Civil Politics remains a free resource and we continue to support some partners who we previously worked with but due to time and funding constraints, we are not currently actively supporting programs. We’re still happy to provide lightweight advice, but apologies in advance if we are unable to engage at the depth that we previously were able to. We do plan to resume normal operations in the future and are working on the larger mission in other capacities. The mission and the research remain dear to our hearts.
In our last post, we wrote about how we are currently working with numerous partners bridging divisions and one of the common questions that partners get concerns the broader impact of their work. Specifically, people who are joining organizations that seek to bridge divisions are less likely to be the ones causing and perpetuating divisions. They likely are people who already have relatively positive impressions of the other side and a sincere desire to get along.
However, previous research on extended contact suggests that the effects of these programs may not be limited to those who attend these programs, but also may extend to those who hear about these programs. When people within a group read about members of their group getting along with members of a different group, it can affect their feelings about the other group, without any direct contact taking place.
Does this apply to some of the partners we are working with? We recently wrote about how over 90% of members of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom tell someone else about their participation and the average person tells 20 others. Indeed, this is an intentional part of the Sisterhood’s model – to have the impact of the Sisterhood extend to the communities in which members are embedded. This is also part of the model of Peace First, an organization that helps youth lead peace-making projects, with the hope that it not only affects the youth, but all the people who read about the youths’ projects.
It just so happens that one of the project stories that they promote on their site relates to interfaith cooperation as it shows a Muslim youth working together with another teenager on a project. Does watching the below video affect attitudes toward religious groups?
To answer this question, we recruited 740 people from Mechanical Turk to answer questions about their attitudes toward Muslims and Christians. We asked whether they thought each group was generally composed of good people, sincerely wanted what is best for America, and were people they had a lot in common with. We randomly assigned one group of participants to watch the above video before answering questions, in order to experimentally determine the effect of watching such a video. Below are the answers to these questions as a function of whether participants in this study watched or did not watch the above video first.
As you can see by the error bars, those who watched the video were significantly more likely to think Muslims (and Christians) were generally good people, were patriotic, and were people they had something in common with. While you’ll notice that people in both groups generally felt more positively toward Christians, the distance between how they felt about Christians and Muslims also shrank for those who watched the video. In summary, as research on extended contact effects would predict, reading about these programs does affect the attitudes of non-participants. Granted that the effects here are small, but it is worth considering that many people who are friends with people doing these programs may hear about the program at a much more personal level and many times over a longer time period. We hope to study those effects longitudinally as well, but we feel like this is a promising start in showing that people who do these programs tell a lot of people about them and then the people that they tell are likely being affected as well.
“It’s really easy to hate someone you don’t know..but when you know them, it’s hard. And when you care about them and love them, it’s impossible.”
The above is a quote from the executive director of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an organization that brings together Muslim and Jewish women in friendship, with an eye toward affecting broader attitudes toward members of different faiths. Below is a video that summarizes their work, as well as their theory of change.
I have always been struck by how many groups independently come to the realization that the path to bridging divisions lies in building personal relationships first. In a similar vein to The Village Square, Living Room Conversations, Better Angels, and numerous other groups, The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom intentionally puts friendship at the core of what they do. While there is ample research support for the idea that better relationships among individuals lead to better inter-group attitudes, it is certainly important to verify that these research studies extend to real world settings. As part of our ongoing work in bridging the academic and practitioner divide, we were able to survey 285 members of the Sisterhood to get some evidence as to how research on contact and extended contact effects maps to the real world.
Our findings indicate that members do indeed report better inter-group attitudes. As you can see below, most surveyed members self-report that they feel more comfort with others and more dedication to speaking out against divisive rhetoric.
Members report better inter-group attitudes since joining
The people who take the survey are a self-selected sample of the membership, so it’s possible that this group is more positive about their experience with the Sisterhood. Another way of looking at whether change is occurring is to examine whether attending more meetings is associated with positive attitudes toward each group. The median number of meetings attended by survey participants was 5, so we examined those who attended 4 or fewer meetings in comparison with those who have attended 6 or more meetings. As you can see in the below graph, people who have attended more meetings report having more in common with members of each faith, as well as more improvement in their comfort with others and greater commitment to speaking out against divisive rhetoric.
Yet another way of looking at the effect of the Sisterhood is to see whether the differences that people perceive in terms of how much they have in common with Jewish or Muslim women shrinks. It is natural for a Jewish woman to believe they have more in common with other Jewish women, as compared to Muslim women, even as one may feel a lot in common with both groups. The same pattern is likely for Muslim women. Yet, as people get to know each other, one would expect this perceived difference to shrink, and the data indicates that it does. Specifically, people who attend more meetings show a smaller difference between their perceptions of how much they have in common between groups.
Of course, the people who choose to attend these events are likely not the ones who have extreme attitudes about the other group, so one might question if the Sisterhood is reaching those who most need to be reached. However, research does indicate that those who hear about others making friends across groups also have their attitudes affected (e.g. this work on extended contact effects). While we were not able to survey those who have heard about this work as of yet, we did ask members how much they told others about their experiences. 95% of people had told at least one person and 90% said that they “often” tell others, with 95% being proud to do so. On average, members tell 20 other people, with the median number being 10 and some people telling hundreds of others.
As a followup, we are currently doing work examining the experimental effects of hearing about the experiences of members and preliminary evidence indicates that people who read about these kinds of programs experience significantly better inter-group attitudes as well. We plan to follow up with a post on that soon. That being said, it is clear to us that the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is not only doing valuable work with a theory of change that is well supported by existing social science work, but also that there is substantial evidence that the Sisterhood is making a measurable impact on both their members and the communities that those members are a part of.
– Ravi Iyer
ps. If anyone reading this is or knows a Jewish or Muslim woman who would like to join a group or form a chapter, please do get in touch with the Sisterhood directly at https://sosspeace.org/.
Across these groups, there is a common (though not universal) problem, where bridging the ideological divide is something that attracts liberals, moreso than conservatives. While a general message of “why can’t we all get along” is bound to attract liberals, there are ways to moralize bridging the divide to conservatives (e.g. appealing to their patriotism or to an opportunity for better, more efficient government). Liz Joyner, of the Village Square, wrote this article about it recently, that makes the following recommendations.
Start with a bipartisan relationship.
Build an expanding bipartisan network incrementally.
Keep a conservative bench.
Consider partnering with an ideologically diverse church congregation or a politically diverse group of churches.
If you’re liberal, don’t use your mother tongue.
Speak to hearts, not heads.
Understand liberal and conservative “moral channels.”
Believe in your soul that without deeply engaged conservatives, your effort will lack critical insights required to solve problems
Empathize with conservatives through a key insight that’s commonly absent in liberal circles.
Take a continuous meter reading on whether the environment you’ve created welcomes conservatives.
Scale up using a distributed leadership “cell” model.
Recognize the hazard of lopsided groups.
Respect that conservatives are going to be less thrilled with your forum or initiative for reasons that are truly legitimate
Challenges notwithstanding, the rewards you’ll get for your efforts to welcome conservatives are both essential to your success and will be transformational for you. They have been for us – the liberals among us will never go back to a room full of people just like us. It’s boring and lacks insights we’ve grown accustomed to hearing.