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

Blue State Republicans as a path towards compromise

Last night, the tossup senate races broke sharply toward the Republican party, which Republicans winning in two states where President Obama won in 2008 and 2012: Iowa and Colorado.  Research shows that one way that conflict can be ameliorated is when the boundaries between competing groups are blurred.  Indeed, if you look at some of the rhetoric from the victors, you can see that there may indeed be the seeds of compromise.

From this Denver station article:

Gardner, who represented a conservative fourth U.S. House district on the state’s eastern plains, courted the political center to win. He highlighted that strategy in his acceptance speech.

“The people of Colorado, voters around this state had their voices heard. They are not red. They are not blue. But they are crystal clear. Crystal clear in their message to Washington, D.C.,: Get your job done and get the heck of out of the way,” he said.

On the other side of the aisle, Red State Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia have led some of the most significant compromises, again by blurring the familiar political lines.  In contrast, those senators who are least eager to compromise often seek to reinforce the differences between groups, exacerbating the partisan divides by seeking a clear contrast.

Mitch McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, specifically went out of his way to strike a tone of compromise in his victory speech and talked about the “obligation to work together” with the opposite side toward solutions to our common problems.  Let’s hope that, as research would suggest, a less homogenous Republican Senate caucus (and eventually a less homogenous Democratic Senate caucus) leads to that vision becoming a reality.

- Ravi Iyer




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Changing Children’s Attitudes Through Story Time

In recent years, tensions have emerged in the south of England over the integration of refugees into mainstream British society. One way of easing this process may be ensuring that refugee children encounter a welcoming environment when they enter British schools. The present research tested an intervention that aimed to improve English schoolchildren’s attitudes towards refugees via an “extended contact effect.” This effect suggests that attitudes towards outgroup members can be improved through vicarious experiences of friendships between ingroup and outgroup members. In the current study, this was achieved by having children read and discuss stories featuring friendships between English and refugee children. While extended contact has been shown to be effective for adults and older children, little research has been done with children ages 5 to 11.

1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:

Researchers were interested in testing three different versions of the extended contact hypothesis. In one condition, children read stories that emphasized the individual qualities of the refugee characters, and then discussed these characters’ similarities and differences. The idea here was to encourage the children to think of refugees as unique individuals rather than homogenous members of an outgroup.

In another condition, the children read stories in which the refugee characters attended the children’s actual school, offering the English and refugee children a common identity. While the goal of the previous condition was to emphasize the uniqueness of each outgroup member, here the objective was to give outgroup members ingroup status by expanding the boundaries of the ingroup.

The third condition was similar to the common identity condition, except the intention here was to give all children a shared group with which to identify without minimizing their subgroup (English or refugee) identity. Thus, the stories read emphasized both the shared identity between the English and refugee children (as students attending the same school) and their differences.

1-2 weeks after the interventions, children were interviewed to assess their attitudes towards both ingroup and outgroup members. They were presented with a series of positive and negative traits (e.g. “hardworking) that they were asked to match with pictures of stick people representing different proportions (none, some, most, all) of group members, both English and refugee. The researchers were also interested in the children’s intended behavior. They presented them with 2 scenarios—one featuring an English child, and another with a refugee child—and asked the children to indicate how much they’d like to play with that child, have that child spend the night, etc.

2. What They Found – Results:

Children in all extended contact conditions expressed more positive attitudes towards refugee children than did children in the no-stories control group. As the researchers had predicted, attitudes were most positive in the dual identity condition. Children in the dual identity condition who did not have strong ties to their English identities also expressed more positive intended behaviors towards refugee children.

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:

253 White British children (116 boys, 137 girls) from 10 elementary schools, ages 5 to 11 years, from south-east England

4. Study Name:

Changing Children’s Intergroup Attitudes Toward Refugees: Testing Different Models of Extended Contact

5. Citation:

Cameron, L., Rutland, A., Brown, R., & Douch, R. (2006).  Changing Children’s Intergroup Attitudes Toward Refugees: Testing Different Models of Extended Contact. Child Development, 77, 1208-1219.

6. Link:

7. Intervention Categories:

Extended Contact

8. Sample Size:


9. Central Reported Statistic:

“outgroup attitude in the extended contact conditions was significantly higher than in control, t = 2.89, p < .01.”

“In low identifiers there was a significant main effect of condition, F(3,104) = 2.75, p < .05, MSE = 1.26. Planned contrasts revealed that control did not differ from the three extended contact variables (C1: t = 1.07, ns), but dual identity was, as before, significantly higher than the other two extended contact conditions (C2: t = 2.67, p < .01)”

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Putting Interventions to the Test: A Comparison of Five Techniques to Reduce Partisan Hostility

The growing hostility between liberals and conservatives in the United States is a known problem to many.  However, what to do about it is much less clear.  Various groups, such as the Asteroids Club and the Village Square, have developed their own techniques for promoting civility between the opposing parties.    What my collaborators Matt Motyl, Brian Nosek, Jon Haidt, and I wanted to know was: which strategy is the most effective at reducing partisan hostility?  The following describes the result of our attempt to throw the proverbial “kitchen sink” at this problem, testing the effectiveness of several techniques in one study.  The five interventions we tested come from a collection of active civility groups, past social psychological research, and our own intuitions.

Liberals and conservatives completed our study online, being exposed to one (or none) of our five interventions before completing measures of political attitudes and hostility.  The interventions consisted of:

Self Affirmation- Past social psychological work has demonstrated that being reassured of one’s valued traits leads to less defensive and biased processing of opposing viewpoints. Participants in this condition spent a few minutes writing about a valued personal characteristic and a time that they embodied that trait.

Learning Political Membership Last- People readily form impressions of others, and can be motivated to maintain their opinions in order to remain consistent in their evaluations.  This intervention attempted to leverage this motivation by having participants read about a very positive group of individuals, only to later learn that they had volunteered for the opposing political party.

Observing Civility- People often learn by observing the behaviors of others.  For this intervention, participants watched a video describing the relationship between Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Tip O’Neill.  The video described the two as having a very friendly and respectful relationship, even when the two did not see eye to eye.

Superordinate Threat- Having a common threat can bring groups together.  To create this common threat, we had participants read an article describing the threat of cyber warfare attacks on the United States.  The article concluded by stating that bipartisan efforts had the potential to eliminate this threat.

Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions- Much of current political gridlock stems from a perception of legislation as a zero sum game (any win for the other side is automatically a loss for my side).  This final intervention sought to weaken this perception by describing the consequences of this mentality and the ways it is inhibiting progress.  The article concluded by stating that shedding this mindset in favor of increased compromise could help both sides achieve their goals.

After the intervention phase, participants completed a measure of partisan hostility, indicated their explicit liking of Republicans and Democrats, and completed an implicit measure of political attitudes (the Implicit Association Test), which measured the participants’ nonconscious attitudes toward the two groups.  The goal of these interventions was to reduce hostility, not necessarily make participants like the other side more.  As such, we were most interested in seeing whether each of the interventions reduced hostility relative to the group that received no intervention (Control).  The results are displayed below:

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 10.44.21 AM

Each dot represents the average hostility score for participants in a given condition (with the red bars marking a 95% confidence interval around that value).  Higher hostility scores are indicative of greater hostility.  These results show that each intervention produced the desired effect, that being lower hostility, but the degree to which they were effective varied.  Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions was the most effective intervention at reducing hostility, closely followed by Superordinate Threat (although Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions was the only intervention to approach statistical significance, p = .052).  Of note, none of the interventions reduced implicit or explicit liking for one’s own party relative to the other party.  In fact, most interventions increased partisan preferences relative to the control condition.  This demonstrates that promoting civility need not reduce an individual’s liking for his or her own group.  Rather, hostility can be specifically targeted and reduced without changing these attitudes.

The results of our intervention contest suggest that there are multiple paths to reducing partisan hostility.  However, not all strategies are equally effective.  Interestingly, the intervention that produced the best results (Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions) was the least based on past psychological research.  As such, when trying to reduce the hostility in the current political environment, I advise paying attention to the nuances of the current sources of hostility.  As time goes by, the issues that divide us change.  Our attempts to bridge those gaps should adapt with them.

-Charlie Ebersole

To learn more about the interventions we used, see this document: Civil Politics Contest Study-Materials

To learn more about the study in general, see this project’s page on the Open Science Framework

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Want to Reduce Political Extremism? Ask How Instead of Why

1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:

 All participants began by rating their positions on six political policies. They then self-assessed their understanding of these policies using a series of 7-point rating scales. Next, some participants were asked to explain in detail how one of the policies works, while other participants were asked only to list the reasons they had for holding their position on that policy. Finally, all participants were asked to rerate both their understanding of the policy and their position on the policy. Participants repeated this process for one additional issue.

2. What They Found – Results:

Those who had had to explain how the political policies worked became less confident in their understanding of those policies than did those who had been asked to enumerate reasons for their positions. Further, participants reported more moderate attitudes towards the issues after giving mechanistic explanations, whereas enumerating reasons led to no such change in position extremity.

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:

MTurk users- 50% male, 50% female

4. Study Name:

Fernbach et al., 2013, Study 2

5. Citation:

Fernbach, P. M., Rogers, T., Fox, C. R., & Sloman, S. A. (2013). Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding. Psychological Science, XX(X), 1-8. doi:10.1177/0956797612464058

6. Link:

7. Intervention categories: 

generating mechanistic explanations, mTurk

8. Sample size:


9. Central Reported Statistic:

 “the decrement in understanding after enumerating reasons was smaller than the decrement following mechanistic explanation, as reflected by a significant interaction between judgment timing and condition, F(1, 110) = 6.64, p < .01, ηp2 = .057. With regard to extremity of positions, there was no change after enumerating reasons, F(1, 64) < 1, n.s. Moreover, as predicted, the change in position in the reasons conditions was smaller than in the mechanism conditions, as reflected by a significant interaction between judgment timing and condition on extremity scores, F(1, 110) = 3.90, p < .05, ηp2 = .034.”

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