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

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Jon Stewart on The Rachel Maddow Show – It’s Become Tribal

Jon Stewart, who recently staged the Rally to Restore Sanity, which criticized the cable news "conflictonator" that exacerbates the partisan divide, was interviewed by Rachel Maddow, a host at MSNBC.  MSNBC is, for some, the left-wing equivalent of Fox News, and some on the left have taken issue with the possible equivalency that is drawn between actions on the right and on the left, in terms of honesty, partisanship, and improving the level of debate.

Besides being an interesting interview of one of the most vocal voices of a civil politics perspective in the media, there are a couple points where Stewart's responses converge with academic research.

If you look at the transcript, you'll see that Stewart intuitively knows (or maybe he's read the research) that "It's become tribal" and then goes on to say that it's become about defending one's team and that "we all have a tendency to grant amnesty to people we agree with and to overly demonize those that we don't.  I do the same thing.  Everybody does."  If you want to read more about that consider our academic resources page, which has a lot of content on moralistic politics.

The discussion of the wisdom of describing Bush as a war criminal was very interesting and ties into the idea of the myth of pure evil, which is a theme in chapter 4 of the Happiness Hypothesis.

Finally, the discussion of the equivalency of Fox News and MSNBC relates to the research cited on mirror image processes in this blog post.

If you want more, consider watching the uncut version of the interview here.  Especially heart-warming was the end of the video, where despite the criticisms, Stewart volunteers that he truly likes Maddow.  Just as previously he has called O'Reilly likable as well.  Perhaps some part of living civil politics is about learning to like people, even when you disagree with them.

– Ravi Iyer

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The Uncivil Reporting of Civil Elections

I voted on Tuesday.  Like many people on this day, one of the highlights was the opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself and cast my vote, in the hopes that whomever is elected, we'll work together to solve problems and make the world a better place. I actually had a mail ballot, but in California, you can turn in your mail ballot and vote in person if you want to. I chose to do so and went to the polling station with my wife. The polling station is cheerful environment and it may be my bias, but I felt that people were genuinely happy to see each other there and share their experience with others.  When I got home, I changed my facebook status to indicate that I had voted and my conservative and liberal friends all 'liked' my status.  It is one day of the year when liberals and conservatives have the same message.  Please vote!  In social psychology terms, voting could be thought of as a superordinate goal that leads to increased cooperation and goodwill between formerly conflicted groups.

The goodwill of the voting booth stood in sharp contrast to the shows I watched to get the results of the election.  Consider the below exchange which led one blogger to comment that "manners are a dying art".

Other things I read or saw on election day included Fox Reporters talking about Democratic senators who kept their jobs as "missed opportunities", MSNBC reporters talking about how they really didn't want to see Republicans "with a kick in their step", and live chat comments like "is there a way to collect democratic tears in a cup, because I want to drink them?"  It's one thing to celebrate our successes, but does that necessarily mean enjoying the negative emotions of others. 

Realistic conflict theory, shows the conflict that inevitably arises when groups compete (also see Robert Wright's book Nonzero) and the resulting negativity towards each other.  But that isn't the end of the story.  In Sherif's Robers Cave study and Wright's book, there are great examples of situations where superordinate goals create goodwill….  the kind of goodwill I experienced at the voting booth.  Those of you who watched Jon Stewart's Rally for Sanity may remember his analogy of the cars trying to enter a tunnel that took turns (see 10.5 minutes into this video).  They each had the individual goal of getting to their destination, but also the shared goal of fairness and keeping traffic moving, that facilitated a relatively orderly process.

So as we enter into a new phase of politics with a divided government, perhaps we can think about how we can frame policy in terms of superordinate goals (e.g. more jobs, a decreased deficit, better healthcare) rather than as a zero-sum game (e.g. the battle for control of government between "socialist" Democrats and "heartless" Republicans).  I generally vote liberal and may not agree on all of Boehner's ideas. But I share his goals of controlling the deficit, reigning in government spending and getting people back to work. And I'm hopeful he shares my goals of helping the working poor afford health care, even if we may disagree about the priorities of those goals.  Perhaps consciously thinking about our superordinate goals is a way to increase civility in politics.

– Ravi Iyer

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Stewart/Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and the Psychology of Moderates

As someone who is interested in promoting civility and reason in politics, I have been really excited over the past few days by Jon Stewart’s announcement of a Rally to Restore Sanity (“Million Moderate March”), coupled with Stephen Colbert’s satirical “March to Keep Fear Alive”.  The below video, where the announcement is made, is well worth watching, if only for it’s entertainment value.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Normally, we look at our data in terms of liberals and conservatives, but what can we say about moderates.  In many instances (e.g. Measures of general moral or political positions using Moral Foundations or Schwartz Values), moderates score between liberals and conservatives.  However, there are a couple interesting findings about moderates in our data that might be of interest.

First, moderates are less engaged in politics.  This isn’t a particularly controversial finding as research in social psychology shows that extreme attitudes are more resistant to change and more likely to predict behavior.  Moderates are defined by their lack of extremity and this lack of extremity predicts a disinterest in politics and lack of desire to engage in political action.

As such, it is not surprising that, as Stewart notes, the only voices which often get heard are the loudest voices.  Shouting hurts your throat and moderates are unwilling to pay that price.  But couched in terms of entertainment and comedy?  Maybe that will spur moderates to attend in a way that an overtly political/partisan event could never do.

Going a bit deeper, the other area where moderates score differently than liberals and conservatives is in terms of their willingness to moralize issues.  Moderates are less likely to frame issues as moral and less likely to be moral maximizers. Morality can be a great force for good, but there is also research on idealistic evil and the dark side of moral conviction.  You’ll notice that while liberals and conservatives moralize individual issues in the below graph at different levels, the extremes generally moralize issues more than moderates or less extreme partisans.  It’s worth noting I recently attended a talk by Linda Skitka where her team found (in China) that high moralization scores predict willingness to spy on and censor people with opposing viewpoints.

Moderates also score lower on a general (not issue specific) measure of moral maximizing.  Below is a graph of scores on individual moral maximizing questions.  Again, a lot of good may be done in the name of morality and moral maximizers may be less willing to let people starve or let injustice stand.  However, a lot of bad may be done in the name of morality as well and “never settling” for imperfect moral outcomes seems like a recipe for the kind of political ugliness that we see these days.  Moderates appear willing to accept imperfection in the moral realm.

Maximizing is a concept made popular by Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore in his book, the Paradox of Choice and his TED talk.  The argument isn’t that high standards are a bad thing…but that at some point, there is a level where overly high standards have negative consequences.  The point that Stewart and Colbert are making is that perhaps partisans have reached that point in our political dialogue, to the detriment of policy.

I probably won’t make it to DC, but I do plan on celebrating the Rally to Restore Sanity in some way, perhaps at a satellite event.  I am generally liberal and will be surrounded mainly (though not exclusively) by liberal friends.  It would be really easy to use the event as a time to mock and denigrate the extremity of the other side.  However, liberal moral absolutism has it’s dangers too.  For those of us who really want to restore sanity to political debate, it is an opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world and take a moment to reflect on how our political side can ‘take it down a notch for America’, rather than assuming that Stewart is talking to ‘them’.  And perhaps that begins with accepting some amount of moral imperfection.

– Ravi Iyer

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Why do we study the psychology of libertarians?

We recently submitted a paper for publication about libertarian morality, along with co-authors Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, Pete Ditto, and Jonathan Haidt.  The paper leverages our broad set of measures to tell a story about libertarians, which converges with previously reported findings about liberals and conservatives.  Specifically, all ideological groups demonstrate the same patterns whereby preferences, emotions and dispositions lead to an attraction to corresponding values and ideological narratives.  For example, liberals have greater feelings of empathy and are therefore more likely to moralize harm and be attracted to an ideology which prioritizes this moralization.  Libertarians moralize liberty, both economic liberty, similar to conservatives, and lifestyle liberty, similar to liberals.

Libertarians believe in the importance of individual liberty, a belief that may be related to lower levels of agreeableness and higher scores on a measure of psychological reactance (e.g. “regulations trigger a sense of resistance in me”).  They moralize concerns about harm less than liberals, in part because they have lower levels of empathy .  They moralize principles concerning being a group member (obeying authority and being loyal) less than conservatives in part because they have less attachment to the groups around them.

If you want to read more about what the paper, says, you can click here or download the paper here, but right now, I’d like to focus on why we wrote the paper, as I have previously written about how people are attracted to why you write things as much as what you write.

Of course, some part of paper writing is driven by curiosity and the practical desire to publish.  But in writing this paper, I have undergone my own personal intellectual journey, and I’m hopeful that others may have a similar experience. A lot of my impression of libertarianism was previously shaped by images of the Tea Party (who aren’t necessarily libertarians after all) and I thought of libertarians as uncaring, from my liberal perspective, in that they typically don’t support progressive taxes and social programs. The original title of the paper was “the Search for Libertarian Morality”, implying that libertarians are potentially amoral, and in retrospect showing my own ideological bias.

But as I read more about libertarian philosophy and looked more carefully at the data, I found that libertarians do indeed have a coherent moral code, that simply differs from my own. Like my liberal leanings, which have some relation to my dispositions and preferences, libertarians also moralize their preferences and dispositions, in ways that mirror my own processes. For example, liberals and libertarians both score high on desire for new experiences and stimulation, which may be a common reason why both groups tend to emphasize individual choice over group solidarity, compared to conservatives, as cohesive groups can limit choice.  Libertarians may be less moved by emotions such as disgust and empathy, which may lead them to moralize certain situations less than others.  But who am I to say that my moral compass is any better or worse than theirs, given my view that at some level, the basis for my liberal moral compass is driven by subjective sentiment.  I previously wrote about the dangers of liberal moral absolutism, and villainizing libertarians for not sharing my particular vision of morality would be a step down that road.

Why do we seek to publicize this paper?  In a time when partisanship dominates, policy suffers,  and people on both sides of the aisle villainize the other side, it is our hope that with greater understanding comes greater acceptance. We may not all agree about the relative merits of empathy, disgust, or reactance as moral emotions…but we all have some level of all of these emotions and can respect principles born out of these.  Even liberals can find things so disgusting that they are seen as wrong, and conservatives actually give a lot of money to the poor.  In attributing moral disagreements to dispositions, largely out of our control, perhaps we can learn to see others as different and attracted to other positive moral principles, rather than amoral and oblivious to the moral principles that are important to us.

– 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.