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

Evidence Based Techniques for Transcending Political Divisions: Newt Gingrich Praising Nelson Mandela

Human beings are the only ultra-social species (e.g. we gather and cooperate in groups of thousands and millions) where there is not a common reproductive source (e.g. a queen bee or queen ant).  The trick that allows human beings to form such large scale groups is in our moral motivations, which enable us to suppress individualistic goals in service of the group.  This trick is powerful and has a dark side, whereby we can demonize and reflexively oppose anything that benefits the other group.

This phenomenon was evident following the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, who generally is more likely to be cited as a role model by liberals and minorities.   For example, some members of the conservative base reacted negatively to praise of Mandela by conservatives like Ted Cruz.  The motivations to deny moral credentials to members of an opposing group are strong, yet psychological research suggests that one can mitigate the effect by positing larger super-ordinate groups with common goals and by demonstrating positive relationships between members of different groups.

Newt Gingrich demonstrated both of these tactics in a recent statement, entitled "What would you have done?"

Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country. [Freedom as a super-ordinate goal across groups ]

When he visited the Congress I was deeply impressed with the charisma and the calmness with which he could dominate a room. It was as if the rest of us grew smaller and he grew stronger and more dominant the longer the meeting continued. [Demonstrating personal attachment ] 

Many of the ways to reduce inter-group division that we at Civil Politics wish to highlight are used regularly by politicians with good intuitions who understand moral psychology at an implicit level, without necessarily knowing the social science that supports what they do.  We hope to make these techniques more explicit so that any interested group or individual can use these methods to break down group divisions consciously as well.

– Ravi Iyer

  If you want to hear more on hive psychology, consider watching this video:

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New Research shows that Feeling Superior is a Bipartisan Issue

A recent article by Kaitlin Toner, Mark Leary, Michael Asher, and Katrina Jongman-Sereno at Duke University examined whether "rigidity" is something that is unique to conservatism or something that all extremists feel.  I put "rigidity" in quotes because the term connotes something negative and actually reflects agreement with statements like ("Anyone who is honestly and truly seeking the truth will end up believing what I believe"), which may reflect rigidity, but also could be said to be measure confidence, certainty, or honest belief that one is right.  Indeed, there is something to be said for avoiding "flip-flopping".

The authors surveyed 527 mechanical turk users and found that while conservatives scored higher on general measures of "dogmatism" (again in quotes because one man's dogmatism is another man's unwavering commitment to principle), both extreme liberals and extreme conservatives were more likely to say that their view was "totally correct – mine is the only correct view" when asked about specific political issues.  Given that most beliefs occur in the specific, rather than in the abstract, it would seem that this is another case of the dark side of moral conviction, whereby extreme views correlate with behaviors that can have negative consequences.

It is for this reason that increasing the influence of moderates is one concrete method for groups to create more cooperation and less conflict.

– Ravi Iyer

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California shows how raising the influence of moderates increases functional government

While there is certainly reason to be cautious in proclaiming California's only recently functional legislature as a success, recent legislative success, with Republicans backing liberal ideas and Democrats backing conservative ideas, suggests that some recent structural reforms have created a more civil and functional legislative environment.  Among the reforms recently enacted are:

Redistricting by a non-partisan commission, leading to more balanced/competitive districts
Non-partisan primaries, where the top 2 finishers, regardless of party, run against each other.

Both of these reforms make politicians more accountable to the broader electorate, instead of to the more extreme members of each party which tend to dominate partisan primaries.  

At CivilPolitics, we feel that these reforms are particularly likely to be the cause of a more civil legislative environment, given that their effect would have been predicted by research on "the dark side of moral conviction", which illustrates how our noble intentions can often lead us to be blind to the negative side-effects of realizing these intentions.  Introducing accountability to those who are more balanced in terms of their worldviews will naturally mitigate the danger of excess moral conviction leading to extreme political positions, of the sort that have led Washington D.C. to dysfunction.

From the New York Times:

“It’s given more courage to my Republican colleagues,” he said. “They were afraid of getting primaries. Now, it’s not just their base they have to appeal to.”

Adam Mendelsohn, a former senior adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who championed the ballot changes, said they were altering the nature of the Legislature but also his own party.

“It gives Republicans the chance to break from their caucus on certain issues,” he said. “It is very different than it was four or five years ago.”

Democrats may also be changing. The state Chamber of Commerce reported last month that 39 of the 40 bills it had described as “job-killing” — regulatory legislation that typically was supported by Democrats — had been defeated this year.

“In the freshman class, a lot of the folks had moderate voting records,” said Anthony Rendon, a Democrat who was elected to the State Assembly last year, evidence of the need for many legislators to appeal beyond the Democratic base.

– Ravi Iyer


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Helping and the Tea Party Find Common Ground is undergoing a transition where we move from trying to bring groups and individuals together to leveraging our academic/research expertise to support other groups doing such work.  One such organization that we are working with is Living Room Conversations, a group founded by co-founder Joan Blades, in collaboration with a former GOP-operative.  In an experience that dovetails well with research showing that personal relationships matter and finding common goals helps create common ground, we were recently heartened to hear how she invited Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, over to her house for tea.  According to the article from the San Francisco Chronicle:

[Living Room Conversations] involves one or two co-hosts pulling together an intimate gathering of folks who might believe they agree on little politically – until they sit down together to listen to one another's perspective. Civilly…  Eventually, they find places they agree…After three hours of watching one another's media caricatures evaporate, the six decided that, for starters, they'd all support reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act….Too often, outfits like MoveOn and the Tea Party get so wrapped up in beating each other in the partisan, Twitter-driven politics of the moment that they don't take time to see who is picking both of their pockets.

If you'd like to support the efforts of Living Room Conversations, consider signing their petition available at this link.

– 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.