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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Superordinate Goals unite Koch Industries and the Center for American Progress

The best evidence-based recommendations for improving inter-group relations arise when academic research and real-world case studies echo each other.  There has been ample evidence of how shared (superordinate) goals can reduce inter-group tensions in the psychology literature, and this research has spawned events and programs designed to put this research into practice.  We can have even more confidence in this recommendation when we see shared goals uniting people across moral divisions, without any influence from the research community.  Recently, the New York Times wrote about one such case, where the conservative Koch Industries and the liberal Center for American Progress are working together toward a common goal: reforming the nation’s criminal justice system.

From the article:

Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the conservative Koch brothers, and the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based liberal issues group, are coming together to back a new organization called the Coalition for Public Safety. The coalition plans a multimillion-dollar campaign on behalf of emerging proposals to reduce prison populations, overhaul sentencing, reduce recidivism and take on similar initiatives. Other groups from both the left and right — theAmerican Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the Tea Party-oriented FreedomWorks — are also part of the coalition, reflecting its unusually bipartisan approach.

Organizers of the advocacy campaign, which is to be announced on Thursday, consider it to be the largest national effort focused on the strained prison and justice system. They also view the coalition as a way to show lawmakers in gridlocked Washington that factions with widely divergent views can find ways to work together and arrive at consensus policy solutions.

Officials at the Center for American Progress said that they did not make the decision to join the partnership lightly given the organization’s clashes and deep differences with both Koch Industries and many of the conservative groups.

“We have in the past and will in the future have criticism of the policy agenda of the Koch brother companies, but where we can find common ground on issues, we will go forward,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the center. “I think it speaks to the importance of the issue.”

In the face of important issues, people who were previously divided are indeed capable of putting aside previous differences.  For example, political scientists have clearly documented how war brings out nation together in support of our president, across party lines.  These shared goals are actually more common than one might think.  We all have an interest in reducing poverty, increasing employment, improving education, and improving public safety.  It is often simply a matter of focusing more on the policies that can help us achieve our shared goals versus the elections where only one side can win.

- Ravi Iyer

ps. If you’re interested in having a conversation about the issue of criminal justice reform across party lines, I’d encourage you to check out the work of Living Room Conversations, whose work we have previously featured here.

 

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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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More Information does not necessarily lead to Civility

A recent article by Ezra Klein at Vox.com eloquently makes an argument that we at CivilPolitics have also done a lot of research in support of – specifically, that if you want to affect many behaviors, you cannot just appeal to individuals’ sense of reason.  The article is well worth a complete read and is excerpted below, but the gist of it details a simple clear study by Dan Kahan and colleagues, showing that individuals who are good at math stop using their rational skills when the use of those skills would threaten their values.

How was this shown?  Consider the below table of results of a hypothetical study on whether a skin cream helps individuals with a rash.  Did the skin cream work well?  Simply scanning the numbers may give you the impression that the skin cream did well, as 225 is the highest number in the chart, yet if you look closer at the numbers, you’d find that the use of the skin cream is actually more likely to do harm than good, when compared to not doing anything at all.  However this kind of logical reasoning takes effort.

math-problem

 

Kahan’s work shows that we aren’t willing to make this kind of effort when the results would conflict with our values.  Specifically, when confronted with a ideologically charged political question (e.g. gun control) framed in the same terms, individual skill at math no longer predicts being good at solving such a problem .  Instead, one’s ideology was the main predictor and this was true for both liberals and conservatives.  From the article:

Presented with this problem a funny thing happened: how good subjects were at math stopped predicting how well they did on the test. Now it was ideology that drove the answers. Liberals were extremely good at solving the problem when doing so proved that gun-control legislation reduced crime. But when presented with the version of the problem that suggested gun control had failed, their math skills stopped mattering. They tended to get the problem wrong no matter how good they were at math. Conservatives exhibited the same pattern — just in reverse.

Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart. Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.

Consider how utterly insane that is: being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.

If more information is not the solution to producing civility, than what is?  Our expertise at Civil Politics.org is in social psychology, which often concerns the subtle influences that can affect our non-rational side.  While we are still working on a comprehensive set of recommendations (check our blog for continuing progress and research), our social psychology page details a few simple principles that one can use in addition to providing information.  Specifically, getting people to like each other more can make them more open to opposing arguments.  Providing a non-oppositional framework also creates space that allows for more civil thoughts.  These themes also run through the work of organizations we work with, such as Living Room Conversations and The Village Square, which, consciously or not, effectively use social psychological principles in their work.  Whether you are more convinced by research in the lab, case studies, or a combination, the evidence is clear – more information, by itself, will not bring groups closer together.  To do so requires considering the many emotional and psychological motivations that we all have.

- 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.