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

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95% of Americans want civility in politics & 87% believe it’s possible to get there

I was reading this debate on Politico about a recent uncivil email from Allen West to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, when I came across this survey on civility that I thought I'd share.  Allegheny College commissioned Zogby to survey 1,000 representative individuals about civility.  The sample included 38% conservatives versus 26% liberals and was generally fairly diverse, as one might expect from such a poll (but it's always good to check when looking at percentages).  The findings are not surprising in terms of their direction, as most people intuitively know that civility is better than incivility, but I found the overwhelming percentages quite interesting.  

A brief summary of findings:

• A large majority—95 percent—of Americans believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy.
• Fully 87 percent suggest it is possible for people to disagree about politics respectfully


• Women define civility differently than men, and are more likely to label recent public political behaviors as uncivil. Forty percent of Americans believe the least civil politicians should suffer a “trip to the woodshed,” 32 percent said they should take a manners class with Emily Post, and 16 percent said they should retake kindergarten.
• 85 percent of Americans believe politicians should work to cultivate friendships with members of the other party.

• Women are more likely to be turned off by negative politics than are men.

• Americans want compromise on a range of policy issues. For example, some two-thirds of Americans support a compromise on immigration reform.

 There is too much in the report to spell out in a blog post, but most anyone who is visiting this post would likely enjoy reading the very well done report.

So back to the original issue of the letter from Allen West, which included a number of personal attacks in response to a policy difference that Schultz pointed out on the House floor.  Liberals blame conservatives and conservatives blame liberals, as is noted both in the report and in the Politico debate, so me adding my liberal leaning voice to the condemnation of West's personal attacks would be rather cliche'd.  While 89% of people agree that insults are uncivil, 77% also think that manipulating facts about an issue is uncivil, and whether you agree with him or not, maybe West thought that Schultz was being uncivil in that way.  So rather than responding to West's incivility with an attack on West's actions, which would just contribute to the noise and which would probably be hard to do objectively, allow me to instead praise Utah Republican Governor Gary Herbert, who was one of the few people in the Politico forum who crossed party lines in saying that:

While they’re hardly a recent phenomenon, personal attacks are simply unworthy of the civil discourse which should be maintained in our great nation. Incivility amongst elected officials fuels the contempt and skepticism with which Americans increasingly view politics, and which has a consequent negative outcome on public policy. 

After all, as I learned from Allegheny's poll, 85% of Americans believe there should be more cross-party friendships.

– Ravi Iyer

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The value of having both liberal and conservative friends

A friend of mine recently forwarded me this article from, remarking on the fact that it reminded him of the friendship I have with a conservative college classmate.  Indeed, that classmate is one of the most giving people I know, which echoes this story, whereby good people can be found in any ideology.  I encourage you to read the entire article, but here is a relevant excerpt:

Janet's willingness to associate with so many liberal friends — though I know she seeks refuge in chat rooms and magazines that share her beliefs — makes her a better and more interesting person. She has her beliefs challenged constantly. She is more well-read and educated in her politics than most of the liberals I know. Too many liberals I know are lazy, they have a belief system that consists of making fun of Glenn Beck and watching "The Daily Show." Shouldn't their beliefs be challenged, too?

This is a democracy, after all. Isn't it worth understanding a bit more about why approximately half the country votes differently than we do? Isn't it important that we understand why people — good and legitimate Americans, whose votes count as much as ours — like Sarah Palin? Isn't it crucial we figure out why any woman would want to defund Planned Parenthood, if only so we could then address the argument? Nobody benefits from sitting in a room, agreeing with everyone else.


The ideas expressed in this article conform to basic social psychology research on the intergroup benefits of having positive contact with outgroups, the role of humanization in perceiving others as worthy of care, and the danger of 'groupthink', which is the extremism that occurs when like minded people only talk amongst themselves.  I also happen to be reading Tattoos on the Heart, by Father Greg Boyle, about the way that expanding our circle of compassion to others is critical in his work to help youth who formerly knew nothing else realize that there is an alternative to being in a gang.  I bet many liberals would agree with his message of inclusion, when it comes to people who have committed some degree of violence, yet the prospect of including our conservative friends in our social circle sometimes seems like a qualitatively different exercise.  Perhaps transcending such judgment, especially in cases when it is intuitively difficult, is a way of being the change that universalists hope to see in the world.

– Ravi Iyer

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Tim Keller talks about the Church’s role in promoting civility

I just finished the April 24th, Easter episode of This Week, where Christianne Amanpour made a point to ask several of her guests about civility and changing the tone in Washington.  She seemed eager to revive a topic that has appeared to lose steam since the January attack on Gabrielle Giffords.

From the transcript:

AMANPOUR: Welcome back. One of the big issues right now is the state of public discourse; civic discourse in this country. We're going to continue our roundtable on this issue….What can religious leaders – what can you do for instance to change the tone of debate. Everybody spoke a lot about it in January after that tragic attack on Gabrielle Giffords. And suddenly, poof – gone. What should we be doing to bring the discourse together?

The most relevant parts were provided by Pastor Tim Keller, who founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church that has become quite popular in New York City and who has written about civility in the past.  Again, from the transcript:

AMANPOUR: You talk about polarization between left and right. It does seem to be extreme, at the moment, in the United States politically, socially. Is there any hope that that can change, do you think?

KELLER: It will start if we stop demonizing each other. I — my — my — my elderly mother once said that up until about 15 years ago, if you voted for a different person for president and the person you voted against became president, you still considered him your president. He said — she said 15 years ago, that changed, that if you voted against that guy and he became president, you actually act as if he's illegitimate. And I'm not sure that is a big social and cultural difference. We — and it really means the other side isn't really just wrong, they're kind of evil. And that's pretty bad.

AMANPOUR: I have to say that many would say the church plays into this highly acrimonious debate — public debate, not all church, but certainly some parts of the church. What should the church be doing different?

KELLER: At the very least, we should be creating individuals who know how to talk civilly. The gospel should create people who say, I'm loved by God but I'm — I'm a sinner. So there — there should be a certain humility and graciousness about the way in which you talk to everybody. As an institution, most of the churches have lost a lot of credibility. So I think my job is to create individuals who can participate in civil discourse.

The roundtable discussion at the end of the episode has more discussion of civility and here is a link where you can watch the whole episode, if you are interested.  Keller's definition of civility, articulated in this article, converges with the working definition we use here, where civility is defined not as agreement, but rather by how you disagree.  He talks about showing respect for the persons who one disagrees with (caritas), having humility, and not attributing opinions to opponents that they don't personally own.   It sounds like a lot of Keller's success is rooted in bridging this divide between the dogmatism of the very religious and the very non-religious as incivility on one side promotes incivility on the other side.  In social psychology terms, Redeemer provides a place where group boundaries between the religious and non-religious are set aside as the church was specifically meant to be "open to people who were seeking answers regarding their faith, and where they felt secure in bringing their friends who were skeptical about matters of faith."  I look forward to visiting Redeemer next time I'm in New York.

– Ravi Iyer

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Budget Compromise Illustrates 2 Basic Social Psychology Principles of Civility

Social psychology might be one discipline where the best findings are some of the oldest, rather than the newest.  Two basic principles of social psychology were illustrated in the recent budget deal, which averted a government shutdown.

1) A  focus on superordinate/common goals, as opposed to thinking of the budget as a zero-sum game, promoted compromise.  A deal occurred as both sides saw that a shutdown would be a superordinate loss, for both themselves, but also for the country, as shutting down the government would cost more than it would save.  The superordinate goal was to avert a shutdown and pass a budget.  In contrast, those people who had more partisan goals, such as Democrats who wanted the political victory or Republicans who wanted to make a political point (e.g. "cut it or shut it"), seemed less amenable to compromise.  Political power is a zero sum game, but the American economy is not, and most people care more about the later, than the former.

2) Positive contact improved the chances of a deal.  Personally, I was heartened by the fact that Boehner was willing to say publicly that he likes Obama personally.  Biden shares a "loose bantering relationship" with Boehner, which is more than evident from the picture accompanying this article.  When you like the people you are negotiating with, there is always the possibility of a superordinate goal, in that their pain is not necessarily your gain.  Indeed, a deal that saves the other side from pain (e.g. guaranteed votes on defunding Planned Parenthood and Obamacare, even if they are unlikely to pass) seems more palatable, when you actually care about the opposite side personally.  Contrast that with statements from Michelle Bachmann, who villainizes the president, and also is explicitly against any compromise.  One gets the sense that the less happy Obama is, the happier she might be, whereas Biden and Boehner might actually want each other to succeed in life.

These are fairly basic principles that most anyone could predict as being important, but if you want to read a bit more, visit our social psychology page and feel free to email me edits/suggestions.  Even though these principles are somewhat obvious, we often lose sight of them and if we can promote situations that encourage superordinate goals and positive contact between parties, we are likely to see an increase in civility, without ever having to use the word.

– 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.