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

Moral Psychology

Moral psychology has undergone a revolution since the late 1990s. The field used to be focused on moral reasoning, leading researcher to examine the conditions that foster better deliberation. (See for example ongoing projects on deliberative democracy, which reflect this "rationalist" orientation). But social psychologists in the 1990s began to question the power of reasoning and other "controlled" conscious processes. They have emphasized the importance of "automatic" and often unconscious processes, which often include emotion. They have also emphasized the importance of social norms and environmental factors in shaping behavior. (See this short review of the field, by Haidt, published in Science). This perspective leads to a very different approach to the pursuit of civility. At CivilPolitics, most (but not all) of us believe that direct appeals to people to behave civilly will have very limited effects. We take a more social-psychological approach to the problem of intergroup conflict.  We are more interested in legal, systemic, and policy changes that will, for example, change the ways that the "teams" are drawn up (e.g., in elections), and supported (e.g., financially). We want to change the playing field and the rules of the game, in the hopes that players in the future (citizens as well as politicians) will be less likely to demonize each other, mischaracterize each others' motives, and refuse (on moral grounds) to engage in negotiations, interactions, and cooperative enterprises that would serve the nation's interests. 

To learn about moral psychology and the causes of moral conflict, demonization, and self-righteousness, we recommend these resources:

Online resources:

  • Watch this talk at the TED conference, by Jonathan Haidt, on the moral foundations of ideology (2008)
  • Read this paper on "Motivated Moral Reasoning," by Uhlman, Pizarro, Tannenbaum, & Ditto (2009)
  • Read this review article on ideology, by John Jost (2006).
  • Read this paper which describes how liberals and conservatives often struggle to understand one another and how this moral empathy gap develops. Ditto, P., & Koleva, S. (2012). Moral Empathy Gaps and the American Culture War. Emotion Review.
  • Read this paper on the "bias blind spot" — our inabllity to see our own biases, by Emily Pronin, Tom Gilovich, and Lee Ross (2004)
  • Read Ch. 4 of "The Happiness Hypothesis," by Jonathan Haidt (2006), on hypocrisy and the "myth of pure evil."
  • Read work by Scott Atran on sacred values. Atran has shown that in many intractable conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, parties on both sides cannot make compromises that would advance their material interests if doing so would violate sacred values. Sacredness means no tradeoffs. Offering one side material advantages in exchange for sacrificing sacred values tends to make them angry, and to resist even harder. But if both sides are asked to make concessions at the same time, and can see that the other side is making the same sort of painful compromise, negotiations can proceed. This work is directly applicable to the American culture war, where sacred values are are at stake, and "grand bargains" where both sides give up something valuable, might be the only way to make progress.
  • Read summaries of the talks given at the conference on "Beyond Moralistic Politics," which launched this project and website.


  • Thomas Sowell, A conflict of visions: The ideological origins of political struggles. (Written by a conservative author, on how different visions of human nature underlie the worldviews and political beliefs of liberals and conservatives
  • George Lakoff: Moral Politics: How liberals and conservatives think. (Written by a liberal author, describes the foundational metaphors and cognitive frames that underlie and guide political thought)
  • Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. (Written by a centrist)

If you want to dig deeper:
We post links to relevant materials and news stories here, as we find them

  • See the "library" of readings at The Village Square.
  • Experiments on how to increase partisan's willingness to see the other side (in Science Times); e.g., Geoff Cohen on value affirmation

–This page is maintained by Jon Haidt

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