The Dark Side of Political Engagement. Unsolicited Advice for Brigade Media.

I recently read with interest the news that several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are attempting to “fix” political dialogue in this country through a well funded new venture called Brigade Media.  From this Time Magazine article:

With backing from early Facebook investor Sean Parker, Brigade Media LLC has already raised an impressive $9.3 million in funds to improve civic engagement from the federal level down to state and local politics

Guided by its scrappy startup ethic, Silicon Valley has disrupted entrenched industries from hotels to rental cars to pizza delivery, but a group of tech barons are raising the stakes with what may be their biggest challenge yet: American democracy.

As someone whose primary identity bridges the worlds of tech startups and using social science to bring people together, I’m excited to see where this effort leads.  However, I would caution tech entrepreneurs about confounding moral engagement with more productive disagreement, given research on the dark side of moral conviction.  Specifically, research in social psychology suggests that as people get more morally engaged with an issue, they also may become more rigid about those beliefs.  That is not to say that civic engagement is destined to decrease civility, but rather to highlight the potential pitfall in equating greater knowledge with more productive disagreement.  Research would suggest that efforts that promote relationships (e.g. see the work that our partners at The Village Square do) and/or promote super-ordinate goals (e.g. the Asteroids Club paradigm), at the same time that they promote civic engagement, may indeed lead to more productive civil debate.

- Ravi Iyer