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

Progress on Debt Ceiling shows us how Moderates can temper the Dark Side of Moral Conviction

As I write this, reports indicate that moderate Republicans (Susan Collins) and Democrats (Joe Manchin) appear to be spearheading bipartisan talks to avoid the economic consequences of a debt default and also end the partial government shutdown.  This is in marked contrast to partisans on the left who are willing to endure some economic hardship to regain political power and partisans on the right who are willing to endure some economic hardship to achieve policy goals.

Strong partisans tend to have strong moral convictions, which can certainly lead to pro-social behavior in many cases.  One principle of practicing political civility is to try to accept the genuine good intentions of others, and I have little doubt that those on the left and right have good intentions for the country.  Yet psychological research on moral conviction shows how it is precisely those individuals with the strongest moral desires who are often willing to overlook the consequences of their actions (e.g. shutting down the government and threatening to breach the debt ceiling) in service of their goals.  

This review paper by Linda Skitka and Elizabeth Mullen provides a nice overview of this research:  

Although moral mandates may sometimes lead people to
engage in prosocial behaviors, they can also lead people to disregard procedural safeguards. This article briefly reviews research that indicates that people become very unconcerned with how moral mandates are achieved, so long as they are achieved. In short, we find that commitments to procedural safeguards that generally protect civil society become psychologically eroded when people are pursuing a morally mandated end. Understanding the “dark side” of moral conviction may provide some insight into the motivational underpinnings of engaging in extreme acts like terrorism, as well as people’s willingness to forego civil liberties in their pursuit of those who do.


It is precisely for these reasons that partisan gerrymandering, which makes politicians accountable to the extremes who vote in primaries as opposed to moderates, threatens to lead to more future crises.  If moderates like Olympia Snowe leave and their influence is replaced by hardliners like Ted Cruz, we are all bound to suffer the consequences of their moral conviction.

– Ravi Iyer

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The Psychological Principles Contributing to a Government Shutdown

As I write this, the government has been shutdown for four days which represents a clear failure of politicians to come together and put our nation first.  Much has been written about the shutdown, but CivilPolitics' niche in the world of political writing is to highlight how psychological principles are at work during both civil and uncivil interactions.  

Among the psychological principles at work are:

A breakdown in relationships amongst individuals from conflicted parties.  We are all human beings first and act on our feelings as much as our reason.  While Congressman Stutzman's quote that Republicans are "not going to be disrespected" are being criticized, the reality is that mutual respect and collegial feelings amongst negotiating parties are indeed important in reaching agreement.  So when Harry Reid calls Boehner a coward, it really does reduce the likelihood of an agreement, as even if it doesn't affect Boehner explicitly, it certainly changes the nature of relationships amongst them and makes it harder to reach mutual understanding.  This effect is not limited to the parties involved as research on the extended contact effect illustrates how negativity amongst members of two groups can affect relationships between all members of conflicted groups.  In contrast, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich had a personal relationship where they talked nightly during the previous shutdown.

The outsized influence of those with extreme moral conviction.  Research on "the dark side of moral conviction" shows how those with ostensibly good intentions can become blind to the negative consequences of their actions, in service of their goals.  The more extreme one's moral convictions are, the greater the effect, and many Republicans represent districts that have one-sided moral convictions and therefore have no reason to try to come to a middle ground.  Only 17 Republicans come from districts that Obama won (compared to 79 during Clinton's presidency), and partisan redistricting makes it increasingly unlikely that moderates will provide a check on those with more extreme moral convictions.

A lack of focus on shared goals (e.g. keeping the government functioning) instead of on conflicting goals (e.g. Obamacare).  Realistic conflict theory and examining moments in history where partisans come together, shows us that compromise and cooperation is often a result of shared goals.  Indeed, moderates are leading the charge toward compromise.  Below is a humorous video where Republican moderate Scott Riggell (who comes from one of the few districts that is not so partisan) explicitly notes that even as he opposes the "Unaffordable Care Act", he recognizes that there is a higher goal at stake.

I'm not sure how we can transcend the current crisis, but hopefully reading the current political news from this perspective can inform an understanding of future debates and help us collectively create situations that no longer lead us to these types of self-inflicted crises.

– Ravi Iyer


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Hillary Clinton’s Prescription for Partisan Gridlock is Similar to Chris Christie’s

Given the attention that Hillary Clinton is getting from the press, it is worth noting her prescription for reducing partisan gridlock dovetails well with research on how superordinate/shared goals leads to cooperation and common ground.

When asked for her prescription for partisan gridlock, Clinton sees an opportunity not unlike what Obama saw in 2008. ­“People are stereotypes, they are caricaturized,” says Clinton. “It comes from both sides of the political aisle, it comes from the press. It’s all about conflict, it’s all about personality, and there are huge stakes in the policies that are being debated, and I think there’s a hunger amongst a very significant, maybe even a critical mass of Americans, clustered on the left, right, and center, to have an adult conversation about how we’re going to solve these problems … but it’s not for the fainthearted.” For now, Hillary’s strategy is to sail above these conflicts, mostly by saying nothing to inflame them. “I have a lot of reason to believe, as we saw in the 2012 election, most Americans don’t agree with the extremists on any side of an issue,” says Clinton, “but there needs to continue to be an effort to find common ground, or even take it to higher ground on behalf of the future.”

Of course, diagnosing the issue and actually solving it are two very different things as we haven't seen a reduction in partisanship during Obama's presidency, so somehow her prescription may have to change if we are to expect a different outcome from a hypothetical Clinton presidency.  Chris Christie has a similar view of the importance of "getting things done" over partisanship, and also has a track record of transcending gridlock as governor of New Jersey.  In coming months, we will try to highlight quotes concerning overcoming gridlock from all potential 2016 candidates, especially as they relate to psychological research on incivility.

– Ravi Iyer

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Democrats and Republicans work together on Patent Reform

Years of research in social psychology and a read of human history tell us that one way to combat incivility in politics is to focus on shared goals.  Democrats and republicans can agree about rewarding people who build businesses and not rewarding patent trolls.  Given that, this is certainly an area where cooperation over shared objectives, as opposed to competition, can breed civility.

From this Politico article

But just as Democrats and Republicans came together to pass the 2011 Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, which brought the most comprehensive change to our nation’s patent laws in 60 years, we again are working in a collaborative, bipartisan way. Our legislation will make it harder for bad actors to succeed, while preserving what has made America’s patent system great.

We can only hope that in other areas such as reducing the deficit, improving our nation’s healthcare, improving the economy, and promoting peace, we can also focus on our shared goals, as opposed to our conflicts.

– 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.