Southern California and has published dozens of articles on political and moral attitudes.  He works as a data scientist at Ranker and is also the Executive Director of Civil Politics, a non-profit that promotes evidence based methods for healing inter-group divisions.
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Those who want a fight, like Trump and ISIS, do indeed benefit from each other.

During the recent Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton stated that Donald Trump has become a lead recruiter for ISIS.  I can’t speak to the accuracy of this claim, and much has been written from both sides elsewhere.   However, there should be very little doubt that those who benefit from conflict need the level of perceived competition to be ever greater, in order to justify their combative stance within their own group, implying that the extremes on both sides of any conflict do indeed have common goals.  That is true in social science laboratory experiments, natural experiments that occur in the world, analyses of history, in our everyday experiences and yes, it is true with regard to those who benefit from a perceived “clash of civilizations”, such as Donald Trump and ISIS.  Indeed, it would be shocking if it didn’t work that way for Trump and ISIS, as shocking as it would be if gravity worked in some places and not others, as these forces are fundamental parts of human nature.  We are naturally social animals who are exceedingly good at forming groups and competing with opposing groups.  The more competitive the situation gets, the more animosity arises and the more we gravitate toward the most combative amongst our group.

Need proof?  Here are five forms of evidence that suggest this is true.Scarborough,_North_Yorkshire_-_WWI_poster

1) Social Science – Thousands of studies have used the minimal group paradigm, whereby the mere fact of assigning a person to a group creates animosity and the more competitive the groups are, the more animosity ensues.  The reason the procedure is called “minimal” is that there is no actual reason why any person is put in any group, such that any reason for conflict is simply a result of random group assignment + competition, not any real difference between individuals.  During these manufactured competitions, group members are more likely to follow others who suggest attacking the other group.

2) The Natural Experiment of Sports – How do we know that the minimal group paradigm maps onto real world behavior?  Millions of people engage in animosity toward very similar others due to the arbitrary assignment of where they happen to live and what sports team they then follow.  Thousands of papers have been written to analyze this behavior (I’d recommend Among the Thugs most), but you don’t need academic analyses to know that rivalries lead to violence across sports and countries, as it happens regularly in the news.  Importantly, the only thing that often differentiates these groups is the level of competition between them;  the greater the competition, the more animosity, and the more opportunity for heroes to arise, who lead their side to victory.

3) History – How do dictators get their populace to follow them, despite their often ineffective leadership?  North Korea needs a perpetual sense of threat to justify the terrible conditions it imposes on it’s people.  Hitler, Stalin, Pol-Pot, and Putin, in modern times, maintain(ed) their hold on power not by providing a better life for their people, but by “protecting” them from a very dangerous world.  The more competition that exists with other countries, the better their hold on power, a phenomenon that has noted by political scientists in the US as well.

4) Everyday experience – A lot of social science and history simply confirms what we already know from our everyday experience.  When was the last time that you got into an argument with someone and one party willingly conceded their point of view?  The more heated the debate, the less you listen to others, and the fact that social scientists have found this to be true is almost beside the point.  Creating a more extreme atmosphere is a great way to shut down reasoned debate and compromise.

5) Trump & ISIS – I don’t doubt Trump’s sincere desire to defeat ISIS, but support for his candidacy has clearly increased as more terrible events occur in the world.  Indeed, a prime emphasis of his candidacy is competition with ISIS, China, Mexico, etc, and his proposed toughness in dealing with them.  He demonstrates this toughness by being ever more extreme.  Similarly, while systematic analyses of terrorist attitudes are sparse, groups like ISIS have often arisen in response to perceived invasions of Islamic territory such as in the Middle East or Afghanistan,  and a prime emphasis of ISIS’ propaganda is over-the-top shock videos designed to display toughness, in the face of these threats.

In the end, human beings will rally to a “tough leader” when under threat.  Intentional or not, those who demonstrate their toughness through their extreme rhetoric, often benefit from this threat, leading those on either extreme side of any moral division to be strangely aligned in terms of their incentives.  Trump & ISIS’ relationship is similar to the relationship between Democrats and Republicans who fundraise off of the extreme words of the opposing side or the Ohio State and Michigan athletic departments, who each earn millions from their rivalry or Hamas and the current conservative Israeli government, who both gain in popularity based on each others’ more extreme actions, or east coast and west coast rappers, whose rivalry led to millions in album sales.  Human beings love competition and often, those who promote the competition amongst us reap the rewards.  Unfortunately, some of these competitions have enduring consequences and there are times when those of us who would prefer to build bridges rather than walls need to get psychology working for us, rather than against us.

- 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.