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

Posts Tagged civil politics

The Psychology of Aggression and the Ugliness of the Health Care Reform Debate

Most people are not violent people. From an evolutionary perspective, there are high costs involved for a member of a species to kill other members of it’s own species. Soldiers in war have to be trained out of their natural impulse not to fire weapons. For the vast majority of people, aggression is a last resort and I’m guessing that most readers have anecdotal evidence of this as rarely do everyday disagreements escalate into physical or even direct verbal attacks. It’s usually not worth the risk and stress to our systems.

There is lots of psychological research on how to reduce these inhibitions (e.g. dehumanization, Milgram’s obedience studies), but there is little research (feel free to let me know if I’m wrong about this and I’ll edit this) on the positive pressures towards aggression. Among the ideas I am familiar with are Sherif’s classic studies on competition for limited resources, which are echoed in Robert Wrights’s ideas about zero-sum competitions leading to conflict. However, competition itself is just a circumstance and it doesn’t necessarily get at the psychological mechanism for group level aggression. For example, people may compete because they covet a particular resource or they may compete because they need that resource to survive.

A couple years ago, I hypothesized that individuals are moved to aggression because of an excess of moral principle, rather than the absence of moral principle. In the context of the health care reform debate, this may mean harming others “for the greater good”, which could be defined as saving unborn fetuses, providing health care to the sick, defending the constitution, fighting for liberty, or an assortment of other moral principles which have been asserted by both sides as justifying actions that might normally be considered out of bounds. In the past few days, we have seen gun threats, windows broken, the elderly disrespected, and slurs and spit hurled at politicians. These incidences of crossing boundaries in the name of a cause are not limited to one party as those in favor of health care have harassed Bart Stupak and tried to have Joe Lieberman’s wife fired. No side has a monopoly on the ugliness.

I don’t have data that speaks directly to this question, but I do have this graph to consider. At the time that I started thinking about what I call ‘hypermoralism’, I created a small educational website that I thought I’d use to gather some exploratory data as I thought about these issues. The website is still in beta but the results of the initial survey are interesting. I asked people to think of a group that committed violence against civilians (e.g. 30% picked the Nazis) and think of the motivations behind that violence. I then asked people to think of reasons why, in an extreme case, they themselves might endorse violence against civilians.

Reasons to support violence against civilians

As you can see in the above graph, people believe that notorious groups that kill civilians are amoral (“They were amoral, having no moral standards.” or “They were seeking personal gain at the expense of others.”) most of all and were willing to entertain the idea that they were hypermoral (“They were killing people who belong to a specific group to avenge a past injustice committed by other members of that group.”) as that value was still close to the midpoint of the scale. Survival (“They were killing people because they themselves would be killed if they did not.”) was a distant third motivation.

In contrast, when people considered when they would potentially resort to violence against civilians, survival (of both the individual and the family, which loaded on the same factor in a factor analysis) was the prime potential motivator. Unfortunately, for my hypothesis, moral reasons were deemed no more likely than non-moral reasons for individuals, but I still think there is something to be learned.

Clearly, these scenarios are not directly comparable as the average respondent is likely actually different than the average Nazi or member of the Khmer Rouge. It’s not just a matter of perception. But if we believe in the vast amount of research on the fundamental attribution error, which shows that we underestimate situational pressure when others do bad things, there likely is some amount of attribution error occurring in this instance. It seems likely that many individuals within these notorious groups actually did feel some survival motivation that spurred their actions. For example, Hitler was quite poor, though clearly his actions went way beyond mere survival.

In the health care reform debate, it seems that a precursor to the ugliness is indeed couching the debate in terms of a life or death struggle for survival, justifying questionable behavior.  Is America hanging by a thread? Then I suppose it’s worth taking extreme measures to save it. Are people dying every day that reform isn’t enacted? Then I suppose a few harassing calls to a congressman’s home are a small price to pay.

Politics in America can often be a zero-sum game and it is inevitable that passions will be inflamed on both sides. Liberals may have ‘won’ this vote, but we all lose when the debate gets too ugly and liberals are just as guilty of exaggeration when things don’t go their way. Indeed, I just received an email asking for help to “stop big corporations from taking over our democracy”, a reference to a recent Supreme Court decision which conservatives “won”. Such rhetorical devices may be useful, but we should all guard against where such exaggeration inevitably leads….ugliness.

– Ravi Iyer

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Incivility’s victims: Evan Bayh, and a functioning Senate

We can’t know all the reasons why centrist Democrat Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) decided not to run for re-election, but his recent op-ed essay in the New York Times was a stunning indictment of the incivility and dysfunction of the U.S. Senate:

There are many causes for the dysfunction: strident partisanship, unyielding ideology, a corrosive system of campaign financing, gerrymandering of House districts, endless filibusters, holds on executive appointees in the Senate, dwindling social interaction between senators of opposing parties and a caucus system that promotes party unity at the expense of bipartisan consensus.

In the rest of the essay, Bayh points to two of the main causes that we at CivilPolitics have been discussing. First, the necessity of strengthening interpersonal relationships BEFORE discussing areas of disagreement. As Bayh says:

When I was a boy, members of Congress from both parties, along with their families, would routinely visit our home for dinner or the holidays. This type of social interaction hardly ever happens today and we are the poorer for it. It is much harder to demonize someone when you know his family or have visited his home. Today, members routinely campaign against each other, raise donations against each other and force votes on trivial amendments written solely to provide fodder for the next negative attack ad. It’s difficult to work with members actively plotting your demise. Any improvement must begin by changing the personal chemistry among senators. More interaction in a non-adversarial atmosphere would help.

Second, Bayh advocates a variety of structural and institutional reforms which would change the dynamic among Senators and facilitate cooperation. He specifically mentions campaign finance reform and other ways to allow Senators to spend less time fundraising; and reducing the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster from 60 to 55 (just as the number was reduced from 67 to 60 in 1975).

So much of the rise in partisan rancor has been due to the “big sort” that began in the 1970s as conservative democrats moved to the Republican party, and as liberal or even moderate Republicans got voted out everywhere but the extreme Northeast and Northwest corners of the country. The two parties are now relatively ideologically pure, which makes party into a more perfectly moral divide. The loss of any of the few remaining centrist politicians is a blow to civility and a loss to the nation.

—Jon Haidt

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Are Liberals and Conservatives Polar Opposites or Mirror Images?

In 1961, Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner coined the term mirror image perceptions to describe the similarities he observed in Americans’ and Soviets’ stereotypic views of one another.

Bronfenbrenner, writing during the height of Cold War tensions, noted that both sides in this grand ideological struggle tended to see their own leadership as good and nobly motivated and the other side’s leaders as corrupt and driven by malicious intent. Both Soviets and Americans perceived their own people as essentially peaceful with opinions free from governmental coercion, while seeing the other side’s people as aggressive and deluded by ideology and state sponsored (capitalist or communist) propaganda. Other researchers have gone on to note that this mirror image pattern, two opposing sides in an ideological struggle having virtually identical stereotypes of each other, is a common characteristic in intergroup relations.

It is hard not to see a similar dynamic playing out in contemporary America’s culture war struggle. If you take some time to read or watch each side’s partisan media voices, you should be struck quite quickly by the similarity of the charges each side levies against the other. The mirror metaphor is an apt one, however, as the image each side has of the other is usually similar but in a sense “reversed,” in that the accusations flow from each sides own unique moral sensibilities. Which generally means that both sides have to squint a bit to recognize their own visage in the other.

So for example, here are just a few places where liberals and conservatives hold eerily similar views of each other:

Both sides see the other as political extremists. It is common now in both political blogospheres to hear pundits bemoan the radical shift toward extremism in the other side. The right harps constantly on the “out of the mainstream” and “radical” left wing agenda pursued by President Obama and his cronies (read Reid & Pelosi) in Congress. Charges of socialism and worse abound. The left, on the other hand, sees a Republican party purged of any moderate influence and increasingly coalescing around a hard right economic (tea party) and foreign policy (neoconservative) consensus. The charges of choice here are “corporate apologist” and “war criminal”. Nazi references fly from both corners, and both sides accuse the other of trampling on their beloved Constitution.

Both sides see their own policy positions as motivated by national interest and the other side’s by crass political posturing. Democrats see Republicans as the “party of no”, devoid of any true policy convictions and driven only by their desire to see President Obama fail. Republicans, on the other hand, are fond of touting themselves as men and women of “principle” (particularly principled fiscal conservatism), and their increasingly populist rhetoric is a clear attempt to claim the mantle of the “voice of the people”. Democrats are portrayed by the right wing media as power hungry Machiavellians, motivated only by their desire to grow the government, raise your taxes, and thus solidify the power of the bureaucratic class and fat cat union bullies. Both left and right see their foreign policies as hard headed attempts to keep America safe, and the other side as willing to politicize terrorism policy for partisan advantage or in defense of some warped ideological aspiration (American exceptionalism or political correctness).

Both sides see their own policy positions as genuine and logical and the other’s as coerced and irrational. Both sides like to portray their own base’s opinions as grounded in “common sense,” and the other side’s as a product of cynical manipulation of popular sentiment orchestrated by political elites and bankrolled by partisan billionaire puppeteers. The epithet “kool-aid drinker” is hurled with equal frequency from the right and the left. Neither side sees criticism of the other side’s leaders as flowing from legitimate policy differences, but rather as a product of some irrational, emotional antipathy (racial prejudice or “Bush Derangement Syndrome”). Both sides tend to “psychologize” the other side’s opinions, and media figures seen as daring truth-tellers by their own side (e.g., Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann) are seen as dangerously unhinged by the other.

Both sides see the other as fear mongering for political advantage. Throughout the Bush administration, Democrats accused Republicans of ginning up fear about terrorism to support neoconservative military ambitions and aggressive interrogation and detention policies against suspected enemy combatants. Now, Republicans accuse Democrats of engineering fear of global warming to support their radical environmentalist agenda, and of exaggerating claims of imminent economic collapse to support left-wing domestic policies. Both sides see their own fears as real, and the others as imagined.

Both sides see the other as politicizing science. Democrats celebrated the election of Barack Obama as a return to the rule of science after nearly a decade of repeated claims that Bush Administration officials were molding science to fit their ideological and religious beliefs. This point was made most prominently in regard to climate change science, but also about the use of data surrounding contraceptive use and endangered species protection. Republicans are now making remarkably similar claims of liberal scientific meddling, fueled by the release of a series of suspicious sounding emails from British climate change scientists (so-called “climategate”). Interestingly, a meme is now emerging in conservative circles arguing that liberals’ belief that global warming is “settled science,” and their refusal to acknowledge scientific data challenging their established beliefs, is itself an example of being blinded by pseudo-religious faith (see George Will’s recent Washington Post Column).

Both sides see the other as lacking bipartisan spirit. What more can one say? If it wasn’t quite so sad, we could all share a smile over the irony of two political factions so bitterly locked in a partisan battle that they respond to a public outcry for bipartisanship with dueling accusations of the other side’s lack thereof.

Mirror image perceptions are a hallmark of judgmental bias. When both sides hold virtually identical negative beliefs about each other, it suggests that there is very little “there”, there — and that the groups’ mutual (mis)perceptions are likely fueled by biases that arise from intergroup conflict.

Of course, when evaluating political speech one always has to work at separating out rhetoric (what elites say for strategic reasons but don’t really believe) from true belief (what people don’t just say but really believe, and what I as a psychologist am primarily interested in). In a subsequent blog entry, I plan to post some yourmorals data documenting left-right mirror image perceptions in our respondents. I will follow that with a series of posts discussing some of the psychological biases that I believe produce mirror image perceptions, and in turn fuel partisan mistrust and uncivil politics.

– Pete Ditto

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In politics, people don’t gravitate to the truth

In the NY Times, Feb 13 2010, p. A19, Charles Blow reports:

On Feb. 9, 2009, at the first prime-time press conference of his presidency, Obama said: “I am the eternal optimist. I think that over time people respond to–to civility and rational argument.” Since then, the right has tried to block him at nearly every turn, and the far right has formed a movement fueled by irrational anger.

[. . .] Yet, there he was again this week, a year to the day after the prime-time press conference, saying almost exactly the same thing: “I am just an eternal optimist. … And all I can do is just to keep on making the argument about what’s right for the country and assume that over time, people, regardless of party, regardless of their particular political positions, are going to gravitate towards the truth.” So stubbornly sweet. So simply naive. If Obama is still clinging to this quaint concept after the year he’s had, it’s easy to understand why he’s in trouble.

From our perspective at YourMorals, Obama’s words sound so naive that we find it hard to believe he believes them. According to work by social psychologist Tom Gilovich (and backed up by a great deal of research on motivated reasoning), when people want to believe something, they ask themselves “can i believe it,” and the answer is nearly always yes. You can always find SOME evidence to support any conclusion, even if the preponderance of evidence points the other way. But when they don’t want to believe, they ask “MUST I believe it,” and the answer is nearly always no. Party and partisanship have enormous effects on what people believe. The truth has much less force. If Obama sincerely believes that the truth will defeat partisanship, then he is poorly equipped for life in politics.

But does he sincerely believe that, or was he just saying it because it suited his purpose at that moment during a conversation? Moral statements tend to be post-hoc rationalizations of what one has just said/did/judged, they are not honest reports of the real reasons why one said/did/judged, for such reports are not available for introspection or reporting. (See Tim Wilson, Strangers to ourselves)

–Jon Haidt

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