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

Increasing Reconciliation through the Acceptance of Apologies by one’s own group

Human beings are incredibly social animals, being one of the few species that cooperates in groups of thousands, and the only one that cooperates amongst individuals that don’t share the same genes, unlike bees or ants that breed with a queen.  Our ultra-sociality leads us to interesting behaviors where we follow the leads of others as in these social influence videos.

Social influence operates in the realm of reconciliation as well, as evidenced by this recent paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Fiona Barlow and colleagues.  In this study, the novel way that social influence was used was to get members of a perpetrator group (non-Aboriginal Australians) to be more willing to reconcile by having members of a group apologize and then having other members of that same group (as opposed to the aggrieved other group) accept the apology.

From the article:

There is an implicit assumption that perpetrators’ moral image restoration following an intergroup apology depends on absolution from victims. In this paper we examine whether perpetrators can in fact look to other ingroup members for moral pardon. In Studies 1 and 4, Australians read an apology to Indian people for a series of assaults on Indian nationals in Australia. In Studies 2 and 3, non-Aboriginal Australians were provided with apologies offered on their behalf to Aboriginal Australians. In each study participants were told that other perpetrator group members had either accepted or rejected the apology. In line with predictions, when perpetrator group members heard that fellow perpetrators accepted an apology made to victims they felt morally restored, and consequently were more willing to reconcile. Effects were largely unqualified by apology quality (Studies 2–4), and held in the face of victim group apology rejection (Studies 3–4). We demonstrate that perpetrator group members can effectively gain moral redemption by accepting their own apologies, even qualified ones that have proved insufficient to victim groups.

How can readers of this site use this research?  As has been found in other research areas, seeing information that implies that relationships between groups are being improved, even in a somewhat illogical way, leads to the reality of relationships between groups being improved.  In this way, information about how divided and in-conflict any two groups are leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy as does information on how united and/or related two groups are.  Given that most groups have a mixture of this information available, it would seem useful to emphasize the later when one wants to increase the chances of reconcilliation and bridge moral divisions.

- Ravi Iyer

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Pondering Your Internal Conflicts May Help You Stereotype Others Less

Recently, Chadly Stern and Tali  Kleinman (of NYU and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), published a paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science detailing how activating a “conflict mindset” in an individual can get them to perceive outgroup members as less dissimilar than they might otherwise believe.  Specifically, across  three separate studies, they found that asking participants to write about a time when two of their important goals conflicted, led individuals to perceive smaller difference in policy preferences when comparing themselves to members of the opposite political party.  Given that exaggerated perceptions of differences with others can lead to “symbolic threat” that worsens inter-group relations, it may be true that considering personal conflicts could be a reasonable way to indirectly reduce inter-group divisions.

From the paper:

In three studies, we examined whether activating a reasoning process that fosters the consideration of alternatives (a conflict mindset) reduces the extent to which individuals consistently overestimate how different outgroup members’ attitudes are from their own attitudes. In Study 1, tacitly activating a conflict mindset reduced the overestimation of outgroup dissimilarity compared to a control condition. Study 2 ruled out the alternative explanation that conflict reduces the tendency to overestimate outgroup dissimilarity through diminishing effortful thought. Study 3 showed that a conflict mindset, but not an accuracy incentive, reduced the tendency to overestimate outgroup dissimilarity. Additionally, Study 3 demonstrated that reductions in perceived self–outgroup distance explained in part why a conflict mindset attenuated the overestimation of outgroup dissimilarity.

It appears that people’s default tendency is to assume that political outgroup members’ attitudes are more different from their own attitudes than they actually are (e.g., Robinson et al., 1995). We propose that this default tendency can be changed by activating a reasoning process that bridges the perceived distance between oneself and outgroup members. Specifically, we propose that the tendency to overestimate outgroup dissimilarity could be reduced by tacitly activating a mindset (i.e., a general mode of processing information; Gollwitzer, 1990) characterized by
the consideration of conflicting perspectives (Nickerson, 2001).

In other recent work, researchers have shown how incorrect beliefs about others can reduce prospective trust and cooperation.  No single method is likely to work in all cases or for all people, but as a tool in the toolbelt of conflict resolution (see this page for more such tools), perhaps greater reflection of one’s own internal conflicts can help bridge some divisions.  If anyone tries this in practice, please do contact us as we would love to document your experiences, positive or negative, such that others can learn from that experience.

- Ravi Iyer


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Research suggests that Belief that Groups Can Change facilititates Reconciliation

Recently, I was forwarded a research article entitled “Belief in the Malleability of Groups Strengthens the Tenuous Link Between a Collective Apology and Intergroup Forgiveness” that was recently published in Personality and Psychology Bulletin.  From the abstract:

Although it is widely assumed that collective apologies for intergroup harms facilitate forgiveness, evidence for a strong link between the two remains elusive. In four studies we tested the proposition that the apology–forgiveness link exists, but only among people who hold an implicit belief that groups can change. In Studies 1 and 2, perceived group malleability (measured and manipulated, respectively) moderated the responses to an apology by Palestinian leadership toward Israelis: Positive responses such as forgiveness increased with greater belief in group malleability. In Study 3, university students who believed in group malleability were more forgiving of a rival university’s derogatory comments in the presence (as opposed to the absence) of an apology. In Study 4, perceived perpetrator group remorse mediated the moderating effect of group malleability on the apology–forgiveness link (assessed in the context of a corporate transgression). Implications for collective apologies and movement toward reconciliation are discussed.

In summary, apologies facilitate reconciliation IF there is a belief that groups can change.  A related article was published in Science in 2011, showing that even in the absence of an apology, the induced belief that groups can change has an effect on intergroup attitudes.  You can read the study here and below is that abstract:

Four studies showed that beliefs about whether groups have a malleable versus fixed nature affected intergroup attitudes and willingness to compromise for peace. Using a nationwide sample (N = 500) of Israeli Jews, Study 1 showed that believing groups were malleable predicted positive attitudes toward Palestinians, which predicted willingness to compromise. Next, experimentally inducing malleable vs. fixed beliefs about groups among Israeli Jews (Study 2, N = 76), Palestinian Citizens of Israel (Study 3, N = 59), and Palestinians in the West Bank (Study 4, N = 53) (without mentioning the adversary) led to more positive attitudes toward the outgroup and, in turn, increased willingness to compromise for peace.

Among the more notable things in this last study is that it was done on individuals in the midst of a real intractable conflict that we all have an interest in resolving.  To make this a bit more concrete, I think it is helpful to see exactly what the authors mean by “group malleability” and how it was changed.  In this last paper, the details are here and the belief that groups can change was measured by these 4 items:

“As much as I hate to admit it, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks–groups can’t really change their basic characteristics,” “Groups can do things differently, but the important parts of who they are can’t really be changed,” “Groups that are characterized by violent tendencies will never change their ways,” and “Every group or nation has basic moral values and beliefs that can’t be changed significantly.”

Perhaps more of applied interest to those working to bring groups together is how they manipulated beliefs that groups can change through a scientific-style article.

Manipulation of beliefs. Participants were randomly assigned to the “malleable” or “fixed” condition. They read a short Psychology Today-style scientific article (in Hebrew) describing groups that had committed violence and reporting studies on aggression. These studies suggested that, over time, the groups had (malleable condition) or had not (fixed condition) changed. In the malleable condition the research suggested that violence resulted from extreme leadership or environmental influence, whereas in the fixed condition the research suggested that aggression was rooted in the nature and culture of the groups.

Is extreme and violent behavior “influenced by context and leadership” or is it “entrenched within the nature of individuals and groups”?  Certainly we should encourage the former if we want to improve relationships between groups and luckily there is a lot of research that supports this view as well.

- Ravi Iyer


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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.

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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

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