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

Why is political polarization rising? Why the centre cannot hold in America, Europe, and psychology

As political events in Europe and America got stranger and more violent over the last year, I found myself thinking of the phrase “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” I didn’t know its origin so I looked it up, found the poem The Second Coming, by W. B. Yeats, and found a great deal of wisdom. Yeats wrote it in 1919, just after the First World War and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence.

Here is the first stanza:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The last two lines point to moral psychology—people full of passionate intensity—as one of the reasons why things fall apart and the centre cannot hold. This analysis fits with many books written about the causes of political violence and genocide (see Baumeister; Fiske & Rai; and my book, The Righteous Mind). It also fits my analysis of why things are falling apart on American college campuses.

I therefore used the poem as the leitmotif of a talk I gave last week at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, in Denver, where I offered my most complete statement ever on the causes and consequences of political polarization. I focused on the causes of America’s political dysfunction and then extended the analysis to Europe as well. Something is going wrong in Western liberal democracies; there is something we’re not understanding.

But as long as I had the opportunity to address the largest gathering of psychologists in the world, I wanted to extend the analysis to psychology too. I showed how we, as a field, have gotten politically polarized, as with so many other academic disciplines, professions, and institutions. We have become part of the problem, and it is damaging our science and our ability to help our clients, patients, and students. I proposed that we must fix ourselves before we can become part of the solution.

Here is the entire talk (54 minutes), including an introduction from Susan McDaniel, the president of APA.

I hope that the talk will be useful in high school and college courses on civics, political science, and social psychology. I am therefore posting the slides, both as a PowerPoint file and as a 12 page PDF file. (I encourage their use by educators at all levels.)

I also hope that the talk will help people to understand our mission here at Heterodox Academy. Polarization and political purification are happening to so many institutions. For institutions that aim to discover truth, such as a university, ideological purification is deadly. Pleasing but false ideas go unchallenged. Unpleasant but true ideas don’t get a hearing. Until we figure out ways to increase viewpoint diversity and to end the intimidation and ostracism experienced by those who question orthodoxy on campus, universities will be part of our national problem, not part of the solution.

- Jonathan Haidt

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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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Those who want a fight, like Trump and ISIS, do indeed benefit from each other.

During the recent Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton stated that Donald Trump has become a lead recruiter for ISIS.  I can’t speak to the accuracy of this claim, and much has been written from both sides elsewhere.   However, there should be very little doubt that those who benefit from conflict need the level of perceived competition to be ever greater, in order to justify their combative stance within their own group, implying that the extremes on both sides of any conflict do indeed have common goals.  That is true in social science laboratory experiments, natural experiments that occur in the world, analyses of history, in our everyday experiences and yes, it is true with regard to those who benefit from a perceived “clash of civilizations”, such as Donald Trump and ISIS.  Indeed, it would be shocking if it didn’t work that way for Trump and ISIS, as shocking as it would be if gravity worked in some places and not others, as these forces are fundamental parts of human nature.  We are naturally social animals who are exceedingly good at forming groups and competing with opposing groups.  The more competitive the situation gets, the more animosity arises and the more we gravitate toward the most combative amongst our group.

Need proof?  Here are five forms of evidence that suggest this is true.Scarborough,_North_Yorkshire_-_WWI_poster

1) Social Science – Thousands of studies have used the minimal group paradigm, whereby the mere fact of assigning a person to a group creates animosity and the more competitive the groups are, the more animosity ensues.  The reason the procedure is called “minimal” is that there is no actual reason why any person is put in any group, such that any reason for conflict is simply a result of random group assignment + competition, not any real difference between individuals.  During these manufactured competitions, group members are more likely to follow others who suggest attacking the other group.

2) The Natural Experiment of Sports – How do we know that the minimal group paradigm maps onto real world behavior?  Millions of people engage in animosity toward very similar others due to the arbitrary assignment of where they happen to live and what sports team they then follow.  Thousands of papers have been written to analyze this behavior (I’d recommend Among the Thugs most), but you don’t need academic analyses to know that rivalries lead to violence across sports and countries, as it happens regularly in the news.  Importantly, the only thing that often differentiates these groups is the level of competition between them;  the greater the competition, the more animosity, and the more opportunity for heroes to arise, who lead their side to victory.

3) History – How do dictators get their populace to follow them, despite their often ineffective leadership?  North Korea needs a perpetual sense of threat to justify the terrible conditions it imposes on it’s people.  Hitler, Stalin, Pol-Pot, and Putin, in modern times, maintain(ed) their hold on power not by providing a better life for their people, but by “protecting” them from a very dangerous world.  The more competition that exists with other countries, the better their hold on power, a phenomenon that has noted by political scientists in the US as well.

4) Everyday experience – A lot of social science and history simply confirms what we already know from our everyday experience.  When was the last time that you got into an argument with someone and one party willingly conceded their point of view?  The more heated the debate, the less you listen to others, and the fact that social scientists have found this to be true is almost beside the point.  Creating a more extreme atmosphere is a great way to shut down reasoned debate and compromise.

5) Trump & ISIS – I don’t doubt Trump’s sincere desire to defeat ISIS, but support for his candidacy has clearly increased as more terrible events occur in the world.  Indeed, a prime emphasis of his candidacy is competition with ISIS, China, Mexico, etc, and his proposed toughness in dealing with them.  He demonstrates this toughness by being ever more extreme.  Similarly, while systematic analyses of terrorist attitudes are sparse, groups like ISIS have often arisen in response to perceived invasions of Islamic territory such as in the Middle East or Afghanistan,  and a prime emphasis of ISIS’ propaganda is over-the-top shock videos designed to display toughness, in the face of these threats.

In the end, human beings will rally to a “tough leader” when under threat.  Intentional or not, those who demonstrate their toughness through their extreme rhetoric, often benefit from this threat, leading those on either extreme side of any moral division to be strangely aligned in terms of their incentives.  Trump & ISIS’ relationship is similar to the relationship between Democrats and Republicans who fundraise off of the extreme words of the opposing side or the Ohio State and Michigan athletic departments, who each earn millions from their rivalry or Hamas and the current conservative Israeli government, who both gain in popularity based on each others’ more extreme actions, or east coast and west coast rappers, whose rivalry led to millions in album sales.  Human beings love competition and often, those who promote the competition amongst us reap the rewards.  Unfortunately, some of these competitions have enduring consequences and there are times when those of us who would prefer to build bridges rather than walls need to get psychology working for us, rather than against us.

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