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

Pew Research highlights Social, Political and Moral Polarization among Partisans, but more people are still Moderates

A recent research study by Pew highlights societal trends that have a lot of people worried about the future of our country.  While many people have highlighted the political polarization that exists and others have pointed to the social and psychological trends underlying that polarization, Pew’s research report is unique for the scope of findings across political, social, and moral attitudes.  Some of the highlights of the report include:

  • Based on a scale of 10 political attitude questions, such as a binary choice between the statements “Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient” and  “Government often does a better job than people give it credit for”, the median Democrat and median Republicans’ attitudes are further apart than 2004 and 1994.
  • On the above ideological survey, fewer people, whether Democrat, Republican, or independent, are in the middle compared to 1994 and 2004.  Though it is still worth noting that a plurality, 39% are in the middle fifth of the survey.
  • More people on each side see the opposing group as a “threat to the nation’s well being”.
  • Those on the extreme left or on the extreme right are on the ideological survey are more likely to have close friends with and live in a community with people who agree with them.


The study is an important snapshot of current society and clearly illustrates that polarization is getting worse, with the social and moral consequences that moral psychology research would predict when attitudes become moralized.  That being said, I think it is important not to lose sight of the below graph from their study.


Pew Survey Shows a Shrinking Plurality holds Moderate Views
Pew Survey Shows a Shrinking Plurality holds Moderate Views


Specifically, while there certainly is a trend toward moralization and partisanship, the majority of people are in the middle of the above distributions of political attitudes and hold  mixed opinions about political attitudes.  It is important that those of us who study polarization don’t exacerbate perceived differences, as research has shown that perceptions of differences can become reality.  Most Americans (79%!) still fall somewhere between having consistently liberal and consistently conservative attitudes on political issues, according to Pew’s research.  And even amongst those on the ends of this spectrum, 37% of conservatives and 51% of liberals have close friends who disagree with them.  Compromise between parties is still the preference of most of the electorate.  If those of us who hold a mixed set of attitudes can indeed make our views more prominent, thereby reducing the salience of group boundaries, research would suggest that this would indeed mitigate this alarming trend toward social, moral, and political polarization.

– Ravi Iyer

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The Dark Side of Political Engagement. Unsolicited Advice for Brigade Media.

I recently read with interest the news that several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are attempting to “fix” political dialogue in this country through a well funded new venture called Brigade Media.  From this Time Magazine article:

With backing from early Facebook investor Sean Parker, Brigade Media LLC has already raised an impressive $9.3 million in funds to improve civic engagement from the federal level down to state and local politics

Guided by its scrappy startup ethic, Silicon Valley has disrupted entrenched industries from hotels to rental cars to pizza delivery, but a group of tech barons are raising the stakes with what may be their biggest challenge yet: American democracy.

As someone whose primary identity bridges the worlds of tech startups and using social science to bring people together, I’m excited to see where this effort leads.  However, I would caution tech entrepreneurs about confounding moral engagement with more productive disagreement, given research on the dark side of moral conviction.  Specifically, research in social psychology suggests that as people get more morally engaged with an issue, they also may become more rigid about those beliefs.  That is not to say that civic engagement is destined to decrease civility, but rather to highlight the potential pitfall in equating greater knowledge with more productive disagreement.  Research would suggest that efforts that promote relationships (e.g. see the work that our partners at The Village Square do) and/or promote super-ordinate goals (e.g. the Asteroids Club paradigm), at the same time that they promote civic engagement, may indeed lead to more productive civil debate.

– 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.