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

Those who want a fight, like Trump and ISIS, do indeed benefit from each other.

During the recent Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton stated that Donald Trump has become a lead recruiter for ISIS.  I can’t speak to the accuracy of this claim, and much has been written from both sides elsewhere.   However, there should be very little doubt that those who benefit from conflict need the level of perceived competition to be ever greater, in order to justify their combative stance within their own group, implying that the extremes on both sides of any conflict do indeed have common goals.  That is true in social science laboratory experiments, natural experiments that occur in the world, analyses of history, in our everyday experiences and yes, it is true with regard to those who benefit from a perceived “clash of civilizations”, such as Donald Trump and ISIS.  Indeed, it would be shocking if it didn’t work that way for Trump and ISIS, as shocking as it would be if gravity worked in some places and not others, as these forces are fundamental parts of human nature.  We are naturally social animals who are exceedingly good at forming groups and competing with opposing groups.  The more competitive the situation gets, the more animosity arises and the more we gravitate toward the most combative amongst our group.

Need proof?  Here are five forms of evidence that suggest this is true.Scarborough,_North_Yorkshire_-_WWI_poster

1) Social Science – Thousands of studies have used the minimal group paradigm, whereby the mere fact of assigning a person to a group creates animosity and the more competitive the groups are, the more animosity ensues.  The reason the procedure is called “minimal” is that there is no actual reason why any person is put in any group, such that any reason for conflict is simply a result of random group assignment + competition, not any real difference between individuals.  During these manufactured competitions, group members are more likely to follow others who suggest attacking the other group.

2) The Natural Experiment of Sports – How do we know that the minimal group paradigm maps onto real world behavior?  Millions of people engage in animosity toward very similar others due to the arbitrary assignment of where they happen to live and what sports team they then follow.  Thousands of papers have been written to analyze this behavior (I’d recommend Among the Thugs most), but you don’t need academic analyses to know that rivalries lead to violence across sports and countries, as it happens regularly in the news.  Importantly, the only thing that often differentiates these groups is the level of competition between them;  the greater the competition, the more animosity, and the more opportunity for heroes to arise, who lead their side to victory.

3) History – How do dictators get their populace to follow them, despite their often ineffective leadership?  North Korea needs a perpetual sense of threat to justify the terrible conditions it imposes on it’s people.  Hitler, Stalin, Pol-Pot, and Putin, in modern times, maintain(ed) their hold on power not by providing a better life for their people, but by “protecting” them from a very dangerous world.  The more competition that exists with other countries, the better their hold on power, a phenomenon that has noted by political scientists in the US as well.

4) Everyday experience – A lot of social science and history simply confirms what we already know from our everyday experience.  When was the last time that you got into an argument with someone and one party willingly conceded their point of view?  The more heated the debate, the less you listen to others, and the fact that social scientists have found this to be true is almost beside the point.  Creating a more extreme atmosphere is a great way to shut down reasoned debate and compromise.

5) Trump & ISIS – I don’t doubt Trump’s sincere desire to defeat ISIS, but support for his candidacy has clearly increased as more terrible events occur in the world.  Indeed, a prime emphasis of his candidacy is competition with ISIS, China, Mexico, etc, and his proposed toughness in dealing with them.  He demonstrates this toughness by being ever more extreme.  Similarly, while systematic analyses of terrorist attitudes are sparse, groups like ISIS have often arisen in response to perceived invasions of Islamic territory such as in the Middle East or Afghanistan,  and a prime emphasis of ISIS’ propaganda is over-the-top shock videos designed to display toughness, in the face of these threats.

In the end, human beings will rally to a “tough leader” when under threat.  Intentional or not, those who demonstrate their toughness through their extreme rhetoric, often benefit from this threat, leading those on either extreme side of any moral division to be strangely aligned in terms of their incentives.  Trump & ISIS’ relationship is similar to the relationship between Democrats and Republicans who fundraise off of the extreme words of the opposing side or the Ohio State and Michigan athletic departments, who each earn millions from their rivalry or Hamas and the current conservative Israeli government, who both gain in popularity based on each others’ more extreme actions, or east coast and west coast rappers, whose rivalry led to millions in album sales.  Human beings love competition and often, those who promote the competition amongst us reap the rewards.  Unfortunately, some of these competitions have enduring consequences and there are times when those of us who would prefer to build bridges rather than walls need to get psychology working for us, rather than against us.

– Ravi Iyer

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Research suggests that Belief that Groups Can Change facilititates Reconciliation

Recently, I was forwarded a research article entitled “Belief in the Malleability of Groups Strengthens the Tenuous Link Between a Collective Apology and Intergroup Forgiveness” that was recently published in Personality and Psychology Bulletin.  From the abstract:

Although it is widely assumed that collective apologies for intergroup harms facilitate forgiveness, evidence for a strong link between the two remains elusive. In four studies we tested the proposition that the apology–forgiveness link exists, but only among people who hold an implicit belief that groups can change. In Studies 1 and 2, perceived group malleability (measured and manipulated, respectively) moderated the responses to an apology by Palestinian leadership toward Israelis: Positive responses such as forgiveness increased with greater belief in group malleability. In Study 3, university students who believed in group malleability were more forgiving of a rival university’s derogatory comments in the presence (as opposed to the absence) of an apology. In Study 4, perceived perpetrator group remorse mediated the moderating effect of group malleability on the apology–forgiveness link (assessed in the context of a corporate transgression). Implications for collective apologies and movement toward reconciliation are discussed.

In summary, apologies facilitate reconciliation IF there is a belief that groups can change.  A related article was published in Science in 2011, showing that even in the absence of an apology, the induced belief that groups can change has an effect on intergroup attitudes.  You can read the study here and below is that abstract:

Four studies showed that beliefs about whether groups have a malleable versus fixed nature affected intergroup attitudes and willingness to compromise for peace. Using a nationwide sample (N = 500) of Israeli Jews, Study 1 showed that believing groups were malleable predicted positive attitudes toward Palestinians, which predicted willingness to compromise. Next, experimentally inducing malleable vs. fixed beliefs about groups among Israeli Jews (Study 2, N = 76), Palestinian Citizens of Israel (Study 3, N = 59), and Palestinians in the West Bank (Study 4, N = 53) (without mentioning the adversary) led to more positive attitudes toward the outgroup and, in turn, increased willingness to compromise for peace.

Among the more notable things in this last study is that it was done on individuals in the midst of a real intractable conflict that we all have an interest in resolving.  To make this a bit more concrete, I think it is helpful to see exactly what the authors mean by “group malleability” and how it was changed.  In this last paper, the details are here and the belief that groups can change was measured by these 4 items:

“As much as I hate to admit it, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks–groups can’t really change their basic characteristics,” “Groups can do things differently, but the important parts of who they are can’t really be changed,” “Groups that are characterized by violent tendencies will never change their ways,” and “Every group or nation has basic moral values and beliefs that can’t be changed significantly.”

Perhaps more of applied interest to those working to bring groups together is how they manipulated beliefs that groups can change through a scientific-style article.

Manipulation of beliefs. Participants were randomly assigned to the “malleable” or “fixed” condition. They read a short Psychology Today-style scientific article (in Hebrew) describing groups that had committed violence and reporting studies on aggression. These studies suggested that, over time, the groups had (malleable condition) or had not (fixed condition) changed. In the malleable condition the research suggested that violence resulted from extreme leadership or environmental influence, whereas in the fixed condition the research suggested that aggression was rooted in the nature and culture of the groups.

Is extreme and violent behavior “influenced by context and leadership” or is it “entrenched within the nature of individuals and groups”?  Certainly we should encourage the former if we want to improve relationships between groups and luckily there is a lot of research that supports this view as well.

– Ravi Iyer


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Love thy neighbor: Ingroups, outgroups, and biased attributions (Study 4)

Context: Research on intergroup conflict is well supported and grounded in implementing collaboration. However, despite this data, conflict continues to grow and develop. In the present research, Waytz, Young, and Ginges (2014) provide context as to why individuals and their respective group associations may fail to respect peace-promoting findings through an analysis of “motive attribution asymmetry.” Motive attribution symmetry is an assumption-based pattern that involves ingroup vs. outgroup tendencies to respond with either biased ingroup-love or outgroup-hate assumptions.
Waytz et al. (2014) hypothesize that people will “attribute ingroup engagement in conflict to love more than hate…. but [also] attribute outgroup engagement in conflict to hate more than love” (p. 15687) Within five separate studies, Waytz et al. (2014) utilize several distinct intergroup conflicts, violent and non-violent, aiming to understand individuals’ innate sense of ingroup and outgroup motives and subsequent intergroup assumptions.

 Study 2 (See Figure 1) and Study 3 outline continuing information found in study one: individuals tend to support the motive attribution asymmetry pattern and generally form internal biases that follow outgorup-hate assumptions and ingroup-love assessments.
Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 12.20.02 AM
Blue – Love
Red – Hate


 Study 4: Implications of Bias
1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:
Researchers worked towards proving the prediction that the motive attribution pattern actually informs intentions to retract or maintain ones position about an outgroup or conflict member. In other words, using the information found in study 1-3, Waytz et al. wanted to see what implications may arise when individuals follow this mental pattern.
Israeli participants responded to questions regarding Palestinian motivations  (ingroup love vs. out-group hate) as well as questions concerning personal beliefs in terms of retracting or maintaining attitudes about Palestinians.

 2. What They Found – Results:
Again the pattern was found, however, implications of this bias were also discovered to be correlated. Specifically, Waytz et al. found that feeling that Palestinians are motivated by hate for Israelis correlated with limited desire to negotiate, limited belief in a compromise, win-win situation, as well as reduced optimism and preference for peace making deals.

 3. Who Was Studied – Sample:
498 Israeli residents, contacted through and collected data by way of phone interviews; demographic information collected at the same time

 4. Study Name:
Waytz et al., 2014, Study 4

 5. Citation:
Waytz, A., Young, L. L., & Ginges, J. (2014). Motive attribution asymmetry for love vs. hate drives        intractable conflict. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(44), 15687-15692.     doi:10.1073/pnas.1414146111

 6. Link:

7. Intervention categories:
Intergroup Conflict, Ingroup love, Outgroup hate, Attribution, Cognitive bias, Religious identity, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gaza

 8. Sample size:

 9. Central Reported Statistic:
“This measure of bias was correlated with…
reduced willingness to negotiate [r(453) = −0.23, P < 0.0001]
reduced perceptions of a win-win [r(409) = −0.21, P < 0.0001]
reduced optimism [r(463) = −0.10, P = 0.038]
reduced personal willingness to vote for a peace deal [r(471) = −0.15, P = 0.001]
reduced expectation that Palestinians will vote for a peace deal [r(471) = −0.11, P = 0.016]
reduced positive compromise outcome beliefs [r(471) = −0.26, P < 0.0001]
increased essentialist beliefs about Palestinians [r(471) = 0.27, P < 0.0001]”




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