Clearly some members of Heineken’s ad agency have been reading the social science literature as evidenced by this recent ad (video below), which has been all over my social feed, as well as having been written about in Vox, The Huffington Post, Fast Company, The Today Show, The Guardian, and many other places. The ad has 3 sets of partisans who disagree on the hot button issues of climate change, feminism, and perceptions of those who are trans-gender do 2 things that conform to our 2 main recommendations - they cooperate in building a bar and they build a relationship by asking and revealing personal things about themselves. These exercises mirror well-established research paradigms from research on minimal groups, realistic conflict theory, contact effects, and the fast friends procedure, but I think the ad works because these paradigms build on what most of us already know – that if we get to know people personally first, politics are secondary to the relationship we have built, and that revealing things about ourselves and working together are great ways to build such a relationship.
Please do watch the below video and share with your friends.
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.
I haven’t written much about Trump, who has taken “incivility” to new heights this election season, in part because there is no evidence 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 evil, the 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.
Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the conservative Koch brothers, and the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based liberal issues group, are coming together to back a new organization called the Coalition for Public Safety. The coalition plans a multimillion-dollar campaign on behalf of emerging proposals to reduce prison populations, overhaul sentencing, reduce recidivism and take on similar initiatives. Other groups from both the left and right — theAmerican Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the Tea Party-oriented FreedomWorks — are also part of the coalition, reflecting its unusually bipartisan approach.
Organizers of the advocacy campaign, which is to be announced on Thursday, consider it to be the largest national effort focused on the strained prison and justice system. They also view the coalition as a way to show lawmakers in gridlocked Washington that factions with widely divergent views can find ways to work together and arrive at consensus policy solutions.
Officials at the Center for American Progress said that they did not make the decision to join the partnership lightly given the organization’s clashes and deep differences with both Koch Industries and many of the conservative groups.
“We have in the past and will in the future have criticism of the policy agenda of the Koch brother companies, but where we can find common ground on issues, we will go forward,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the center. “I think it speaks to the importance of the issue.”
ps. If you’re interested in having a conversation about the issue of criminal justice reform across party lines, I’d encourage you to check out the work of Living Room Conversations, whose work we have previously featured here.