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

Posts Tagged civility Kills Comments

How much pure democracy can science stand? has closed its comments section for most articles because:

…even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story, recent research suggests

They cite a U of Wisconsin-Madison study that showed:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itselfThose exposed to rude comments…ended up with a much more polarized understanding.

And then PopSci gets more polemical:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again.

So a civil non-fractious majority must be protected from an uncivil fractious minority? This because the non-fracts are so easily swayed by non-facts from the fracts. Which injects the paternalism question into the civility debate. .(Cf. this David Brooks piece in which he makes the case for “social paternalism”).

At any rate the question of whether the internet has been bad for democracy continues…

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Domestic Realpolitik

In their piece in yesterday’s New York Times, Jon Haidt and Marc Hetherington present clear empirical evidence of the political polarization that plagues contemporary American politics.  They offer some viable solutions as well, but end on a note of pessimism regarding the likelihood that things will look much different after November’s election.
You can think of our political system as addicted to conflict.  For politicians, obstruction is an effective legislative strategy.  For the corporate media and its punditocracy, promoting conflict is a good business model.  And let’s face it, because everyone is convinced that the other side struck first, hitting them back – even harder – curbs the nasty cravings of righteous indignation.  As any committed Democrat who has followed Mitt Romney’s travails over the last two weeks can tell you, conflict just feels goood.
Luckily, 21rst century celebrity scandal culture has taught us all what to do.  With any addiction, the first step in breaking the habit is acknowledging the problem.  And while the airwaves and blogosphere are filled with people bemoaning our legislative gridlock and the breakdown of political civility and cooperation, every four years we hit the wall of denial.  When election time nears, candidates from our two major parties propose ideologically sensible policy platforms that take no account of our polarized political culture, and because of this failure to recognize that we have a problem, these idealized political agendas have almost no chance of being enacted into law.
In foreign policy, there has long been a distinction between realism and idealism.  Rather than let ideology guide our interactions with other countries, realists accept that the world of international relations is a complicated and chaotic place filled with conflicting dynamics of power and self-interest that we ignore at our own peril.  What I am arguing is that we need a realist school of domestic policy as well.
What I ache for as a citizen is to hear our Presidential candidates address political polarization as a real policy problem – a genuine obstacle to enacting their agenda that must be acknowledged and overcome. I am waiting to hear journalists ask President Obama and Governor Romney, specifically, how they plan to enact their agenda, not in the political vacuum they assume in their stump speeches, but in the real world of hyper-partisan political gridlock we actually live in.  I know that politicians and pundits want to avoid the issue – saying it is beyond any politicians’ ability to control the other side’s behavior – but without some recognition that this is the real political terrain that must be negotiated, their best laid plans for investing in our future or weaning people off government dependence are little more than fairy tales.  
Without feeling hyperbolic, I think it is apt to characterize political polarization and bipartisan demonization as the primary obstacles to our government’s ability to address this nation’s long list of pressing but imminently addressable problems.  But until our leaders recognize that we have a problem, and generate both the political will and a genuine strategy to deal with it, we will remain where we are, putting off dealing with exploding budget deficits and melting polar ice caps for another day, while we lurk through alleys of unforced political gaffes and old youtube videos looking to score cheap political points. 
American politics needs an intervention.  We need domestic policy realism as much as foreign policy realism.

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Look how far we’ve come…apart

I have an essay in today's NYT on America's growing polarization. Marc Hetherington and I show what's happened over the last 50 years, not just in Congress but among citizens, in 3 simple graphs.The first one is below, from McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal. It shows that things were really polarized in the late 19th century, after the civil war, then they got much less polarized, but it's been a rapid climb upwards since the 1960s. We talk about why.


The next 2 graphs were made by Hetherington, and they are just as depressing. Click here to read the essay.

But we end on an optimistic note. There really are so many changes we could make to roll things back, perhaps to the level of polarization in the 1990s, which was much lower than it is today. But only if we push our leaders to make the changes. They will not make the changes themselves, because each change will probably favor one side or the other, so the disadvantaged side will fight like hell. But extreme pressure from outside, for a comprehensive package of reforms — a kind of good-government-Simpson-Bowles — might do it.

Post-script: see Pete Ditto's call for "domestic realpolitik" to be realistic about how we're going to get things done.

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If you don’t agree with me there is something wrong with you: An introduction to naive realism

Ever notice that anyone going slower than you is an idiot, and everyone going faster than you is a maniac? 

Is it possible that people driving slower than us are actually idiots and that people driving faster than us are maniacs? Absolutely. Is it possible that we are idiots for driving faster or slower than them? Absolutely… although our brains seem to steer us toward the assumption that we are right and other people acting or thinking differently from us are the deviants.

This phenomenon is called "naive realism." As naive realists, we tend to think that we see events, people, and the world as they really are, free from any distortion due to self-interest, dogma, or ideology. We also tend to assume that other fair-minded people will share our views, as long as they have the same information as I do (also known as the "truth") and that they process that information in the objective, open-minded fashion that we did. Lastly, we generate three possible explanations for why other people might not share our views:
  1. They haven't been told the truth.
  2. They are too lazy or stupid to reach correct interpretations and conclusions, or
  3. They are biased by their self-interest, dogma, or ideology.

An important and related phenomenon is the "false consensus effect." Here, we see that people tend to assume that the decisions that they make are the ones most people would make and that these are the morally-right decisions to make. Because these are the "normal" decisions to make, these decisions reveal less about our idiosyncrasies and individual values. When people make different decisions or take different positions, we assume that it is because of their character and their values (or lack thereof).
Naive realism and false consensus effects are barriers to civil political dialogue and they provide a lens through which we can better understand why liberals and conservatives seem incapable of communicating with one another without calling each other names or assuming that the other side is evil (Hitler-like, the Anti-Christ, or subhuman). 

It is difficult to surmount these seemingly basic human tendencies, and we may not even want to overcome all of them. Vigorous debate and intragroup disagreement is healthy for democracy. Thinking that our views are correct and assuming others would share our views likely serve to promote our defense of our ideals and our preferred policies. The problem, though, emerges when disagreement devolves to demonization. Understanding how to prevent this shift is the central goal of my colleagues and friends at, and the most reliable method to minimize demonization seems to reside in promoting relationships between individuals who disagree. In previous generations, where demonization was less rampant, our elected officials spent time with one another outside of work, interacted with each others' families, and knew each other as people, and not just partisan adversaries. Calling someone evil and a liar is much more difficult and unlikely if you know you must face that person's spouse and children later that night over the dinner table.

So, as you are having discussions with people who hold beliefs different from your own and you are trying to enlighten them with "truth," think about whether you could face that person's family over the dinner table after making your argument. If not, you may want to reconsider your argument and think about whether you're being a dogmatic naive realist.

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