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

How to Make Real Progress Against Trump’s Incivility

I haven’t written much about Trump, who has taken “incivility” to new heights this election season, in part because there is no trumpevidence that telling large groups of people to be more civil has any value.  There is both anecdotal evidence and research that suggests forcefully telling people to be more civil will backfire.  Incivility and conflict involving large groups of people tends to be a function of a situational dynamic - two groups competing for a goal or a scarce resource like victory in a game or an election – that trumps any direct commandment to be more civil.  The rise of Trump as a political force is an opportunity for us to practice what we preach at Civil Politics and try to understand the dynamics that give rise to the conflict we see, in the hopes of cutting it off at its source.  As has been written in other places, Trump is a symptom, not a cause, and we are likely to see others follow in his footsteps whether he is elected or not.  If we really want a better political dialogue, we need to understand the root causes of Trump’s appeal.

It helps to start with the empirical fact that there are very few truly evil people in the world.  Human beings are uniquely social creatures who survived and thrived by being able to cooperate with hundreds of thousands of others, such that only ~1% of us are “psychopaths” who actually don’t care about others.  A human being who doesn’t care about others is akin to a bee that doesn’t care about his hive.  It’s rare.  The rest of us really do care about others beyond ourselves and try to do what we think is right, even if we sometimes do what others would think of as “evil” as a result.  That definition of “right” may include violence, theft, and incivility in the name of a moral cause (see research on idealistic evilthe dark side of moral conviction or terrorism and sacred values), but there is a moral cause behind most people’s actions, even when we disagree with those actions.

Trump supporters have many moral motivations that many who disagree with him would recognize and value.

- They worry about the lack of jobs for hard-working, but under educated Americans.
- They fear that the system of lobbyists and special interests is stacked against them.
- They think that politicians cannot be trusted to fight for everyday Americans, due to their reliance on donors who line their pockets.
- They feel that their identity and their ability to express their opinions is under attack.

Indeed, many of these positions are emphasized by Bernie Sanders, which is why you sometimes see people who support Trump and Sanders both.  Calling Trump supporters racist, stupid or naive is not only a misleading caricature, but also a recipe for only exacerbating the coarsening conflict that we are trying to avoid, as it drives each side into its corner.  If we want things to get better, research suggests that we have to start from a place of common goals and develop a positive relationship with Trump fans rather than having convincing them why they are wrong as our ultimate goal.  Staging violent protests at Trump’s rallys is the opposite of this.  How can we instead reduce the divisions, rather than inflame them?

Let us acknowledge that we need to do something to help people who want to work hard but are being left behind by an increasingly global and technological economy.  Let us acknowledge that lobbyists and donors have undue influence and work to curb that influence, whether it be through campaign finance or a simpler government with fewer rules to be gamed.  Let us all accept that we want a society where no identity, American or immigrant, religious or atheist, urban or rural, feels threatened and unable to express their opinions freely, and work to make relationships across these divides.  And let us accept that whatever we think of Donald Trump as a person, his supporters are generally ordinary Americans who care deeply about their kids and their communities.  Let’s help them with their concerns as it makes no sense to be someone who cares deeply about poor Americans who simultaneously denigrates many in that group, who happen to support a candidate they disagree with.

To be clear, I do not support Trump or his rhetoric which is deeply uncivil and divisive.  But those who are demonizing Trump’s supporters and disrupting his events are only exacerbating the problem.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” and there is ample research that suggests that forging positive empathic relationships across divisions is indeed the only way to truly heal a great moral divide.

- Ravi Iyer

Ravi Iyer has a Ph.D in psychology from the University of Southern California and has published dozens of articles on political and moral attitudes.  He works as a data scientist at Ranker and is also the Executive Director of Civil Politics, a non-profit that promotes evidence based methods for healing inter-group divisions.
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The Village Square Helps Liberals Understand that Conservatives are indeed Good People Too

One of the things that we do at Civil Politics is help organizations conduct program evaluations as part of an effort to understand how the academic research that is largely produced in university settings translates to the real world.   We recently studied an event put on by the Village Square on January 12th entitled Created Equal + Breathing Free, where the ostensibly liberal virtue of diversity was discussed alongside the ostensibly conservative issue of  allowing religious liberty.  The event mirrors ideas from academia that suggest that positive contact between groups can lead to better relationships, especially when the groups collaborate on shared goals (e.g. recognizing a concern that each side brings to the table).

To that end, we asked people who attended the event to agree or disagree with statements about the importance of diversity, the importance of religious liberty, and attitudes toward liberals and conservatives.  We asked the same questions before and after the event, to see if the event changed any attitudes and, as we have found before in such work, we found that people’s attitudes about issues are hard to change, but that people do end up liking people in the opposing group more after the event.  The below graph shows that attitudes toward all groups increased post-event, with the highest increases amongst those who came into the event with pro-liberal attitudes becoming significantly more likely to believe that “conservatives are good people” (see leftmost bar in the below graph).

villagesquare event graph Jan 20161

37 people ended up completing both before and after event surveys and there was one statistically significant finding – that people were more likely to agree with the statement “conservatives are good people” after the event, as compared to before the event (+ 7.35 on a 100 point scale, t-test t=2.392, p = .022).  This was driven almost entirely by the 22 people who started the event with more agreement to the idea that liberals are indeed good people, as compared to the idea that conservatives are good people (the increase was 10.8 points amongst this group), suggesting that the main effect of the event was to convince a generally liberal audience that conservatives are indeed good people too.

Note that the event didn’t change anyone’s mind as to the importance of the issues or make either group want to be friends with the other.  The event organizers predicted as much from their experience of the event.  But perhaps the simple belief that those who one disagrees with are indeed good sincere people is a step in the right direction for a single night’s work, and for that, we thank the Village Square and anyone who brings people together in their communities in the spirit of collaboration across groups.  In our experience, change often happens one relationship at a time.

- Ravi Iyer

ps.  If you’re interested in the Village Square’s take on these results, you can read more about their philosophy and their experience of the event here.

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When Morality Threatens Civility

Politics is fundamentally a group phenomenon that should be examined in relation to person’s identification with a particular group label (see Allport, 1954). When a person identifies as a “conservative” or “liberal” it means that he or she not only assumes a particular set of political positions but also identifies with other partisans as well as the shared sense of reality implied therein (Devine, 2014; see also Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin, 2008). To define oneself in this way often implies the identification of opponents, rivals or even enemies (cf. Edelman, 1988) that, at increasing levels, becomes a means of further clarifying what it means to be a “conservative” or a “liberal.”

“Civility,” which is the concern of this group, should therefore be examined as an intergroup, rather than interpersonal matter. What, then, does research on intergroup relations have to say about increasing civility among political partisans? I would argue that the greatest threat to political civility within a stable democracy is the “moralizing” of political discourse as it pertains to political groups. Namely, it is one thing to view your political opponent as misguided or simply wrong; it is another thing entirely to view him/her and the group that he/she represents as immoral, transgressive, or just plain evil. When placed in the latter realm, political discourse becomes decidedly less civil as the concept of “loyal opposition” becomes not only oxymoronic, but tantamount to treason.

When Morality Threatens Civility

Why must we as social scientists, practitioners, and scholars be wary when political discourse becomes moralized? The simple answer is that morality is powerful. The capacity for moral judgment and moral action may be encoded into our very fiber as a species and may have been the building blocks upon which human civilization was founded (Haidt, 2007, 2012; Greene, 2013). Putting aside the ontology of human morality, a much more parsimonious reason, at least for my purposes, for why morality is powerful is that people tend to view moral values as being objectively true (Goodwin & Darley, 2008). That is, a moral statement (e.g., “It is wrong to kill.”) is perceived to be more like an empirically verifiable fact (e.g., “The Earth revolves around the Sun.”) and less like a statement of social convention (e.g., “An appropriate tip for your server is 15 to 20 percent of the bill.”).

And there’s the rub, so to speak. A person’s morality is rooted in beliefs that are perceived to be as true as the Earth revolves around the Sun and which also imply a proscriptive element: not only is it wrong to kill, but one ought not to kill. A person’s moral worldview not only describes social reality but also guides future behavior as well as how future behavior is to be evaluated. One only needs to consult the work of Linda Skitka on moral conviction (see Skitka, 2010) or Jeremy Ginges’ work on sacred values (e.g., Atran & Ginges, 2012; Ginges & Atran, 2011) to see how these aspects of morality function in politics. What their work demonstrates is that we often judge the actions of others in relation to whether they reflect or confirm our moral values, even if violates considerations of procedural justice (Skitka & Houston, 2001) or our own utilitarian benefit (Ginges & Atran, 2011).

The “moralizing” of intergroup relations is often reflected in the attribution of moral or immoral qualities to other groups. I am currently examining the consequences of this process as part of my dissertation. In my preliminary findings (see Pilecki et al., 2013), I have found that when people perceive that members of another group (e.g., liberals, conservatives, feminists, evangelicals, etc.) as being typically less moral than most other people they are more likely to view violence or acts of political repression towards that group as being appropriate. These findings reinforce previous empirical and theoretical work by Susan Opotow (1990, 1993, 1994) and others (e.g., Bar-Tal, 1990) on the “scope of justice,” which refers to the distinction that people make between those considered worthy of moral treatment and those considered unworthy of moral treatment. When a social group is imbued with immoral qualities by political leaders, pundits, or other “entrepreneurs of identity” (Reicher & Hopkins, 2001) that group is effectively set apart from others and, in effect, becomes a legitimate and morally justifiable target of harm rather than civil discussion.

When people moralize intergroup relations they limit the potential for civil discourse to emerge as they frame political issues within the realm of sacred values, thereby making trade-offs and compromises less likely (Tetlock, 2003; Tetlock, Kristel, Elson, Green & Lerner, 2000). The words and labels we use to describe the social groups with which we identify and those that we oppose shape how we think about us, them and how we relate to one another (see Hammack & Pilecki, 2012). In other words, language matters and it is therefore incumbent for social scientists and practitioners to hold political leaders, media figures and other influential people accountable for their use of moralizing rhetoric to mobilize support, gain more viewers, and/or delegitimize criticism.

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Pew Research highlights Social, Political and Moral Polarization among Partisans, but more people are still Moderates

A recent research study by Pew highlights societal trends that have a lot of people worried about the future of our country.  While many people have highlighted the political polarization that exists and others have pointed to the social and psychological trends underlying that polarization, Pew’s research report is unique for the scope of findings across political, social, and moral attitudes.  Some of the highlights of the report include:

  • Based on a scale of 10 political attitude questions, such as a binary choice between the statements “Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient” and  ”Government often does a better job than people give it credit for”, the median Democrat and median Republicans’ attitudes are further apart than 2004 and 1994.
  • On the above ideological survey, fewer people, whether Democrat, Republican, or independent, are in the middle compared to 1994 and 2004.  Though it is still worth noting that a plurality, 39% are in the middle fifth of the survey.
  • More people on each side see the opposing group as a “threat to the nation’s well being”.
  • Those on the extreme left or on the extreme right are on the ideological survey are more likely to have close friends with and live in a community with people who agree with them.


The study is an important snapshot of current society and clearly illustrates that polarization is getting worse, with the social and moral consequences that moral psychology research would predict when attitudes become moralized.  That being said, I think it is important not to lose sight of the below graph from their study.


Pew Survey Shows a Shrinking Plurality holds Moderate Views

Pew Survey Shows a Shrinking Plurality holds Moderate Views


Specifically, while there certainly is a trend toward moralization and partisanship, the majority of people are in the middle of the above distributions of political attitudes and hold  mixed opinions about political attitudes.  It is important that those of us who study polarization don’t exacerbate perceived differences, as research has shown that perceptions of differences can become reality.  Most Americans (79%!) still fall somewhere between having consistently liberal and consistently conservative attitudes on political issues, according to Pew’s research.  And even amongst those on the ends of this spectrum, 37% of conservatives and 51% of liberals have close friends who disagree with them.  Compromise between parties is still the preference of most of the electorate.  If those of us who hold a mixed set of attitudes can indeed make our views more prominent, thereby reducing the salience of group boundaries, research would suggest that this would indeed mitigate this alarming trend toward social, moral, and political polarization.

- 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.