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

Forging Bonds and Burning Bridges: Polarization and Incivility in Blog Discussions About Occupy Wall Street

As traditional newspapers decline in popularity, more and more people are turning to the internet to stay informed. Internet users can seek out web versions of established news publications like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, or they can take their pick among thousands of political blogs covering all sides of the political spectrum. Political blogs, in particular, encourage reader interaction and debate, and reflect the democratization of the internet in that anyone who wishes to can create one and garner thousands, if not millions, of followers. A major concern with this transition to internet news sources is that people will tend to seek out those publications that reinforce their own views to the exclusion of all others, thereby creating online echo chambers of political thought, and leading to increased polarization and incivility.

1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:

The researchers had several hypotheses about political polarization among political blogs:

First, they predicted that political bloggers would tend to express opinions that align with the particular ideology of the blog they write for, leading to polarized opinions between conservative and liberal blogs. They predicted the same would be true of the blogs’ comment sections.

Next, they predicted that incivility would become more frequent as political extremity increased in either the post or comment sections, and that most of this incivility would be directed towards off-site political opponents.

Researchers were also interested in comparing political blogs with those blogs published by established newspapers. They predicted that the latter, which tend to encourage a higher level of objectivity, would display less political bias both in the posts and comment sections, as well as less incivility than the political blogs.

To test these hypotheses, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement of 2011 was used as a case study. Five popular blogs spanning the political spectrum were chosen for comparison, as well as two newspaper blogs, from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Blog posts about OWS and their comments were coded for the author or commenter’s stance toward the OWS protests, specific groups or persons (including the blog author or another commenter) praised or criticized, and whether any criticism was uncivil.

2. What They Found – Results:

As expected, political bloggers expressed opinions that were in line with the particular political bent of the given blog—authors on the conservative blogs opposed OWS and those on the liberal blogs supported it. Blog comments showed a similar trend, though they were somewhat less polarized. Also as predicted, incivility increased as blog content and comments grew more extreme, and was most frequently directed at off-site opponents.

Newspaper blogs were found to be significantly less biased than political blogs, as were the commenters on these blogs. Newspaper blog authors and commenters also displayed less incivility.

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:

Authors and commenters on 2 liberal blogs—Daily Kos and firedoglake; 2 conservative blogs—Townhall and MichelleMalkin; and one moderate blog, TheModerateVoice. Authors and commenters on The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal blogs.

4. Study Name:

Forging Bonds and Burning Bridges: Polarization and Incivility in Blog Discussions about Occupy Wall Street

5. Citation:

Suhay, E., Blackwell A., Roche, C. & L.  Bruggeman.  “Forging Bonds and Burning Bridges:  Political Incivility in Blog Discussions about Occupy Wall Street.” (2014) Unpublished manuscript, American University, Washington, D.C.

6. Link:

7. Intervention Categories:

8. Sample Size:

2,392 blog posts and comments across 7 sources

9. Central Reported Statistic:

Incivility greater on political blog posts than newspaper blog posts (χ2 = 16.76, df = 3, p ≤.001) and on political blog comments (χ2 = 14.18, df = 1, p ≤.001)

Read Ahead

Blue State Republicans as a path towards compromise

Last night, the tossup senate races broke sharply toward the Republican party, which Republicans winning in two states where President Obama won in 2008 and 2012: Iowa and Colorado.  Research shows that one way that conflict can be ameliorated is when the boundaries between competing groups are blurred.  Indeed, if you look at some of the rhetoric from the victors, you can see that there may indeed be the seeds of compromise.

From this Denver station article:

Gardner, who represented a conservative fourth U.S. House district on the state’s eastern plains, courted the political center to win. He highlighted that strategy in his acceptance speech.

“The people of Colorado, voters around this state had their voices heard. They are not red. They are not blue. But they are crystal clear. Crystal clear in their message to Washington, D.C.,: Get your job done and get the heck of out of the way,” he said.

On the other side of the aisle, Red State Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia have led some of the most significant compromises, again by blurring the familiar political lines.  In contrast, those senators who are least eager to compromise often seek to reinforce the differences between groups, exacerbating the partisan divides by seeking a clear contrast.

Mitch McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, specifically went out of his way to strike a tone of compromise in his victory speech and talked about the “obligation to work together” with the opposite side toward solutions to our common problems.  Let’s hope that, as research would suggest, a less homogenous Republican Senate caucus (and eventually a less homogenous Democratic Senate caucus) leads to that vision becoming a reality.

– Ravi Iyer




Read Ahead

Changing Children’s Attitudes Through Story Time

In recent years, tensions have emerged in the south of England over the integration of refugees into mainstream British society. One way of easing this process may be ensuring that refugee children encounter a welcoming environment when they enter British schools. The present research tested an intervention that aimed to improve English schoolchildren’s attitudes towards refugees via an “extended contact effect.” This effect suggests that attitudes towards outgroup members can be improved through vicarious experiences of friendships between ingroup and outgroup members. In the current study, this was achieved by having children read and discuss stories featuring friendships between English and refugee children. While extended contact has been shown to be effective for adults and older children, little research has been done with children ages 5 to 11.

1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:

Researchers were interested in testing three different versions of the extended contact hypothesis. In one condition, children read stories that emphasized the individual qualities of the refugee characters, and then discussed these characters’ similarities and differences. The idea here was to encourage the children to think of refugees as unique individuals rather than homogenous members of an outgroup.

In another condition, the children read stories in which the refugee characters attended the children’s actual school, offering the English and refugee children a common identity. While the goal of the previous condition was to emphasize the uniqueness of each outgroup member, here the objective was to give outgroup members ingroup status by expanding the boundaries of the ingroup.

The third condition was similar to the common identity condition, except the intention here was to give all children a shared group with which to identify without minimizing their subgroup (English or refugee) identity. Thus, the stories read emphasized both the shared identity between the English and refugee children (as students attending the same school) and their differences.

1-2 weeks after the interventions, children were interviewed to assess their attitudes towards both ingroup and outgroup members. They were presented with a series of positive and negative traits (e.g. “hardworking) that they were asked to match with pictures of stick people representing different proportions (none, some, most, all) of group members, both English and refugee. The researchers were also interested in the children’s intended behavior. They presented them with 2 scenarios—one featuring an English child, and another with a refugee child—and asked the children to indicate how much they’d like to play with that child, have that child spend the night, etc.

2. What They Found – Results:

Children in all extended contact conditions expressed more positive attitudes towards refugee children than did children in the no-stories control group. As the researchers had predicted, attitudes were most positive in the dual identity condition. Children in the dual identity condition who did not have strong ties to their English identities also expressed more positive intended behaviors towards refugee children.

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:

253 White British children (116 boys, 137 girls) from 10 elementary schools, ages 5 to 11 years, from south-east England

4. Study Name:

Changing Children’s Intergroup Attitudes Toward Refugees: Testing Different Models of Extended Contact

5. Citation:

Cameron, L., Rutland, A., Brown, R., & Douch, R. (2006).  Changing Children’s Intergroup Attitudes Toward Refugees: Testing Different Models of Extended Contact. Child Development, 77, 1208-1219.

6. Link:

7. Intervention Categories:

Extended Contact

8. Sample Size:


9. Central Reported Statistic:

“outgroup attitude in the extended contact conditions was significantly higher than in control, t = 2.89, p < .01.”

“In low identifiers there was a significant main effect of condition, F(3,104) = 2.75, p < .05, MSE = 1.26. Planned contrasts revealed that control did not differ from the three extended contact variables (C1: t = 1.07, ns), but dual identity was, as before, significantly higher than the other two extended contact conditions (C2: t = 2.67, p < .01)”

Read Ahead

Putting Interventions to the Test: A Comparison of Five Techniques to Reduce Partisan Hostility

The growing hostility between liberals and conservatives in the United States is a known problem to many.  However, what to do about it is much less clear.  Various groups, such as the Asteroids Club and the Village Square, have developed their own techniques for promoting civility between the opposing parties.    What my collaborators Matt Motyl, Brian Nosek, Jon Haidt, and I wanted to know was: which strategy is the most effective at reducing partisan hostility?  The following describes the result of our attempt to throw the proverbial “kitchen sink” at this problem, testing the effectiveness of several techniques in one study.  The five interventions we tested come from a collection of active civility groups, past social psychological research, and our own intuitions.

Liberals and conservatives completed our study online, being exposed to one (or none) of our five interventions before completing measures of political attitudes and hostility.  The interventions consisted of:

Self Affirmation– Past social psychological work has demonstrated that being reassured of one’s valued traits leads to less defensive and biased processing of opposing viewpoints. Participants in this condition spent a few minutes writing about a valued personal characteristic and a time that they embodied that trait.

Learning Political Membership Last– People readily form impressions of others, and can be motivated to maintain their opinions in order to remain consistent in their evaluations.  This intervention attempted to leverage this motivation by having participants read about a very positive group of individuals, only to later learn that they had volunteered for the opposing political party.

Observing Civility– People often learn by observing the behaviors of others.  For this intervention, participants watched a video describing the relationship between Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Tip O’Neill.  The video described the two as having a very friendly and respectful relationship, even when the two did not see eye to eye.

Superordinate Threat– Having a common threat can bring groups together.  To create this common threat, we had participants read an article describing the threat of cyber warfare attacks on the United States.  The article concluded by stating that bipartisan efforts had the potential to eliminate this threat.

Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions– Much of current political gridlock stems from a perception of legislation as a zero sum game (any win for the other side is automatically a loss for my side).  This final intervention sought to weaken this perception by describing the consequences of this mentality and the ways it is inhibiting progress.  The article concluded by stating that shedding this mindset in favor of increased compromise could help both sides achieve their goals.

After the intervention phase, participants completed a measure of partisan hostility, indicated their explicit liking of Republicans and Democrats, and completed an implicit measure of political attitudes (the Implicit Association Test), which measured the participants’ nonconscious attitudes toward the two groups.  The goal of these interventions was to reduce hostility, not necessarily make participants like the other side more.  As such, we were most interested in seeing whether each of the interventions reduced hostility relative to the group that received no intervention (Control).  The results are displayed below:

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 10.44.21 AM

Each dot represents the average hostility score for participants in a given condition (with the red bars marking a 95% confidence interval around that value).  Higher hostility scores are indicative of greater hostility.  These results show that each intervention produced the desired effect, that being lower hostility, but the degree to which they were effective varied.  Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions was the most effective intervention at reducing hostility, closely followed by Superordinate Threat (although Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions was the only intervention to approach statistical significance, p = .052).  Of note, none of the interventions reduced implicit or explicit liking for one’s own party relative to the other party.  In fact, most interventions increased partisan preferences relative to the control condition.  This demonstrates that promoting civility need not reduce an individual’s liking for his or her own group.  Rather, hostility can be specifically targeted and reduced without changing these attitudes.

The results of our intervention contest suggest that there are multiple paths to reducing partisan hostility.  However, not all strategies are equally effective.  Interestingly, the intervention that produced the best results (Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions) was the least based on past psychological research.  As such, when trying to reduce the hostility in the current political environment, I advise paying attention to the nuances of the current sources of hostility.  As time goes by, the issues that divide us change.  Our attempts to bridge those gaps should adapt with them.

-Charlie Ebersole

To learn more about the interventions we used, see this document: Civil Politics Contest Study-Materials

To learn more about the study in general, see this project’s page on the Open Science Framework

Read Ahead
Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.