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

How Dialogue and Listening lead to Common Ground from Project Citizen’s Suzanne Soule

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 third post in the series detailing the experiences of Suzanne Soule, who worked as the Director of Research for the Center for Civic Education for over a decade.

What is the organization/group that you worked with? What is its history in terms of getting involved with improving community relationships?

I worked as director of research for the Center for Civic Education for a little over a decade. We worked with youth in the United States and Emerging Democracies to try to get them to be engaged citizens, through programs like We the People and Project Citizen.

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

Most of the students in these countries did a program called Project Citizen. Despite all the talk about uncivil discourse in the US, we are a lot further along than these emerging democracies. We at least have a forum and a conversation, whereas in a lot of these places, there is no forum and people may just walk out of the room, when confronted with conflicting opinions.  Most of the best lessons for resolving inter-group divisions could be learned from our work with post-war emerging democracies. We did research in Boznia/Herzegovina, Palestine, and other emerging democracies that had a history of totalitarianism that had issues with transparency and corruption. In these places, there is not a history of open dialogue, so there was a lot to be learned in creating such a space.

Young people would conduct research on a problem in their community that they chose and propose a solution based on their research to elected officials.  In a place like China, they may also go to the media and increase pressure on officials. We partnered with local organizations as there is a lot more autonomy at the local level for change, within emerging democracies as well as places like China.  This wouldn’t have worked without the local partners as you can’t do these things from the outside.

Students vote on which problem they should address. There would be winners and losers and some students would end up on a project that they didn’t necessarily care about. The teachers worked to give them a reasonable role in the project as there is often a difficult moment where their chosen issue has lost, but in all the years I worked on Project Citizen, I’ve never noticed a time when a student wasn’t able to eventually contribute. The contribution may end up large or small, but they all end up contributing something, even if it isn’t exactly the issue they would have chosen, which has implications for getting people to work together on collective action from different perspectives.

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?

What I think works well in getting a student to work towards a group goal that they didn’t initially endorse is to figure out what a students’ skills are and seeing how that relates to the problem. If they are good artists or good interviewers, how can we help them shine so that they can do really good work leveraging those skills and buy in. 

They also work together in groups, so seeing the others inspired in the group works wonders. Over time, their initial ideas about the ideal project fade and the group project gains momentum.

In conversations with adults, it also helped that the students did a lot of research, so the adults were often convinced by the students because of their empirical knowledge.  Students were trained to evaluate the status kuo and were often critical of existing policies. and able to effect change because they had lots of evidence. Public officials who would be threatened by adults making the same recommendations were far more open to a group of 12 year olds. They were much more open. They often got a lot more of what they wanted from the public officials than we thought was possible. Youth often melts the hearts of hardened people…the heart opens and there is an element of surrender.

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?

It doesn’t work if the problem is chosen from the outside. There needs to be some time spent on finding out what they care about themselves with a lot of listening and open dialogue. I had to stop going in with a questionnaire and just listen to what concerned them and what was really problematic. Often they would come back to the problems I listed, but there was more buy-in if they came up with it themselves. There was more discourse and willingness to do the work as they were invested rather than thinking that there were these “Americans” coming in telling them what to do.

As far as the public officials we talked to, if there was any possibility that the officials would be shamed or put on the spot, then it would close dialogue. But if there were a possibility for positive PR or an award…or to talk to their own constituents/voters, people were very open. Having people far removed from them telling what to do would also close things down.

 

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?

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, Reducing the Perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), Showing Examples of Positive Relationships , Reducing the Perceived Differences Between Groups, Showing Examples of Cross-Group, Unexpected Agreement or Disagreement , Reducing Certainty of Individual Beliefs, Increasing Cross-Group Personal Connections through Fun, Meals, Talking, etc..

I would like to emphasize listening at the outset. Careful listening that leads to finding common ground.  It gives space for people to realize that they often have the same problems in divided societies and it improves relationships for people to realize that people unlike them have the same issues. It humanizes the other side.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

http://www.civiced.org

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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.

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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

Overview

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, yourmorals.org, 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 exploringmyreligion.org) 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 YourMorals.org, 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 YourMorals.org and CivilPolitics.org  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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Hack4Congress Identifies Tech Ideas to improve Cooperation

While there is a lot of research on many variables that increase inter-group civility, a large number of them can be grouped under the general category of improving cooperation/reducing competition (see lit review here).  As such, I was particularly interested to read about #Hack4Congress‘ work that attempted to find technological solutions to improve cooperation.  Among the winning ideas were 2 that specifically related to improving cooperation:

DICO is designed to allow other systems to access and incorporate the information provided by DICO to enhance other institutional processes of Congress through a central database.  Using DICO, a system can identify cross-partisan coalitions that are based on shared interest in particular issues.

The Dear Colleague website is an alternative to the eDear Colleague mailing system currently used by Members of Congress to request other members to co-sign letters, brief them on happenings on the Hill and send voting alerts. As opposed to the current system that functions primarily as a bulk mailing list, our website enables collaborative law making…

You can read more about the winners and contest here.  Social psychology teaches us that the mere desire to cooperate doesn’t always win out over situational barriers.  Improving cooperation may be a stated desire of both parties, but actual cooperation may require the creation of new tools that facilitate a cooperative environment, such as those identified in this project.

- 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.