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

Intuitionism in Practice: How the Village Square puts Relationships First

Our friends at the Village Square recently wrote an article about how they have been able to bridge partisan divides in their community, based on their experiences at numerous community dinners they put on in their neighborhoods.  Their experience dovetails nicely with what has been found in academic psychology, specifically that any type of attitude change requires appealing to the intuitive side of individuals, in addition to the rational side.  Accordingly, their “irreverently named programs are part civic forum, part entertainment” where they seek first to build relationships to open people’s minds, before attempting to get people to rationally understand the other sides’ arguments.  From the article:

In “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” Bill Bishop documents how, in nearly all aspects of life, we’ve become less connected to those who don’t share our views – in the churches we go to, the clubs we join, the neighborhoods we live in.

No longer engaging across the aisle with neighbors, there’s little to mitigate the human tendency toward tribalism. Once we’ve demonized each other, the simple act of talking is tantamount to negotiating with evil.

To address this challenge, our irreverently named programs are part civic forum, part entertainment. Each event is casual (the stage is set up to feel like the facilitator’s living room) and involves sharing food. As we begin, we give out two “civility bells,” ask that the audience avoid tribal “team clapping,” and share a quote to inspire our better angels. We welcome fluid audience participation and always try to laugh.

Since we first imagined The Village Square, we have repeatedly returned to the same conclusion: We can’t wait around for Washington to lead on this. It’s in our hometowns, where we carpool to softball games and borrow cups of sugar, where we can most easily have the conversations democracy requires of us.

Recently, there has been a lot of re-examination of social science findings that may or may not replicate, especially in real-world environments.  The fact that social science research that emphasizes the importance of personal relationships in changing attitudes has found real world application and validation is comforting for those of us who would like to leverage this research in reducing morally laden conflicts.  Those of us who would like to mitigate the natural animosity that arises when competing groups are formed would do well to follow the Village Square’s lead and put relationships first.

– Ravi Iyer

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Reducing Self-Interest Bias in Conflicts by Mitigating Disparities in Liking

One of the most difficult things for all of us to overcome in any competitive situation is self-serving bias.  The below video explains it in an intuitive and entertaining way.  How many sports fans can be counted on to objectively view the decisions of referees?  Not many.  And similarly, how can we expect members of a group to objectively judge the fairness of actions of other group members?  Even those of us who take great pains to see the viewpoints of the other side are likely influenced by unconscious bias in service of our self-interest.

These same processes explain how both Jews and Palestinians have divergent historical narratives that they are completely convinced is the only view, how fiscal liberals and conservatives have completely opposite ideas about economic history, and how sports fans can be so convinced that they are routinely robbed by referees.  Opposing groups are often going to see facts in a way that conforms to their moral worldview (see research on and examples of moral coherence).

Self-serving bias may be ubiquitous, but there are still situations and circumstances that may reduce or exacerbate these tendencies.  Recently, at the 2014 conference for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, I met Konrad Bocian who is investigating liking as a potential boundary condition.  Specifically (as is described in the below video), self-serving bias may occur only when it is done by people one has greater liking for.  In three studies, Bocian and Wojciszke measured moral judgments of rule-breaking behavior that benefited the judging party, and observed that feelings toward the perpetrator of the behavior were central to these moral judgments, even when the behaviors benefited the judging party.

This work relates to the Asteroids Club paradigm that is being pioneered by The Village Square, in that a central aspect of such meetings is to reduce the disparity in liking between members of one’s own group and members of opposing groups.  This hypothesis should be tested directly, but perhaps in moderating our feelings toward both our own groups and competing groups, we can mitigate some of the self-interest bias that exists in all conflicts and learn to disagree more productively.

– Ravi Iyer

ps.  Read more at Konrad’s website or read the published paper here.

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More Information does not necessarily lead to Civility

A recent article by Ezra Klein at eloquently makes an argument that we at CivilPolitics have also done a lot of research in support of – specifically, that if you want to affect many behaviors, you cannot just appeal to individuals’ sense of reason.  The article is well worth a complete read and is excerpted below, but the gist of it details a simple clear study by Dan Kahan and colleagues, showing that individuals who are good at math stop using their rational skills when the use of those skills would threaten their values.

How was this shown?  Consider the below table of results of a hypothetical study on whether a skin cream helps individuals with a rash.  Did the skin cream work well?  Simply scanning the numbers may give you the impression that the skin cream did well, as 225 is the highest number in the chart, yet if you look closer at the numbers, you’d find that the use of the skin cream is actually more likely to do harm than good, when compared to not doing anything at all.  However this kind of logical reasoning takes effort.



Kahan’s work shows that we aren’t willing to make this kind of effort when the results would conflict with our values.  Specifically, when confronted with a ideologically charged political question (e.g. gun control) framed in the same terms, individual skill at math no longer predicts being good at solving such a problem .  Instead, one’s ideology was the main predictor and this was true for both liberals and conservatives.  From the article:

Presented with this problem a funny thing happened: how good subjects were at math stopped predicting how well they did on the test. Now it was ideology that drove the answers. Liberals were extremely good at solving the problem when doing so proved that gun-control legislation reduced crime. But when presented with the version of the problem that suggested gun control had failed, their math skills stopped mattering. They tended to get the problem wrong no matter how good they were at math. Conservatives exhibited the same pattern — just in reverse.

Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart. Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.

Consider how utterly insane that is: being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.

If more information is not the solution to producing civility, than what is?  Our expertise at Civil is in social psychology, which often concerns the subtle influences that can affect our non-rational side.  While we are still working on a comprehensive set of recommendations (check our blog for continuing progress and research), our social psychology page details a few simple principles that one can use in addition to providing information.  Specifically, getting people to like each other more can make them more open to opposing arguments.  Providing a non-oppositional framework also creates space that allows for more civil thoughts.  These themes also run through the work of organizations we work with, such as Living Room Conversations and The Village Square, which, consciously or not, effectively use social psychological principles in their work.  Whether you are more convinced by research in the lab, case studies, or a combination, the evidence is clear – more information, by itself, will not bring groups closer together.  To do so requires considering the many emotional and psychological motivations that we all have.

– Ravi Iyer

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Ukrainians Illustrate how Super-Ordinate Goals Unite Groups

A relatively mature area of social psychology shows how competition breeds contempt and cooperation breeds liking.  This is a rather intuitive and simplistic finding, yet there are likely things that competing groups can do to foster cooperation that they may not be considering.  Just as brothers may fight, but unite against outsiders to their family, so too may competitors unite in the face of some super-ordinate goal.  Sometimes such a goal just needs to be made salient.

Vladimir Putin is making such a goal salient in the Ukraine.  From this New York Times article:

“Yanukovych freed Ukraine and Putin is uniting it,” said Iegor Soboliev, a 37-year-old ethnic Russian who heads a government commission to vet officials of the former regime. “Ukraine is functioning not through its government but through the self-organization of its people and their sense of human decency.”

Mr. Soboliev is a former investigative journalist who grew frustrated that carefully documented revelations of government misbehavior — which he says “wasn’t merely corruption, it was marauding” — were having no impact. He and a few friends formed Volya, a movement dedicated to creating a country of “responsible citizens” and a “state worthy of their trust.”

“People in Odessa, Mykolaiv, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk are coming out to defend their country,” Mr. Soboliev said. “They have never liked the western Ukrainian, Galician point of view. But they are showing themselves to be equally patriotic. They are defending their country from foreign aggression. Fantastical things are happening.”

Just as in American history, where people rally around the flag in the face of external threats, so too are Ukrainians uniting at a time which could be marked by competition to fill a power vacuum.  This is one area where ecologically valid examples mirror lab studies of the importance of super-ordinate goals in uniting groups.  People who want to unite groups that may otherwise be prone to less productive competitive behavior may want to consider following Putin’s lead and introducing super-ordinate goals amongst would-be enemies.

– 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.