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

How to Make Real Progress Against Trump’s Incivility

I haven’t written much about Trump, who has taken “incivility” to new heights this election season, in part because there is no trumpevidence that telling large groups of people to be more civil has any value.  There is both anecdotal evidence and research that suggests forcefully telling people to be more civil will backfire.  Incivility and conflict involving large groups of people tends to be a function of a situational dynamic - two groups competing for a goal or a scarce resource like victory in a game or an election – that trumps any direct commandment to be more civil.  The rise of Trump as a political force is an opportunity for us to practice what we preach at Civil Politics and try to understand the dynamics that give rise to the conflict we see, in the hopes of cutting it off at its source.  As has been written in other places, Trump is a symptom, not a cause, and we are likely to see others follow in his footsteps whether he is elected or not.  If we really want a better political dialogue, we need to understand the root causes of Trump’s appeal.

It helps to start with the empirical fact that there are very few truly evil people in the world.  Human beings are uniquely social creatures who survived and thrived by being able to cooperate with hundreds of thousands of others, such that only ~1% of us are “psychopaths” who actually don’t care about others.  A human being who doesn’t care about others is akin to a bee that doesn’t care about his hive.  It’s rare.  The rest of us really do care about others beyond ourselves and try to do what we think is right, even if we sometimes do what others would think of as “evil” as a result.  That definition of “right” may include violence, theft, and incivility in the name of a moral cause (see research on idealistic evilthe dark side of moral conviction or terrorism and sacred values), but there is a moral cause behind most people’s actions, even when we disagree with those actions.

Trump supporters have many moral motivations that many who disagree with him would recognize and value.

- They worry about the lack of jobs for hard-working, but under educated Americans.
- They fear that the system of lobbyists and special interests is stacked against them.
- They think that politicians cannot be trusted to fight for everyday Americans, due to their reliance on donors who line their pockets.
- They feel that their identity and their ability to express their opinions is under attack.

Indeed, many of these positions are emphasized by Bernie Sanders, which is why you sometimes see people who support Trump and Sanders both.  Calling Trump supporters racist, stupid or naive is not only a misleading caricature, but also a recipe for only exacerbating the coarsening conflict that we are trying to avoid, as it drives each side into its corner.  If we want things to get better, research suggests that we have to start from a place of common goals and develop a positive relationship with Trump fans rather than having convincing them why they are wrong as our ultimate goal.  Staging violent protests at Trump’s rallys is the opposite of this.  How can we instead reduce the divisions, rather than inflame them?

Let us acknowledge that we need to do something to help people who want to work hard but are being left behind by an increasingly global and technological economy.  Let us acknowledge that lobbyists and donors have undue influence and work to curb that influence, whether it be through campaign finance or a simpler government with fewer rules to be gamed.  Let us all accept that we want a society where no identity, American or immigrant, religious or atheist, urban or rural, feels threatened and unable to express their opinions freely, and work to make relationships across these divides.  And let us accept that whatever we think of Donald Trump as a person, his supporters are generally ordinary Americans who care deeply about their kids and their communities.  Let’s help them with their concerns as it makes no sense to be someone who cares deeply about poor Americans who simultaneously denigrates many in that group, who happen to support a candidate they disagree with.

To be clear, I do not support Trump or his rhetoric which is deeply uncivil and divisive.  But those who are demonizing Trump’s supporters and disrupting his events are only exacerbating the problem.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” and there is ample research that suggests that forging positive empathic relationships across divisions is indeed the only way to truly heal a great moral divide.

- Ravi Iyer

Ravi Iyer has a Ph.D in psychology from the University of Southern California and has published dozens of articles on political and moral attitudes.  He works as a data scientist at Ranker and is also the Executive Director of Civil Politics, a non-profit that promotes evidence based methods for healing inter-group divisions.
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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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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.