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

The Psychological Principles Contributing to a Government Shutdown

As I write this, the government has been shutdown for four days which represents a clear failure of politicians to come together and put our nation first.  Much has been written about the shutdown, but CivilPolitics' niche in the world of political writing is to highlight how psychological principles are at work during both civil and uncivil interactions.  

Among the psychological principles at work are:

- A breakdown in relationships amongst individuals from conflicted parties.  We are all human beings first and act on our feelings as much as our reason.  While Congressman Stutzman's quote that Republicans are "not going to be disrespected" are being criticized, the reality is that mutual respect and collegial feelings amongst negotiating parties are indeed important in reaching agreement.  So when Harry Reid calls Boehner a coward, it really does reduce the likelihood of an agreement, as even if it doesn't affect Boehner explicitly, it certainly changes the nature of relationships amongst them and makes it harder to reach mutual understanding.  This effect is not limited to the parties involved as research on the extended contact effect illustrates how negativity amongst members of two groups can affect relationships between all members of conflicted groups.  In contrast, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich had a personal relationship where they talked nightly during the previous shutdown.

- The outsized influence of those with extreme moral conviction.  Research on "the dark side of moral conviction" shows how those with ostensibly good intentions can become blind to the negative consequences of their actions, in service of their goals.  The more extreme one's moral convictions are, the greater the effect, and many Republicans represent districts that have one-sided moral convictions and therefore have no reason to try to come to a middle ground.  Only 17 Republicans come from districts that Obama won (compared to 79 during Clinton's presidency), and partisan redistricting makes it increasingly unlikely that moderates will provide a check on those with more extreme moral convictions.

- A lack of focus on shared goals (e.g. keeping the government functioning) instead of on conflicting goals (e.g. Obamacare).  Realistic conflict theory and examining moments in history where partisans come together, shows us that compromise and cooperation is often a result of shared goals.  Indeed, moderates are leading the charge toward compromise.  Below is a humorous video where Republican moderate Scott Riggell (who comes from one of the few districts that is not so partisan) explicitly notes that even as he opposes the "Unaffordable Care Act", he recognizes that there is a higher goal at stake.

I'm not sure how we can transcend the current crisis, but hopefully reading the current political news from this perspective can inform an understanding of future debates and help us collectively create situations that no longer lead us to these types of self-inflicted crises.

- Ravi Iyer


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Stewart/Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and the Psychology of Moderates

As someone who is interested in promoting civility and reason in politics, I have been really excited over the past few days by Jon Stewart’s announcement of a Rally to Restore Sanity (“Million Moderate March”), coupled with Stephen Colbert’s satirical “March to Keep Fear Alive”.  The below video, where the announcement is made, is well worth watching, if only for it’s entertainment value.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Normally, we look at our data in terms of liberals and conservatives, but what can we say about moderates.  In many instances (e.g. Measures of general moral or political positions using Moral Foundations or Schwartz Values), moderates score between liberals and conservatives.  However, there are a couple interesting findings about moderates in our data that might be of interest.

First, moderates are less engaged in politics.  This isn’t a particularly controversial finding as research in social psychology shows that extreme attitudes are more resistant to change and more likely to predict behavior.  Moderates are defined by their lack of extremity and this lack of extremity predicts a disinterest in politics and lack of desire to engage in political action.

As such, it is not surprising that, as Stewart notes, the only voices which often get heard are the loudest voices.  Shouting hurts your throat and moderates are unwilling to pay that price.  But couched in terms of entertainment and comedy?  Maybe that will spur moderates to attend in a way that an overtly political/partisan event could never do.

Going a bit deeper, the other area where moderates score differently than liberals and conservatives is in terms of their willingness to moralize issues.  Moderates are less likely to frame issues as moral and less likely to be moral maximizers. Morality can be a great force for good, but there is also research on idealistic evil and the dark side of moral conviction.  You’ll notice that while liberals and conservatives moralize individual issues in the below graph at different levels, the extremes generally moralize issues more than moderates or less extreme partisans.  It’s worth noting I recently attended a talk by Linda Skitka where her team found (in China) that high moralization scores predict willingness to spy on and censor people with opposing viewpoints.

Moderates also score lower on a general (not issue specific) measure of moral maximizing.  Below is a graph of scores on individual moral maximizing questions.  Again, a lot of good may be done in the name of morality and moral maximizers may be less willing to let people starve or let injustice stand.  However, a lot of bad may be done in the name of morality as well and “never settling” for imperfect moral outcomes seems like a recipe for the kind of political ugliness that we see these days.  Moderates appear willing to accept imperfection in the moral realm.

Maximizing is a concept made popular by Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore in his book, the Paradox of Choice and his TED talk.  The argument isn’t that high standards are a bad thing…but that at some point, there is a level where overly high standards have negative consequences.  The point that Stewart and Colbert are making is that perhaps partisans have reached that point in our political dialogue, to the detriment of policy.

I probably won’t make it to DC, but I do plan on celebrating the Rally to Restore Sanity in some way, perhaps at a satellite event.  I am generally liberal and will be surrounded mainly (though not exclusively) by liberal friends.  It would be really easy to use the event as a time to mock and denigrate the extremity of the other side.  However, liberal moral absolutism has it’s dangers too.  For those of us who really want to restore sanity to political debate, it is an opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world and take a moment to reflect on how our political side can ‘take it down a notch for America’, rather than assuming that Stewart is talking to ‘them’.  And perhaps that begins with accepting some amount of moral imperfection.

- Ravi Iyer

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Why do we study the psychology of libertarians?

We recently submitted a paper for publication about libertarian morality, along with co-authors Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, Pete Ditto, and Jonathan Haidt.  The paper leverages our broad set of measures to tell a story about libertarians, which converges with previously reported findings about liberals and conservatives.  Specifically, all ideological groups demonstrate the same patterns whereby preferences, emotions and dispositions lead to an attraction to corresponding values and ideological narratives.  For example, liberals have greater feelings of empathy and are therefore more likely to moralize harm and be attracted to an ideology which prioritizes this moralization.  Libertarians moralize liberty, both economic liberty, similar to conservatives, and lifestyle liberty, similar to liberals.

Libertarians believe in the importance of individual liberty, a belief that may be related to lower levels of agreeableness and higher scores on a measure of psychological reactance (e.g. “regulations trigger a sense of resistance in me”).  They moralize concerns about harm less than liberals, in part because they have lower levels of empathy .  They moralize principles concerning being a group member (obeying authority and being loyal) less than conservatives in part because they have less attachment to the groups around them.

If you want to read more about what the paper, says, you can click here or download the paper here, but right now, I’d like to focus on why we wrote the paper, as I have previously written about how people are attracted to why you write things as much as what you write.

Of course, some part of paper writing is driven by curiosity and the practical desire to publish.  But in writing this paper, I have undergone my own personal intellectual journey, and I’m hopeful that others may have a similar experience. A lot of my impression of libertarianism was previously shaped by images of the Tea Party (who aren’t necessarily libertarians after all) and I thought of libertarians as uncaring, from my liberal perspective, in that they typically don’t support progressive taxes and social programs. The original title of the paper was “the Search for Libertarian Morality”, implying that libertarians are potentially amoral, and in retrospect showing my own ideological bias.

But as I read more about libertarian philosophy and looked more carefully at the data, I found that libertarians do indeed have a coherent moral code, that simply differs from my own. Like my liberal leanings, which have some relation to my dispositions and preferences, libertarians also moralize their preferences and dispositions, in ways that mirror my own processes. For example, liberals and libertarians both score high on desire for new experiences and stimulation, which may be a common reason why both groups tend to emphasize individual choice over group solidarity, compared to conservatives, as cohesive groups can limit choice.  Libertarians may be less moved by emotions such as disgust and empathy, which may lead them to moralize certain situations less than others.  But who am I to say that my moral compass is any better or worse than theirs, given my view that at some level, the basis for my liberal moral compass is driven by subjective sentiment.  I previously wrote about the dangers of liberal moral absolutism, and villainizing libertarians for not sharing my particular vision of morality would be a step down that road.

Why do we seek to publicize this paper?  In a time when partisanship dominates, policy suffers,  and people on both sides of the aisle villainize the other side, it is our hope that with greater understanding comes greater acceptance. We may not all agree about the relative merits of empathy, disgust, or reactance as moral emotions…but we all have some level of all of these emotions and can respect principles born out of these.  Even liberals can find things so disgusting that they are seen as wrong, and conservatives actually give a lot of money to the poor.  In attributing moral disagreements to dispositions, largely out of our control, perhaps we can learn to see others as different and attracted to other positive moral principles, rather than amoral and oblivious to the moral principles that are important to us.

- Ravi Iyer

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George Packer Explains why the Senate is Broken

There are a few political scientists who question whether the American people have become more polarized in the last ten years. (They have.) But there is no doubt that our political institutions and elites have become more polarized and uncivil in the last 2-3 decades. George Packer recently painted a grim but insightful portrait of the US Senate in a New Yorker essay, The Empty Chamber: Just how broken is the Senate? In the rest of this blog post, I’ll draw out the lessons for civil politics contained in this extraordinary essay. Packer emphasizes many of the themes we have been discussing at, particularly the importance of personal relationships as a precursor for civil interaction, as well as the generational and macro-level trends that have made a decline of civility almost inevitable as the “greatest generation” gave way to the baby boom generation.

Packer begins the essay by discussing the arcane and absurd rules of the Senate, which make it easy for any single senator to obstruct the rest of the chamber. For example, many rules of the senate require unanimous consent. Other rules allow any senator to place a “secret hold” on any appointee that the senate is asked to vote on. That is, any one senator can object, in secret, to a presidential appointee, which prevents that appointee from ever coming up for a vote. In 2007 the rules were changed so that such holds can last only 6 days, but now any pair of senators can just alternate placing 6 day secret holds and achieve the same purpose, without risking condemnation from the press or the people because their names are kept secret. As Packer says:

Like investment bankers on Wall Street, senators these days direct much of their creative energy toward the manipulation of arcane rules and loopholes, scoring short-term successes while magnifying their institution’s broader dysfunction.

Packer notes that the Senate used to engage in deliberation, debate, and argument. Its civility and thoughtfulness had impressed Alexis de Tocqueville. Those days are long gone:

The Senate is often referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Jeff Merkley, a freshman Democrat from Oregon, said, “That is a phrase that I wince each time I hear it, because the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited.” Merkley could remember witnessing only one moment of floor debate between a Republican and a Democrat…  Tom Udall, a freshman Democrat from New Mexico, could not recall seeing a senator change another senator’s mind. “

Packer describes many factors that have led to the dysfunctional, petty, and nasty institution that the Senate is today. After describing the superb talent and bipartisan cooperation of senators in the 1960s and 1970s, Packer says:

The Senate’s modern decline began in 1978, with the election of a new wave of anti-government conservatives, and accelerated as Republicans became the majority in 1981. “The Quayle generation came in, and there were a number of people just like Dan—same generation, same hair style, same beliefs,” Gary Hart, the Colorado Democrat, recalled. “They were harder-line. They weren’t there to get along with Democrats. But they look accommodationist compared to Republicans in the Senate today.”

In addition…

Both [Republican Lamar] Alexander and [Republican Judd] Gregg said that the Senate had been further polarized by the rising number of senators—now nearly fifty—who come from the House, rather than from governorships or other positions where bipartisan coöperation is still permissible. “A lot of senators don’t understand the history or tradition of the institution,” Gregg said. “Substantive, thoughtful, moderate discussion is pushed aside.”

A further cause is the extraordinary time pressure of modern political life, which makes it even harder to meet members of the other party socially:

Encumbered with aides, prodded by hourly jolts from electronic media, racing from the hearing room to the caucus lunch to the Power Hour to the airport, senators no longer have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to get to know one another—least of all, members of the other party. Friendships across party lines are more likely among the few spouses who live in Washington. After Udall joined the Senate, last year, he was invited to dinner by Alexander, because Jill Cooper Udall and Honey Alexander had become friends through a women’s social club. It remains the only time Udall has set foot in the house of a Republican senator. (Vice-President Joe Biden, in his autobiography, recalls that, in the seventies, a bipartisan group of senators and their wives hosted a monthly dinner: “In those days Democrats and Republicans actually enjoyed each other’s company.”)

Illustrating the extraordinary difficulty of civil politics, reforms that you might think of as advances sometimes made things worse:

After C-SPAN went on the air, in 1979, the cozy atmosphere that encouraged both deliberation and back-room deals began to yield to transparency and, with it, posturing. “So Damn Much Money,” a recent book by the Washington Post reporter Robert G. Kaiser, traces the spectacular rise of Washington lobbying to the same period. Liberal Republicans began to disappear, and as Southern Democrats died out they were replaced by conservative Republicans. Bipartisan coalitions on both wings of the Senate vanished. The institutionalist gave way to the free agent, who controlled his own fund-raising apparatus and media presence, and whose electoral base was a patchwork of single-issue groups. Members of both parties—Howard Metzenbaum, the Ohio Democrat; Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican—took to regularly using the Senate’s rules to tie up business for narrowly ideological reasons. … The weakened institution could no longer withstand pressures from outside its walls; as money and cameras rushed in, independent minds fell more and more in line with the partisans…. Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the Senate has increasingly become populated by “ideologues and charlatans.”

It should be noted, of course, that whether you think efficiency is a virtue depends on whether you’re in the majority:

None of the Republicans I spoke to agreed with the contention that the Senate is “broken.” Alexander claimed that he and other Republicans were exercising the moderating, thoughtful influence on legislation that the founders wanted in the Senate.

Our view at CivilPolitics, however, is that the Senate is broken. It cannot serve the interests of the nation to give every single senator the ability to derail legislation, which gives every single senator the ability to ask for special benefits in exchange for letting go of the brake. It also cannot serve the interests of the nation for the Senate to have essentially ceased to deliberate, and to have degenerated into a simple power struggle between two teams. We suspect that there are some simple rule changes that could improve the functioning of the senate, in addition to the changes to primaries and general elections that we discuss elsewhere on this site.

Jon Haidt

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