Two Evidence-Based Recommendations for Civil Disagreement

Navigating the scientific literature can be difficult as there is so much research being produced these days and so much controversy as to what findings are “real”, that it can be hard to know what evidence-based recommendations to follow.  In order to help provide clarity to the journalists, organizations, and others who get information from Civil Politics, we would like to make two main recommendations.  These recommendations are not exhaustive and there are certainly other avenues of research.  And they are broad, such that the way that they are practiced may vary depending on the situation.  But these recommendations are also broad in terms of the evidence that supports them and this same breadth also provides practitioners options as far as how to effectively practice these recommendations.

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Our recommendations:

1. Improve inter-personal relationships – There is a rich psychological literature on how positive contact between groups increases the likelihood that greater cooperation and less demonization across groups will occur.  This can occur either between individuals or at the group level, whereby individuals see that people of their group are getting along with others in the other group (known as the extended contact effect).  The psychological research on this phenomenon dates from the civil rights area, and continues to be replicated in labs across the country to this day, such that we can have confidence in it (see more research here).  Evidence for the utility of promoting positive relationships between groups is not only found in the psychological literature, but also in prominent examples of cross-group cooperation (e.g. Reagan and Tip O’Neill or more recently, Patty Murray and Paul Ryan) and in the successful practices of numerous organizations that work in the community such as A2Ethics, Living Room Conversations and The Village Square.  Intuitively, we all know that relationships matter as much as facts, and so organizations seek to build culture, doctors get to know patients, salespeople get to know clients, and diplomats work to build relationships as well.  Yet sometimes in the heat of a morally charged conflict, we may start to see the other side as personally repugnant, and it is exactly at these times when relationship building needs to occur as it is hard to find common ground with someone you find personally reprehensible.  Many inter-group conflicts actually occur between people who are actually quite alike in many ways (e.g. baseball fans, political junkies, bloods and crips, etc.) and the opportunity exists to take advantage of what people have in common to forge better relationships.  And once the intuitions and emotions are pulling us to cooperate, our views of the facts often follow.

2.  Emphasize cooperative goals vs. competitive goals – In most conflicts, the extremists on each side will seek to emphasize the enduring intractable nature of a conflict.  Consider how both militant Islam and those who are openly anti-Muslim seek to characterize the divide in the same way; as a fundamental zero-sum conflict, and the same could be said of how the far-left and far-right seek to characterize American politics as fundamental battles between good and evil.  Yet there are often goals that are shared by both groups that lead to cooperation, at least amongst those who are in the vast middle (e.g. it is only the shared goal of avoiding government default and shutdown that often leads to the passing of legislation).  There is a vast amount of psychological research that relates to how competition for limited resources leads to inter-group conflict (Realistic Conflict Theory), and researchers are constantly showing how variables that relate to this paradigm (e.g. increased threat or decreased scarcity of resources) impact inter-group relations.  As with our first recommendation, the research in this area is bolstered by the experiences that organizations have had in creating cooperative settings.  For example, the Village Square has held several successful events leveraging Jonathan Haidt’s Asteroids Club paradigm where partisans seek to recognize problems that both sides can agree are real issues and Living Room Conversations attempts to create a personal setting where people can work together on goals that everyone can agree upon: safer communities and reduced prison costs.  There are also many examples from the news where cooperation occurs when a larger goal can be identified (e.g. this recent Politico article where George Soros and Bill Koch work together on prison reform).  We all know that competition breeds animosity, even amongst those who would otherwise be friends, as evidenced in every sports rivalry across the country.  Yet just as sports fans unite to sing the national anthem, so too can those who find themselves divided seek to consciously remember the larger groups and goals that can indeed bring them together and emphasize those.

We are periodically asked by journalists, organizations, and site visitors about crossing moral divisions and are hopeful that these two simple recommendations can help cut through what can otherwise be a rather opaque literature on evidence-based methods.  Both of these recommendations are supported by dozens of articles and hundreds of studies, as well as countless hours of work and experience by practitioners.  At some level, these techniques are intuitive and are things we already know…but they are also things that we often forget in the heat of a debate, and we are hopeful that reminding people to consciously apply these techniques can make a difference.

- Ravi Iyer

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