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

Many People are Reaching Out Across the Partisan Divide After Trump’s Election

While the media has been focused mainly on partisan fighting, Donald Trump’s election has prompted a lot of people to reach out across the aisle to understand those they disagreed with in the last election.  It may not go reported in the press, but Obama wants Trump to succeed and Democratic House minority leader Pelosi, among others, has been praying for Trump’s success as well.  Prominent journalists have been seeking to cross the divide as well,  as have organizations we work with, but in this post, I’d like to highlight the many many Americans who have sought to meet people across the aisle.  At Civil Politics, we’ve talked with a lot of people seeking to have these conversations and seeking advice and direction.  Our main recommendations – focus on relationships and areas of agreement – remain true, but just as we advocate persuading people through intuitive, emotional appeals, sometimes understanding our recommendations is best done by hearing and empathizing with other people’s experiences.

Josh Quinn, the owner of Tiger Tree, a boutique store in the town where I was raised – Columbus, Ohio – is one of the many people I’ve talked to lately about convening such a group, and he volunteered to write a bit about his experience, in the hopes that others may be similarly inspired and learn from his experience.  Below is his story, along with some answers to followup questions we asked from Civil Politics’ perspective.

After consuming literally years of laser focused biased media leading up to this election, I felt like I needed a break to try and find some sense of truth and balance in our democracy.  I wanted to at least give myself an honest opportunity to seriously consider positions other than my own; not for the sole purpose of finding their weaknesses, so that I am armed for my rebuttal, but also finding their strengths so that I am better equipped to find common ground and compromise.

After expressing my desire to form a non-debate club, a friend turned me onto the work of Jonathan Haidt which lead to Righteous Mind and then Asteroids Club which seemed like exactly what I was starting but without all of the bother of having to actually go and start it.  We recently held our first meeting and it was more successful than I could have hoped.  I will detail what did and did not work for our group and what we plan to do in the future in the hopes that it will inspire others to follow suit.

Moderation

I served as the liberal moderator and a new friend of mine served as the conservative moderator.  I think moderators who can be balanced are a critical link to this working.  You need to establish trust in your audience that they are not walking into some sort of biased trap but a safe space to freely discuss and absorb different philosophies.  We didn’t actually do much, other than nudge the conversation and hit the reset button twice when things started to heat up.  But I think it sends a strong signal to everyone that there are two figures balancing the scales of the conversation and keeping it even.  We did begin by having everyone in the circle state their name, occupation and political affiliation.  There was some hesitation from folks I told about this but I think it worked great and really helped to strengthen the bridges between us rather than put up barriers.

Our Rules

We had only two rules, no rebuttals and no phones.  This is a listening exercise that involves some occasional talking, not an argument.  I became interested in this idea as a way to better understand people as a means to foster empathy.  It has gotten so easy to only listen to ideas we already know we agree with that (I believe) that the distance between our accepted beliefs and opposing beliefs has turned into an often impassable chasm.  I may never agree with your position on gun control or climate change or any number of issues but I can possibly empathize with your reasoning for holding a different position.  Thus no rebuttals.  Participants may ask clarifying questions to help better understand why someone holds a position but they may not offer an attack meant to knock an opponent off base.  In turn they may be able to give their reasoning for holding a different position.  It is a nuanced distinction but if the group is there for the right reason and the moderators keep things under control it works great.

The phone rule was to address how easy it is to google a confirmation of basically any idea that pops into one’s head at this point. In a way I think our critical thinking has become diminished because we have this external biased brain in our pocket to do it for us. Removing phones focuses the conversation to be more authentically of the participants rather than their crowds and I think create some cohesion with the group that would not have existed if a line was still tethering them to their tribes.

The Mix

We ended up with an almost exactly even split politically but, by no design, their makeup was not at all what I would have expected.  We had four (not related) liberals from an upper middle class suburb, a conservative that works for a workforce development non profit, a conservative who teaches alternative medicine at a local college, some software folks, a Turkish immigrant businessman, lifelong registered Republicans who campaigned for Hillary or voted third party, and die hard Trump supporters.

We had 12 participants which felt pretty perfect to me. I think our extreme (economic, religious and occupational) diversity probably helped people from feeling they had a base to stick to.  More than 12 would have lead to people forming teams and putting up barriers.  We also sat in a circle completely mixed together.  That helped prevent the sort of overheard hushed side comments that can make the tide turn less respectful.

What We Will Do Differently

I am thrilled that all of our participants want to give this another go.  We have even maintained an ongoing conversation on the original event page complete with book and documentary recommendations.  The only real difference for our next meeting is that we are sticking to one subject.  Last time we meandered through a host of topics, which I think was okay for the initial meeting and kept from scaring off participants that maybe did not feel informed or passionate to show up to a more focused discussion.  I would actually recommend that anyone planning a similar discussion pick at least a few topics for the first meeting to let people feel out the concept and drill down from there.  People will learn that it’s okay just to show up to listen.  It’ not a team sport.  There isn’t a winner.  You don’t need your teammates also participating.

As of now the plan is to meet once a month with the original group or close to it.  We’ll likely allow some folks to filter in and out as long as we maintain a balance and stay around 12 participants.  I have gotten a lot of positive feedback through Facebook and people stopping into my shop to talk to me about it so I am hoping to help a few other groups get rolling in Columbus as well and do whatever I can to grow this idea.

Civil Politics asked: How did you start?  Was there any structure to it?
If you mean how we started our actually meeting it was by going around the room and introducing who we were and our political affiliation.  If you mean the group itself it was a pretty handpicked group of people within my network I thought could handle a civil conversation with people of different political affiliations.  I was thrilled to meet my right of center moderator and even when we have disagreed on topics it has never felt divisive.  It feels like two friends with a different take on a complex issue which is how I think politics should and can be.  The bitterness to which we have become accustomed has been manufactured and can be easily dismantled.
Civil Politics asked: Do you feel like you changed your opinions about any issues?  Did others?
I am not sure I feel like I changed my mind on any specific issues the initial meeting.  At least our iteration of this is really meant for learning where the other side is coming from, rather than attempting to sway them to your side.  I think some altering or clarification of ones own views is a natural byproduct of doing that but I hope it can remain a byproduct and not a focal point.
Civil Politics asked: Do you feel like you changed your opinions about people who differed from you on the issues?  Did others change their opinions about others?
All around yes.  Even as the organizer of an event meant to disintegrate predispositions about people based on their political leanings I was blown away by how much of that happened to me.  We had a wonderfully civil discussion involving people across the entire political spectrum.  Honestly I had more bones to pick with people on “my” side of the aisle not being receptive to opposing ideas than the other way around.  This really solidified my feeling that we have more in common than not and if we just spent more time getting to know each other a lot of our problems perceived problems would be erased.  As someone who identifies as left of center I do always feel the need to include the caveat that I understand I say that from a position of privilege. I am a straight, white, male that has been fortunate enough to be successful in business.  I feel like I understand as well as I can what those that feel attacked by a certain element of the right are scared of at the moment and I don’t want to delegitimize those fears.  But a lot of people on the right are saying “hey that isn’t me at all” so why not listen to them and make allies in your fight against the things that matter to you?  I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately in the way that we on the left claim (and I think rightfully so) that in a way the far right is to blame for militant Islamist groups by way of Islamophobia giving fodder to radical clerics to prove that there is a war on their religion that requires a response.  Yet we continue to treat the right as if they are a  homogeneous group that is only defined by their fringes and then get surprised when they react by grouping together with people or power centers who are closer ideologically, even if they don’t agree with everything that is being said.
I’d like to personally thank Josh and all the others who are consciously trying to bridge the divisions that we all see are destructive to our political process and our community.  Josh found inspiration in Jon Haidt’s Asteroid’s Club model, but groups like The Village Square, Living Room Conversations, and Essential Partners all have resources that can help you have a positive conversation in your community.  Feel free to email me as well (ravi at civil politics dot org) as I’m happy to offer advice and would love to learn about your efforts as well.  Truth be told, it isn’t as complex as we academics may make it seem and all that is really required is a willingness to listen and try to form a relationship, rather than convince those who disagree.  We’ve been part of many such conversations, and both statistically and anecdotally, people rarely change their mind about issues, but most people walk away with empathy for those they talked with and often, like Josh, a few new friends.
- Ravi Iyer
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The Village Square helps partisans recognize common threats

One of the more robust findings in social psychology is the idea that common goals reduce inter-group conflicts.  Several groups have recently taken this finding into the field, using Jonathan Haidt’s Asteroids Club model, including a dinner we co-hosted with the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  The group that has done the most with this concept is undoubtedly the Village Square, an organization that has put together a series of dinners where liberals learn about conservative concerns, and conservatives learn about liberal concerns, with the idea that people can come together, over food, to learn about issues that everyone should be concerned about.

Part of Civil Politics mission is to examine how research is used in practice and so we recently partnered with the Village Square to survey participants of a recent dinner where liberals learned about conservative concerns about the decline of individual moral behavior and conservatives learned about liberal concerns about moral corruption in politics (also see coverage in the Tallahassee Democrat).   We asked participants in the survey to agree or disagree with the following statements:

  • Liberals are generally good people.
  • Conservatives are generally good people
  • The decline of individual moral behavior is a serious issue that we should work together to correct.
  • The moral corruption of our political process through the influence of money is a serious issue that we should work together to correct.

 

The first thing we learned is that it is really hard to get people to answer survey questions with no payoff or incentive, and so only 10% of the approximately 150 people who attended completed the surveys.  As a result, the differences below are not statistically significant and consumers of traditional statistics would say that there is no difference.  A Bayesian approach (that I subscribe to) would say that this is relatively weak evidence.  With that caveat in mind, below are the survey results.

Village Square Asteroids Club Survey Results

It appears there were slight benefits as to how liberals and conservatives were perceived by the audience, with both groups being perceived as slightly more good.  However, the most important result is the last 2 bars, where, even in a case where participants already perceived the dual “asteroids” as serious, the event appears to have spurred some participants to take these threats even more seriously.  Research would indicate that forging a common bond should indeed lead to the possibility of greater inter-group cooperation.

That being said, this is indeed weak statistical evidence, given the small sample size and should be contextualized within the results of other Asteroid’s Club results.  Hopefully going forward, we’ll start to see a consistent pattern amongst events, such that sum of such weak evidence, combined with the results of lab studies, tells a consistent story.  If your organization is doing conflict resolution work (any conflict between groups will do, not just in the realm of politics) and would like to be part of that story, please do contact us and we would be happy to setup a similar survey for your event, to see if it does indeed bring people together, as well as to contribute ideas from our research.

- Ravi Iyer

 

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The First New York City Asteroids Club Dinner

The Asteroids Club is any group of people  with diverging political views who gather not to debate, but to listen to the other side explain why it is concerned about certain threats. The metaphor is meant to capture the fact that there are many threats coming at the United States–like asteroids scheduled for direct hits—yet each side of the political spectrum focuses on a few of them and ignores or discounts the asteroids that most worry the other side. As John Stuart Mill said in 1840: “in almost every one of the leading controversies… both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though in the wrong in what they denied.” The Asteroids Club is a novel format for bringing people together, over a meal, for a discussion in which each side helps the other to see more clearly. The format has been developed by The Village Square, in Tallahassee Florida.

The Nathan Cummings Foundation hosted the first New York City Asteroids Club dinner on February 26, 2014, in the home of its president, Simon Greer. The foundation is in the process of updating its research and funding portfolios, and its leaders were interested in learning more about the issues of income inequality and the causes of poverty. They were also interested in developing relationships with experts from diverse perspectives who could help them understand these complex topics. Simon and I therefore chose the two asteroids of rising income inequality (a topic of greater concern on the left), and declining rates of marriage and family stability (a topic of greater concern on the right).

This report is intended to be useful for anyone interested in hosting future dinners, or in bridging the political divide more generally. However, we note that we decided to invite experts from right and left to the first dinner, rather than ordinary people, to maximize the degree to which we could learn about the best thinking and research on these topics. This dinner may therefore not be representative of what will happen if the Asteroids Club format is rolled out and used widely by civic groups across the nation.

Preparing For the Dinner

We ran the dinner using the Chatham House rule, which says that participants are free to write about the event, but cannot reveal the identities or affiliations of the speakers. So we will simply say that we invited two very prominent and well-respected journalists, one clearly identified with liberalism, one with conservatism. We asked these two co-hosts to suggest additional people they wanted on their “team.” (We had hoped to avoid the terms “team” or “side,” but it was hard to do so.) These two co-hosts then nominated several other experts, and took a few suggestions from Simon and me about experts we know on both sides. All 10 people who were invited accepted the invitation. The final dinner was attended by 18 people: 6 liberals, 6 conservatives, Simon and me (who served as co-hosts), and four observers affiliated with the foundation. The expertise in the room was extraordinary, including journalists, economists, activists, and people with experience in government and policy-making.

Two weeks before the dinner, we assembled a list of readings nominated by the participants and posted them all in a google document that we used to share information and coordinate the evening. Because these prominent participants were all extremely busy, we did not push for them to do much preparation beforehand, although we did encourage them to read one or two articles from the other side, and to watch my TED talk that introduced the idea of the asteroids club.

The Dinner

The evening began at 7:30 with drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and unstructured socializing, which was quite cross-partisan. At 8:00 the two teams convened separately to go over final plans for their presentation. (In retrospect we should have encouraged the two teams to do more of this online, before arriving at the dinner). Around 8:30 everyone moved into the dining room and sat in seats that had been assigned to ensure a good mix of people at each of the two long tables. Simon welcomed everyone to his home and presented the Hebrew conception of two kinds of argument: machloket l’shem shamayim – argument that is for the sake of heaven which is intended to better discern truth and move the world forward,  and 2) machloket she’lo l’shem shamayim – an argument that is not for the sake of heaven, but is just for the sake of itself or for the sake of being controversial. Argument in pursuit of truth is considered sacred in the Jewish tradition.

I then explained the history of the Asteroids Club format, and went over the groundrules, including the Chatham house rule, the exact schedule, and the role that I would play as timekeeper and moderator. Each of the participants then offered a 1-minute introduction of him- or herself. We then served ourselves dinner from the buffet, and began the structured discussion. The schedule that we intended to follow was this:

9:00 begin Asteroid #1: rising inequality, liberal side presents
–15 minutes to describe the threat; why this matters, why it’s urgent….During this time, the listening side gets to ask a few brief elaborative questions, but hold argumentative questions for the next step.
–5 minutes for “telescope” time — conservatives ask critical questions, request more info, challenge assumptions.

9:20 begin Asteroid #2 family breakdown, conservative side presents
–15  minutes to describe the threat; why this matters, why it’s urgent…. During this time, the listening side gets to ask a few brief elaborative questions, but hold argumentative questions for the next step.
–5 minutes for “telescope” time — liberals ask critical questions, request more info, challenge assumptions.

9:40: dessert served, short break
9:45 Integrative discussion, 20 min.
–10 min: Return to Asteroid #1: Inequality. Go deeper: what does the liberal side most want to change, address, or at least have understood (taking into account family breakdown)
–10 min: Return to Asteroid #2: Family Breakdown: Go deeper: what does the conservative side most want to change, address, or at least have understood? (taking into account rising inequality)

10:05 Concluding discussion and resolutions.
10:30: End of formal discussion, take closing survey.

The schedule we actually followed was close to this, but because we were running behind and because there was clearly a surprising amount of agreement on what aspects of poverty were of great concern, I decided to merge the two parts of the integrative discussion into a single discussion of what really matters – what issues either side had raised that seemed to elicit at least some assent from the other side.

In general there was bipartisan agreement that income inequality has been rising in recent decades, although there was NOT bipartisan agreement that rising inequality itself was a problem that needed to be addressed. There was, however, bipartisan (though not necessarily unanimous) agreement that the following issues are concerns or problems, and that we would be a better country if we could address them:

  • Dignity, and the indignities disproportionately suffered by the poor

  • Distrust of government and democracy

  • Waste: the financial squeeze and inefficiency caused by “arms races” as people spend more money to attain “positional goods” such as a home in a good school district.

  • Lack of opportunity for large segments of society; The waste of human potential among the poor.

  • Declining motivation and economic dynamism – which can be stimulated by moderate degrees of inequality (this point was noted by a liberal)

  • Abuses of power, which becomes easier for those with a lot of money

  • Separateness – having communities that are cut off from the mainstream of society; having low social trust and cohesion.

In general there WAS bipartisan agreement that marriage rates and family stability have declined in recent decades. There WAS bipartisan agreement that these trends are bad for society, and that it would be good if we could find ways of reversing the trends. There was a very high degree of bipartisan concern about poverty, especially for its pernicious effects on children. There was also a consensus that the people who suffer most from these trends are single mothers (who bear the main costs and stresses of raising children under often adverse circumstances) and their sons. Daughters suffer too, of course, but there was consensus that boys’ outcomes are more adversely affected by the absence of a father, and these adverse outcomes then set up a feedback loop for the next generation in which there are way too few stable, employed, and marriageable young men who could break the cycle of father-absence.

The Post-Dinner Assessment

We are working with my colleagues at CivilPolitics.org to develop assessment tools that can be used by any organization running any kind of civility-enhancing event. For future events, we will send all participants a link to a web-based survey  a few days before the event, then pass out a paper questionnaire at the conclusion of the event, then send out a web-based followup survey a week after the event, to assess the effects of the event on attitudes about the asteroids, and about the people on the other side. For this first dinner, with 12 super-busy people, we only obtained four responses to the first web survey. (You can see that first survey here. Future versions will be much more extensive.) We therefore decided to focus our efforts on obtaining measures of the key variables at the conclusion of the evening. Did people come to see the asteroid presented by the other side as a clearer or more pressing threat than they had before the dinner? That is the central goal of an Asteroids Club dinner.

We collected responses from all 6 liberals and from 5 of the conservatives.  For each asteroid, we asked participants whether their views had changed regarding both the PACE of the threat and the SEVERITY of the threat.  For example, here is the exact text of one of the four main questions:

How has tonight’s discussion influenced your beliefs about the severity of the problem of income inequality for the USA?
___I now see it as a much less severe problem than I did a week ago
___I now see it as a slightly less severe problem than I did a week ago
___The discussion did not influence my beliefs in either direction
___I now see it as a slightly more severe problem than I did a week ago
___I now see it as a much more severe problem than I did a week ago

The graph below shows the results. Let’s start with family decline. The liberals (shown on the left half) DID move in the desired direction. They now see it as a more rapidly approaching threat (gold bar, 4 moved), and a more severe threat (purple bar, 5 moved). The conservatives did not really move on family decline, nor did we expect them to. (The gold bar doesn’t even show  because nobody moved.)

On inequality, the story was quite different. No conservative moved at all on the speed of the change (which is why the blue bar does not show), and the only movement on severity came from a single conservative who said that he/she now sees the problem as “slightly less severe” than before. (The liberals also showed no movement on inequality, except for a single participant who said “slightly more severe” than before.)

What can we make of this pattern?  It appears that the asteroids club format worked for the family decline asteroid. The conservatives presented the asteroid, the liberals listened, and then came to see it as a greater threat. This is very encouraging.

But it is harder to know how to interpret the results on the inequality asteroid. The lack of movement could have resulted because A) the liberal team made a weaker case about inequality than the conservatives had for family decline, or B) the conservatives were less open-minded and willing to listen, or C) the facts about inequality and its harms are truly more ambiguous and contestable than they are for the family decline asteroid. My conclusion from the background reading, and from the conversation during the dinner, is that C is true and is at least part of the explanation.

We also asked: “Compared to other discussions about policy and politics you’ve had in politically ‘mixed company,’ how enjoyable was this ‘asteroids club’ format?”  We offered 5 choices, ranging from “much less enjoyable” (scored as -2) to “much more enjoyable” (scored at +2). Six respondents said “much more enjoyable,” one said “about the same,” and four said “slightly more enjoyable.” There was no significant difference between the liberals and conservatives, which is quite encouraging

 

Conclusions and advice for future Asteroids Club dinners:

Based on the data above, and on comments made by participants after the dinner, I draw the following conclusions and lessons:

1) The format is enjoyable and promotes civil interaction. Sharing a meal in a private home seems to have made people particularly polite and open.

2) It is difficult to do two asteroids in a single 2 hour discussion. There are advantages to doing two – it led to a sense of balance and fairness. But at least 3 hours of discussion would have been needed to cover both.

3) Relationships matter, and it takes time to get to know each other and develop trust. Ideally, asteroids clubs will be true clubs, with a stable membership that meets every month or two.

4) The exact instructions for each part of the evening matter. More work is needed, drawing from experts in negotiation and facilitated discussion, on how to optimize the integrative discussion and conclusion.

5) More “warmup” exercises could be tried. We kept this evening fairly direct and cerebral – focused on the ideas and research. But future events could begin with more activities to build trust and cohesion, such as singing the National Anthem, or doing introductions in a much more personal way, or pairing off in bipartisan teams for short initial discussions, and then having participants report to the group by introducing their partner and his/her main concerns.

The bottom line is that we created a novel social situation which called for openness, trust, and collaborative thinking, and the participants rose to the occasion. There was no partisan sniping and not a shred of hostility. People sometimes made points that supported the other side. Many on both sides expressed a desire to continue the conversation. Which we will do, in a way soon to be announced.

If you are interested in hosting an Asteroids Club dinner yourself, please visit: www.AsteroidsClub.org

Jon Haidt

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Creating Shared Goals Using The Asteroids Club Paradigm

One of the most general and robust findings in social psychology is the power of situations to shape behavior.  For example, if you are in a situation where you are competing with others, you will tend to dislike them, whereas when you are cooperating with them, you will tend to like them.  This is relatively intuitive, yet we often fail to appreciate this in practice, and then we end up amazed when arbitrary groups put in competition end up in deep conflict.  If artificially created competitions can inflame divisions (e.g. sports fandom usually pits very similar people against each other), perhaps we can also manufacture cooperation to reduce division.
 
Jonathan Haidt (a director of CivilPolitics) conceived of the idea of The Asteroids Club with this in mind and the idea is currently being incubated by To The Village Square, a non-profit dedicated to improving political dialogue.  Below is an excerpt from an op-ed by Haidt in The Tallahassee Democrat:

Partisanship is not a bad thing. We need multiple teams developing multiple competing visions for the voters to choose among. But when our political system loses the ability for national interest to come before party interest, we’ve crossed over into hyper-partisanship. And that’s a very bad thing, because it paralyzes us in the face of so many impending threats.

What can we do about this? How can we free ourselves and our leaders from hyper-partisanship, and return to plain old partisanship? By joining the Asteroids Club! It’s a club for all Americans who are willing to grant that the other side sees some real threats more acutely than their own side does. It’s a concept developed with Tallahassee’s Village Square, which is hosting a series of Asteroids Club Dinner at the Square programs this year.

Asteroids Clubs would never hold debates. Debates often increase polarization. Rather, a local Asteroids Club would hold telescope parties in which members help each other to see approaching asteroids — one from each side — that they hadn’t really noticed before. Telescope parties would harness the awesome power of reciprocity. If we acknowledge your asteroid, will you acknowledge ours?

So come on, people! Dozens of asteroids are closer to impact than they were yesterday. Don’t wait for Washington to fix itself. Let’s just start working together, and if we can do it, it will be easier for Washington to follow our example. The alternative is for us to follow theirs.

If you are in the Tallahassee area, consider joining the event on Tuesday, January 14, 2014 from 5:30 to 7:30pm (more info at www.tothevillagesquare.org).  At Civil Politics, we plan to both support the work of such groups, by giving them access to academic research and to support the work of academics, by giving them access to the findings generated by such real-world events.

- 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.