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

Social Psychology

Social psychology uses scientific methods to study how people relate to each other. As such, many of its most basic and classic findings are relevant to civil politics.   For example:
1) Partisans are likely to blame the people on the other side, rather than the situation, for incivility.
Indeed, one of the most basic areas of social psychology research (aptly named the fundamental attribution error), concerns the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain the behavior of others. It does not explain interpretations of one’s own behavior—where situational factors are often taken into consideration. This discrepancy is called the actor–observer bias.  (from Wikipedia)  In the realm of political civility, this means that individuals are likely to believe that conflict occurs as a result of the other group’s actions (which are due to their bad character), rather than one’s own actions or the situation that both groups are engaged in.
2) Zero-sum conflicts generally lead to incivility, while superordinate goals promote civility.
Among the most basic situations that relates to political civility is the presence of competition.  The original study of what has been dubbed Realistic Conflict Theory, created animosity artificially by simply dividing a group of boys into 2 groups and having them compete.  The authors of the study then  removed conflict by introducing a superordinate goal.  Politics, especially in a 2 party system, is guaranteed to create competition.  However, politics can perhaps be tempered by the realization that we all also have superordinate goals, not just party goals.  We all want to reduce the deficit, reduce terrorism, increase employment, feed the poor, educate children, increase access to healthcare, reward productivity, encourage business growth, etc.  Unfortunately, sometimes these superordinate goals are lost to competitive goals.  In a sense, the promotion of superordinate policy goals is a way to create a non-zero sum situation, as opposed to focusing exclusively on the zero-sum game of politics, where every election winner wins at the expense of a loser.  The creation of non-zero sum situations is what allows us to progress as a species, according to Robert Wright’s book Non-Zero.  To connect this to work in political science, consider this paper that details how the “uncompromising mindset” is a result of the “permanent campaign”, which culminates in a zero-sum election, while good governance requires non-zero sum compromise toward policy goals (e.g. Tax reform under Reagan that closed loopholes for the wealthy, while reducing the top tax rate)
3) Positive contact reduces animosity between groups.
Another basic branch of research in social psychology concerns the contact effect, which was developed to promote cooperation among racial groups, but whose basic tenets hold true for any inter-group processes.  Simply put, it is easier to demonize groups that you do not have positive contact with.  Again, as with most social psychology, the tenets are hardly surprising, but individuals still may find that they demonize groups of individuals without getting to know them personally, even when they intellectually know better.  Proposals such as mixed-partisan seating should indeed lead to reduced incivility, according to social psychology research.  This article outlines some common situational factors that lead groups to develop or not develop animosity, with the following factors leading to increased animosity: moral superiority (see our section on moral psychology), perceived threat, a lack of common goals, a lack of common values, and the quest for power.  How might we create situations that lead to less animosity while allowing genuine disagreement?  There is bound to be value and goal disagreement between political partisans, but perhaps we can also emphasize value and goal congruence.  There is bound to be some threat, in the form of policies that we disagree with, but perhaps we can keep perspective on the extent of the threat.  Power has changed between parties numerous times without destroying our country.  What threat exists is largely to the jobs of those in power, but perhaps politicians can begin to see power as a means toward better policy, rather than an end in and of itself.
4) Partisans have inaccurate beliefs about their political adversaries
Another factor that may contribute to uncivil discourse is the stereotypical beliefs we often seem to hold about  our political adversaries.  Social psychological research has shown that when people are asked to estimate the political opinions of the typical liberal or typical conservative, they usually give estimates that are more extreme than the actual views held by these groups (see this research report by Jesse Graham and colleagues, and this paper by Robert Robinson and colleagues, and this one by John Chambers and colleagues).  That is, conservatives believe liberals hold more liberal views than they really hold and liberals believe conservatives hold more conservative views than they really hold.  Such misperceptions can be divisive in that they lead us to perceive a political environment that is more polarized than it actually is, and foster a kind of “political shadow boxing” in which both sides are arguing, not against the actual views of their political adversaries, but with a exagerated caricature of these actual views.
5) Ideology biases our interpretation of scientific facts
Another misperception that can contribute to political conflict and uncivil discourse are partisan biases in the interpretation of scientific information.  A long history of social psychological research reveals that we are more likely to accept the validity of scientific research that confirms our prior attitudes and beliefs than we are to accept research that challenges our preconceptions (Charles Lord and Cheryl Taylor wrote this excellent review of this research).  Importantly, this is true even when researchers manipulate the information such that different results are associated with the same scientific methodology  — that is, we see the very same science as valid and compelling if it supports our political positions but deeply flawed if it underimines those positions.  Such biases almost certainly contribute to the partisan gap in factual beliefs (e.g., about human contributions to global climate change) that fuel our current culture war.  It is difficult to negotiate and compromise if two sides begin with different sets of factual beliefs.  Also, because we are unlikely to recognize how ideological biases (particularly our own — see this research on the bias blind spot we have) affect our judgments, we are likely to perceive a political opponent who holds different factual beliefs than our own as either unintelligent (not smart enough to understand the data like our side does) or disingenious (motivated for political reasons to misrepresent the actual scientific findings).

These are just a few of the most basic social psychology research areas that obviously relate to the continued incivility that we witness in American politics.  Please feel free to suggest edits and additions to this page as this page is meant to be a living document and I have no pretense that I have covered the entirety of social psychology research as it relates to civility in politics just yet.Online Resources:

  • This paper is a dated, but still relevant overview of realistic conflict theory (restricted access for full paper, unfortunately).
  • This paper looks at the opposition to desegregation through the lens of group conflict, rather than just racism.  This paper shows how realistic conflict operates in modern discussions of immigration.
  • This paper is an update on contact theory, while this paper talks about why intergroup contact works, attributing it to three effects: reduced anxiety, increased knowledge, and increased empathy.
  • This book talks about the history of zero-sum vs. non zero-sum situations and how game theory is essential to truly understanding human history.
[ Edited by Ravi Iyer – Suggestions for improvement of this page welcome. ]
Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.