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

Those who want a fight, like Trump and ISIS, do indeed benefit from each other.

During the recent Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton stated that Donald Trump has become a lead recruiter for ISIS.  I can’t speak to the accuracy of this claim, and much has been written from both sides elsewhere.   However, there should be very little doubt that those who benefit from conflict need the level of perceived competition to be ever greater, in order to justify their combative stance within their own group, implying that the extremes on both sides of any conflict do indeed have common goals.  That is true in social science laboratory experiments, natural experiments that occur in the world, analyses of history, in our everyday experiences and yes, it is true with regard to those who benefit from a perceived “clash of civilizations”, such as Donald Trump and ISIS.  Indeed, it would be shocking if it didn’t work that way for Trump and ISIS, as shocking as it would be if gravity worked in some places and not others, as these forces are fundamental parts of human nature.  We are naturally social animals who are exceedingly good at forming groups and competing with opposing groups.  The more competitive the situation gets, the more animosity arises and the more we gravitate toward the most combative amongst our group.

Need proof?  Here are five forms of evidence that suggest this is true.Scarborough,_North_Yorkshire_-_WWI_poster

1) Social Science – Thousands of studies have used the minimal group paradigm, whereby the mere fact of assigning a person to a group creates animosity and the more competitive the groups are, the more animosity ensues.  The reason the procedure is called “minimal” is that there is no actual reason why any person is put in any group, such that any reason for conflict is simply a result of random group assignment + competition, not any real difference between individuals.  During these manufactured competitions, group members are more likely to follow others who suggest attacking the other group.

2) The Natural Experiment of Sports – How do we know that the minimal group paradigm maps onto real world behavior?  Millions of people engage in animosity toward very similar others due to the arbitrary assignment of where they happen to live and what sports team they then follow.  Thousands of papers have been written to analyze this behavior (I’d recommend Among the Thugs most), but you don’t need academic analyses to know that rivalries lead to violence across sports and countries, as it happens regularly in the news.  Importantly, the only thing that often differentiates these groups is the level of competition between them;  the greater the competition, the more animosity, and the more opportunity for heroes to arise, who lead their side to victory.

3) History – How do dictators get their populace to follow them, despite their often ineffective leadership?  North Korea needs a perpetual sense of threat to justify the terrible conditions it imposes on it’s people.  Hitler, Stalin, Pol-Pot, and Putin, in modern times, maintain(ed) their hold on power not by providing a better life for their people, but by “protecting” them from a very dangerous world.  The more competition that exists with other countries, the better their hold on power, a phenomenon that has noted by political scientists in the US as well.

4) Everyday experience – A lot of social science and history simply confirms what we already know from our everyday experience.  When was the last time that you got into an argument with someone and one party willingly conceded their point of view?  The more heated the debate, the less you listen to others, and the fact that social scientists have found this to be true is almost beside the point.  Creating a more extreme atmosphere is a great way to shut down reasoned debate and compromise.

5) Trump & ISIS – I don’t doubt Trump’s sincere desire to defeat ISIS, but support for his candidacy has clearly increased as more terrible events occur in the world.  Indeed, a prime emphasis of his candidacy is competition with ISIS, China, Mexico, etc, and his proposed toughness in dealing with them.  He demonstrates this toughness by being ever more extreme.  Similarly, while systematic analyses of terrorist attitudes are sparse, groups like ISIS have often arisen in response to perceived invasions of Islamic territory such as in the Middle East or Afghanistan,  and a prime emphasis of ISIS’ propaganda is over-the-top shock videos designed to display toughness, in the face of these threats.

In the end, human beings will rally to a “tough leader” when under threat.  Intentional or not, those who demonstrate their toughness through their extreme rhetoric, often benefit from this threat, leading those on either extreme side of any moral division to be strangely aligned in terms of their incentives.  Trump & ISIS’ relationship is similar to the relationship between Democrats and Republicans who fundraise off of the extreme words of the opposing side or the Ohio State and Michigan athletic departments, who each earn millions from their rivalry or Hamas and the current conservative Israeli government, who both gain in popularity based on each others’ more extreme actions, or east coast and west coast rappers, whose rivalry led to millions in album sales.  Human beings love competition and often, those who promote the competition amongst us reap the rewards.  Unfortunately, some of these competitions have enduring consequences and there are times when those of us who would prefer to build bridges rather than walls need to get psychology working for us, rather than against us.

– Ravi Iyer

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Arthur Brooks Suggests that Warm-hearted Relationships and Collective Focus on the Poor can Transcend Divisions

Arthur Brooks is the President of a think tank that promotes the benefits of capitalism from an economically conservative point of view.  He recently spoke at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica as to the virtues of capitalism, in one of 175+ talks he gives every year, to audiences both liberal and conservative, young and old.  In academic circles, he is known as someone who has researched philanthropy extensively, including the controversial finding that conservatives give more to the poor than liberals.  I’ve always wanted to hear more about his perspective.


Much of his talk was devoted to the idea that if you want to alleviate poverty by the millions, you need a system like capitalism, which, while not perfect, has successfully moved millions of people around the world out of poverty.  He was well aware that his Santa Monica based audience may not share his conservative ideals and was explicit in that he felt that while liberals and conservatives may be far apart, they can be brought together through a shared moral goal, specifically attempting to uplift the lives of the poor.  Importantly, he emphasized that this has to come from a sincere place, rather than a by product of wanting to enrich oneself.

Indeed, the second theme he emphasized was that attachment to money, not wealth itself, is the cause of much suffering in the world and told stories about how relationships matter more.  For example, he cited work from self-determination theory scholars that showed that college students who made and attained relationship goals were happier than students who made and attained achievement related goals.  He noted how in his own work, he found that the more people gave to others, the happier they became and the richer they became as well.  And lastly, he answered a question in the crowd about how one of the most important things he learned from the Dalai Lama is that there is no division that “warm hearted relationships” cannot help one cross.

As someone who works in the political arena and attempts to bridge divisions, I couldn’t help but notice how his prescriptions for bridging our current political divides mirrors what we recommend here at Civil Politics.  It also mirrors a paper we are working on where we show how both liberals and conservatives care about others, just sometimes with a different emphasis on those closer or further to themselves, which can often lead to disagreements as to “who cares more?”.  Given how many talks Brooks gives in the course of a year and his bridge building work that should be of interest to readers of this site, I’d highly recommend seeing him speak at a venue near you, if you can.

– Ravi Iyer


Read Ahead Provides Online Tools to help people Challenge their own Beliefs & Biases

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the seventh post in the series that details the experiences of Spencer Greenberg, who is the founder of, which produced this political bias exercise, among other programs.

What is your group’s mission?’s mission is to help you make better decisions and avoid bias, both in your own life (e.g. your work, relationships and education), and in decisions you make that impact society at large (e.g. who you vote for and which policies you support).

What specific programs/events/curriculum do you run? Briefly describe what it is you do.

We create free courses, tools and tests designed to help you understand important findings from cognitive science, psychology, economics, and mathematics, and apply these findings in your day to day decisions. We are a non-partisan organization.  A

Our projects include:

Subtitling political debate videos (in collaboration with philosopher Stefan Schubert) to make you aware when factual inaccuracies, ovations, logical fallacies occur:!the-2016-presidential-debates–subtitled/wt7g0

Our political bias test (also made in collaboration with Stefan Schubert), which helps you understand ways which your political views may be biased or inaccurate:

Our Belief Challenger program, which walks you through two evidenced based techniques we developed for helping you challenging deeply held beliefs:

Our Common Misconceptions test, which helps you understand whether you tend to be overconfident or underconfident, and teaches you about common misconceptions you may hold:

We have many other free tools, tests and programs as well.

What has worked well in your programs/events? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what specific advice would you give them as far as things to do to replicate your successes?

We have found that people love to learn about themselves, and therefore that offering tests can be a powerful way to make people more interested in important topics like bias and decision making.

What have you tried in your progams/events that has NOT worked well? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what advice would you give them as far as things to AVOID doing?

We find that people greatly prefer shorter online programs to longer ones, and therefore shorter programs may end up having larger impact overall.

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, Reducing Certainty of Individual Beliefs, Helping people see their own bias and become motivated to reduce it.

We help people challenge their existing beliefs with programs such as our Belief Challenger program, and our Common Misconception Test.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

ll of our content is free, and available on our website:

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Increasing Reconciliation through the Acceptance of Apologies by one’s own group

Human beings are incredibly social animals, being one of the few species that cooperates in groups of thousands, and the only one that cooperates amongst individuals that don’t share the same genes, unlike bees or ants that breed with a queen.  Our ultra-sociality leads us to interesting behaviors where we follow the leads of others as in these social influence videos.

Social influence operates in the realm of reconciliation as well, as evidenced by this recent paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Fiona Barlow and colleagues.  In this study, the novel way that social influence was used was to get members of a perpetrator group (non-Aboriginal Australians) to be more willing to reconcile by having members of a group apologize and then having other members of that same group (as opposed to the aggrieved other group) accept the apology.

From the article:

There is an implicit assumption that perpetrators’ moral image restoration following an intergroup apology depends on absolution from victims. In this paper we examine whether perpetrators can in fact look to other ingroup members for moral pardon. In Studies 1 and 4, Australians read an apology to Indian people for a series of assaults on Indian nationals in Australia. In Studies 2 and 3, non-Aboriginal Australians were provided with apologies offered on their behalf to Aboriginal Australians. In each study participants were told that other perpetrator group members had either accepted or rejected the apology. In line with predictions, when perpetrator group members heard that fellow perpetrators accepted an apology made to victims they felt morally restored, and consequently were more willing to reconcile. Effects were largely unqualified by apology quality (Studies 2–4), and held in the face of victim group apology rejection (Studies 3–4). We demonstrate that perpetrator group members can effectively gain moral redemption by accepting their own apologies, even qualified ones that have proved insufficient to victim groups.

How can readers of this site use this research?  As has been found in other research areas, seeing information that implies that relationships between groups are being improved, even in a somewhat illogical way, leads to the reality of relationships between groups being improved.  In this way, information about how divided and in-conflict any two groups are leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy as does information on how united and/or related two groups are.  Given that most groups have a mixture of this information available, it would seem useful to emphasize the later when one wants to increase the chances of reconcilliation and bridge moral divisions.

– 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.