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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The Benefits of Friendship

Context:
A main focus of intergroup relational studies relies on the ability to improve cross-group interaction and friendships. Especially prevalent in areas or communities with little to no access to an out-group, prejudice becomes a common theme and usually produces adverse effects on attitudes and opinions towards said out-group members. Christ et. al. hones in on potential contact (cross-group direct contact vs. extended indirect contact) between group members to discover a way to improve intergroup attitudes. Specifically, Christ et al. worked to understand how much of an impact extended contact, or indirect friendships with the out-group, may have on improving intergroup relations. Moreover, Christ and his colleagues study what role direct contact plays as a moderator to improving intergroup relations.

The two Hypotheses tested were:
1. The amount of extended, indirect contact for individuals who lack direct contact experience may be positively correlated to improve out-group attitudes.
2. Direct contact or cross-group friendships would promote a change in attitude strength more so than only extended, indirect contact interactions.


1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:
The first study presented by Christ et al. was focused on Western vs. Eastern German residential areas and their members’ reactions to direct vs. extended contact with out-group members, or foreigners. Christ et al. defined direct contact as personal, cross-group friendships with foreigners. Extended contact was defined as indirect friendships or the knowledge of other in-group members with personal friendships with out-group members. The contrast between Eastern and Western Germany is defined by the number of foreigners, or out-group members in each population: in 2005, 2.4% vs. 10.1% respectively. By cross referencing statements of contact experience (direct or indirect) and participants’ self-reported level of indirect prejudice towards the out-group foreigners, the level to which indirect or direct contact would improve intergroup attitudes towards each respective group was illustrated

First, Christ and his colleagues asked members from both East and West Germany the amount of direct, cross-group friendships vs. indirect friendships they have. Next, through self-report measures, the researchers assessed the level of prejudice felt between the two residential areas towards foreigners on a 1-4 certainty scale (1 = extremely uncertain, 4 = extremely certain). These individuals were responding to statements such as “Foreigners are a burden for our social security system” with said certainty self-report levels.


2. What They Found – Results:
Sure enough, through a multi-level analysis, both hypothesis were supported. It was found that extended contact with an out-group member or members was strongly correlated to the level of prejudice felt. More specifically, Eastern Germans with lower extended contact rated higher levels of prejudice with the our group than Eastern Germans who had higher amounts of extended contact. Western Germans, with more extended contact overall, reported a smaller slope of prejudice between higher and lower level extended-contact individuals.  Furthermore, the higher levels of direct contact reported, the higher the levels of positive attitude certainty were found. Moreover, direct contact was not only proven to be associated with positive attitude valence, but also stronger attitudes. In contrast, extended contact was only found to be related to positive attitude valence, not any form or change in strength of said attitude.

The take away? – Increasing Extended group contact will decrease levels of attitude certainty when it comes to negative, prejudice associations with the out-group. However, to truly improve interpersonal relations between the groups, direct contact friendships will aid in decreasing prejudice thoughts and increase positive attitude strength.

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:
General population from Germany; Ages 16 + (Mean age of 47)
Total of 1,024 participants: 464 Men, 560 Women
East vs. West Germany: 395 Eastern Germans, 629 Western Germans

4. Study Name:
Christ et al., 2010, Study 1

5. Citation:
Christ, O., Hewstone, M., Tausch, N., Wagner, U., Voci, A., Hughes, J., & Cairns, E. (2010). Direct contact as a moderator of extended contact effects: Cross-sectional and longitudinal impact on outgroup attitudes, behavioral intentions, and attitude certainty. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(12), 1662-1674.

6. Link:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20966179

7. Intervention categories:
Intergroup relations
Attitude certainty
Behavioral intentions
Intergroup contact

8. Sample size:
1,024

 

 

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Living Room Conversations Builds Trust Across Differences Concerning CA Prison Policy

At CivilPolitics, one of our service offerings is to help groups that are doing work connecting individuals who may disagree about political and moral issues.  These disagreements do not necessarily have to be about partisanship.  One organization that we work with is Living Room Conversations, a California based non-profit that holds small gatherings co-hosted by individuals who may disagree about a particular issue, in order to conciously foster non-judgmental sharing about potentially contentious issues.    Below is a description from their website, in addition to a short video.

Living Room Conversations are designed to revitalize the art of conversation among people with diverse views and remind us all of the power and beauty of civil discourse. Living Room Conversations enable people to come together through their social networks, as friends and friends of friends to engage in a self-guided conversation about any chosen issue. Typically conversations have self-identified co-hosts who hold differing views. They may be from different ethnic groups, socio-economic backgrounds or political parties. Each co-host invites two of their friends to join the conversation. Participants follow an easy to use format offering a structure and a set of questions for getting acquainted with each other and with each other’s viewpoints on the topic of the conversation.

Living Room Conversations is currently holding conversations around the issue of “realignment” in California, which is designed to alleviate prison overcrowding and where many would like to develop alternatives to jail for non-violent criminals.  Living Room Conversations wanted help understanding the effects of their program so we worked with them to develop a survey appropriate for their audience, asking people about their attitudes before and after conversations.  Informed by work in psychology, we looked at how reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy people perceived those on the opposite side of the issue to be, compared to how they perceived them before the meeting.  Results, based on a 7-point scale, are plotted below.

LivingRoomConversationsTrust1

The fact that all scores are greater than zero means that people felt that individuals who disagreed with them on these issues were more reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy compared to how they felt before the conversation (though with a sample size of only 23 individuals so far, only the increase in trustworthiness is statistically significant).

There was still a stark difference between how people felt about those who disagreed on these issues compared to how they felt about people who they agreed with, as respondents both before and after the event felt that those they agreed with were more likely to be reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy.  As well, we asked people about their attitudes about realignment policy and people’s attitudes about the issue didn’t change.  However, civility, as we define it, is not the absence of disagreement, but rather being able to disagree in a civil way that respects the intentions of others.

Moreover, even if people’s minds hadn’t changed with respect to others, individuals felt strongly (8+ on a 10 point scale) that talking with others that hold different views is valuable.  Research on the effects of such positive contact would indicate that if these individuals do follow through on this course, they will likely end up building on these attitudinal gains toward those who disagree.  Given that, these conversations appear to be a step in the right direction.

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