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

New Research Supports Age Old Ideas for Civility

I recently attended the 2015 meeting for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, which is the main gathering for academic social psychologists. Here, psychologists gather to share their latest and greatest new research. My goal was to find as much research as possible that may be of interest to our Civil Politics readers (e.g. research relating to bringing together groups across moral divisions in their community).

The meeting can be rather overwhelming as there are hundreds of panelists and thousands of posters competing for your attention, each of which may contain several novel research studies. One of my favorite sessions from this year was a panel entitled: “Finding Patterns in a Maze of Data” and emphasized that “Robust discoveries require the recognition of clear patterns that exist across a wide range of data. By finding these patterns, researchers can construct integrative theories that capture broad fundamental truths.” (full program here) While there may be thousands of potential findings to report, they are all often different takes on the same themes and it is in this convergence, across methods, samples, and research groups, that lends credence to any research discovery. At Civil Politics, we use this same method to gather evidence for our recommendations across existing research, new research, evidence and experience from practitioners, and patterns in the news, with convergence leading to greater confidence that improved interpersonal relationships and emphasizing cooperation over competition are indeed robust evidence-based recommendations. Accordingly, below are a number of new research findings that support and provide nuance as to our existing recommendations, as well as findings that suggest new potential recommendations.

Improving interpersonal relationships

The contact hypothesis, which posits that interpersonal contact under the right conditions can reduce intergroup tensions,  was developed 60 years ago, but research continues to this day.  For example, this poster by Kristin Davies of York College, showed how contact can extend to the online world, such that online interactions, especially high quality interactions, with members of outgroups was associated with positive feelings toward those groups.

2015-02-27 13.34.53

 

The above poster is correlational, so there are many explanations for the relationships found, but when put in context with all the other research on the contact effect, both at this conference and in the literature more broadly, the patterns are quite clear that positive contact can indeed improve inter-group relations.  Another poster from researchers at UCLA used an experimental paradigm and showed a similar effect using a different target group (gender-atypical or overweight individuals), with visual exposure to these groups reducing prejudice.

spsp_visual_exposure_intergroup

A related study led by Curtis Boykin at UC Berkeley, shows how surveys of people of different religious backgrounds indicates that the quality of interactions with people of other religions may a persons’ attitudes toward people of differing religions.

religious_extended_contact

This next poster led by Jonathan Cadieux and Alison Chasteen at the University of Toronto, sought to refine the mechanism whereby quality contact with older individuals led to less ageist attitudes, showing that measures of self-other overlap with older individuals helped explain this decrease.

spsp_contact_ageing

It’s worth noting that the above studies, all in-line with existing research, used varied samples (students vs workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk), methods (surveys vs. experiments), and target groups (by age, race, religion, and body type) and all came to similar conclusions.  It is this kind of convergence that gives us confidence in recommending improving cross-group relationships as a means toward bridging inter-group divisions.

How can we improve cross-group relationships?  Mere exposure is not enough and the above studies emphasize the quality of contact across groups, an idea that has been explored previously in the literature as well.  For example, the below poster, led by Sara Driskell and Mary Murphy at Indiana University, shows how uncomfortable/negative contact such as being forced to touch a stranger, can actually lead to worse inter-group attitudes.

spsp_interpersonal_touching_less_positivity

Similarly, this study from Kathleen Oltman at Yale, shows how even imagined negative contact with an individual of another race can lead to more negative attitudes toward the whole group.

spsp_one_bad_apple

The above study did not find that positive imagined contact had the opposite effect, as the effects from negative imagined experience were greater.  This has been found in previous literature, where negative experiences are more impactful than positive experiences, which is something that people bringing groups together should be aware of.  The below poster, let by Pirathat Techakesari of the University of Queensland, explores this asymmetry in more detail.  In an experience sampling study of attitudes of White vs. Asian Australians, they showed that negative experiences may be more impactful for majority groups, but that this asymmetry was not found for minority groups.

spsp_positive_negative_asymmetry

Clearly those seeking to bring groups together should avoid exacerbating differences through negative inter-group experiences.  Another potential negative effect that I may not have thought of was presented by Fabian Schellhaas and colleagues, as they expanded on previous research that showed that positive cross-group contact can undermine the desire for disadvantaged groups to mobilize to change the status quo by showing that this happens more when the individuals involved are perceived as typical members of their group.

positive_cross_group_contact

Finally, the below meta-analysis of extended contact effects, which involves a line of research that shows that seeing other people’s inter-group friendships can improve one’s own inter-group attitudes, further emphasizes the importance of relationship quality, as opposed to mere contact.

spsp_what_is_extended_contact

In summary, while no study is conclusive and all have flaws, including these, there is a great deal of convergent evidence from new research that confirms and expands upon what we already knew from previous research, specifically that positive experiences with members of other groups leads to better inter-group attitudes.

Fostering Cooperation over Competition

Our second main recommendation for improving cross-group divisions is to foster cooperation over competition.  A number of studies at this conference also confirmed and expanded upon previous work in this area.  Competition often arises from scarcity, threat, and the resulting competition for limited resources that can stave off these threats.  As such, consistent with previous research, reminders of one’s own mortality and the possibility of death are detrimental to inter-group relationships.  Here, Israeli soldiers who were reminded of their mortality showed decreased positive attitudes toward Israeli-Arabs.

mortality_salience_helping

More generally, a simulation using public goods dilemmas, led by Bobby Cheon of Nanyang Technological University, showed how threat can lead to an adaptive response where individuals favor their ingroups over others.

threat_reduces_cooperation

Similarly, the below study led by Amy Krosch at NYU, used psycho-physiological measurements to show that scarcity leads to greater lag in encoding other-race faces, suggesting that this may be a mechanism for the dehumanization that often precedes inter-group tension and violence.

scarcity_dehumanization

Threat and the competition for limited resources does not have to involve physical goods.  Many wars have been started in part due to collective humiliation and the below study led by Liesbeth Mann of the University of Amsterdam, also indicates that group based humiliation can lead to aggression, with the caveat that this may be more true for higher status individuals.

humiliation_leads_to_aggression

In contrast, in the absence of threat, seeing cooperation amongst those from an out-group actually may lead to a perception of opportunity rather than threat, as this study by Shiang-Yi Lin and Dominic Packer from Lehigh University showed.

cooperation_minimal_groups

Indeed, the lack of a competitive situation can often change the meaning of many things that would otherwise be perceived as threatening.  One interesting talk from the “Finding Patterns in a Maze of Data” symposium by Adam Galinsky at Columbia, showed how competition can lead the same forces that bind us (glue) to fan the flames of conflict (gasoline).  Specifically, intergroup contact, similarity, flattery, and perspective-taking can all actually lead to greater conflict in a competitive context, even as they bind people together in cooperative contexts.

glue_to_gasoline_competition

The above research naturally begs the question as to how we get more cooperation and less threat.  One method that is often used is to prime a collective goal or identity that can be shared across groups.  Consistent with this previous research, the below study led by Abraham Rutchick at Cal-State Northridge, suggests that greater perceptions of a super-ordinate identity (e.g. we are all Americans), leads to more bipartisan behavior.

ingroup_projection_superordinate

If threat increases competition, and therefore increases intergroup tensions, it stands to reason that situations that reduce threat will increase cooperation.  For example, the below study by Rodolfo Barragan of Stanford showed how increasing perceptions of the goodness of others may increase cross-group collaboration, perhaps by instilling a more global superordinate identity.

spsp_goodness_collaboration

At a more psychological level, the below study led by Mollie Price at the University of Missouri showed how mindfulness may reduce one’s anxiety and threat sensitivity, leading to improved inter-group attitudes.

mindfulness_reduces_intergroup_anxiety

Similarly, feelings of hope, which may be helped by perceptions of a world that is dynamic and changing, can also lead to an improved desire to cross group divisions, as this work led by Smadar Cohen-Chen of Northwestern shows.

perceptions_changing_world_hope_conflict

One way that competition ensues is when conflicts become moralized.  Here, differences are no longer matters of preference, but take on an existential quality, where the beliefs of another group threaten one’s identity.  In the below work we see work led by William Fraser at UT-Austin,  on how people who have are fused with ideological groups tend have extreme beliefs and behaviors that may exacerbate inter-group tensions.

spsp_fusion_ideology_extremity

In addition, this study led by Tamar Kreps at Stanford shows how people who moralize an issue may see the world through the lens of that issue, making it harder to bridge intergroup divisions.

spsp_issue_becomes_lens

As a result, when we have competitive situations between two morally conflicting groups, we see not just a difference of opinion, but a dehumanization of the other group.  In this study led by Joanna Sterling at NYU, we see this dehumanization measured in terms of less higher order cognition attributions to the other side.

spsp_less_high_order_cognition

This extremity, singular perspective, and reduced consideration as to the humanity of the out-group can lead to violence.  In the below picture, Matt Motyl, professor at University of Illinois and a board member of Civil Politics, is having work by Nate Carnes from UMass-Amherst explained to him.  The study shows specifically how moral motives can be associated with endorsement of intergroup violence.

matt_spsp_watch_morality_stimulates_violence

morality_promotes_violence_spsp

 

The above recap represents just a percentage of the research presented at SPSP 2015, given that multiple sessions occur at any time.  While each year, much new research is presented, a great deal of this research supports old ideas, just in new contexts.  For example, while past researchers may have studied race in the context of school integration, these researchers are studying body image in the context of online settings, yet the variables they use – specifically positive experiences with other groups – remain the same.  Similarly, the idea that tensions often arise between groups that compete with each other for scarce resources, whether they be a piece of land or jobs or a sports championship, is an old line of research.  However, new mechanisms that increase or reduce threat/competition are being explored as there are many avenues toward fostering cooperation between groups.  Hopefully this overview of some of the more pertinent new research can both confirm existing ideas that people trying to bring groups together already have and inform some new ideas as well.

- Ravi Iyer

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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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The Village Square helps partisans recognize common threats

One of the more robust findings in social psychology is the idea that common goals reduce inter-group conflicts.  Several groups have recently taken this finding into the field, using Jonathan Haidt’s Asteroids Club model, including a dinner we co-hosted with the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  The group that has done the most with this concept is undoubtedly the Village Square, an organization that has put together a series of dinners where liberals learn about conservative concerns, and conservatives learn about liberal concerns, with the idea that people can come together, over food, to learn about issues that everyone should be concerned about.

Part of Civil Politics mission is to examine how research is used in practice and so we recently partnered with the Village Square to survey participants of a recent dinner where liberals learned about conservative concerns about the decline of individual moral behavior and conservatives learned about liberal concerns about moral corruption in politics (also see coverage in the Tallahassee Democrat).   We asked participants in the survey to agree or disagree with the following statements:

  • Liberals are generally good people.
  • Conservatives are generally good people
  • The decline of individual moral behavior is a serious issue that we should work together to correct.
  • The moral corruption of our political process through the influence of money is a serious issue that we should work together to correct.

 

The first thing we learned is that it is really hard to get people to answer survey questions with no payoff or incentive, and so only 10% of the approximately 150 people who attended completed the surveys.  As a result, the differences below are not statistically significant and consumers of traditional statistics would say that there is no difference.  A Bayesian approach (that I subscribe to) would say that this is relatively weak evidence.  With that caveat in mind, below are the survey results.

Village Square Asteroids Club Survey Results

It appears there were slight benefits as to how liberals and conservatives were perceived by the audience, with both groups being perceived as slightly more good.  However, the most important result is the last 2 bars, where, even in a case where participants already perceived the dual “asteroids” as serious, the event appears to have spurred some participants to take these threats even more seriously.  Research would indicate that forging a common bond should indeed lead to the possibility of greater inter-group cooperation.

That being said, this is indeed weak statistical evidence, given the small sample size and should be contextualized within the results of other Asteroid’s Club results.  Hopefully going forward, we’ll start to see a consistent pattern amongst events, such that sum of such weak evidence, combined with the results of lab studies, tells a consistent story.  If your organization is doing conflict resolution work (any conflict between groups will do, not just in the realm of politics) and would like to be part of that story, please do contact us and we would be happy to setup a similar survey for your event, to see if it does indeed bring people together, as well as to contribute ideas from our research.

- 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.