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

Psychological Patterns evident in Reactions to the Iran Nuclear Deal

Whether the deal that has been reached will or will not stop Iran from getting nuclear bomb is a question better left for experts in atomic energy and weapons, but there are some psychological processes occurring in reactions to the deal that are quite common and bear pointing out.

– The people who are most concerned about their side getting a bad deal in both Iran and the US are the ones who both are simultaneously are convinced that their side got the worst of it.  Just as those on the extremes of the Democratic and Republican party are most quick to criticize any compromise, so too are those who are most partisan in the Iran-US divide most likely to disagree with the compromise, even as they disagree in opposite directions, each saying that the deal is tilted toward the benefit of the other side.  This converges with work in psychology on how extreme beliefs often lead people to be more critical of mixed evidence.  The Iran deal is a long and complex document and each side can find what it needs to in order to prove it’s case.

– It is psychologically more healthy to believe that one has control than to believe that one does not.  So naturally Obama believes that this deal will control Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even as no verification scheme is perfect.  And critics of the deal insist they could indeed get a better deal, even as those efforts would be dependent on other countries like Russia and China to keep or increase sanctions.  Clearly, there is a lot more uncertainty as to whether this deal will work or whether a better deal was possible.

In the end, the bias of our organization will almost always be toward compromise over conflict.  That being said, given what we know about human psychology, we’ll be looking for the analyses of non-partisan experts who talk in probabilistic terms over the certain language of the most partisan analysts to truly evaluate this deal.

– Ravi Iyer


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Why Do Conservatives Hate Obama’s Health Care Law?

Over at Science On Religion at Patheos, I've posted an article explaining part of the underlying resistance to President Obama's health care law. I admit that I was, um, terrified before posting it – I haven't used the scientific study of religion to tackle anything this overly political before, and I was afraid of the barrage of negative comments from all sides of the aisle. Fortunately, this hasn't happened. Most readers seem to have  found the thesis of the article fairly palatable, or at least worth taking seriously.

In essence, I argue that conservatives are partly motivated by a fear that leveraging too much power to a central authority will reduce people's motivations to participate in local-scale networks of obligation, mutual aid, and reciprocity. In other words, the conservative instinct is that community isn't forged out of shared hobbies or mere domestic proximity. It's forged out of necessity: communities function when people need each other. Once you take away individuals' responsibility to materially care for one another – setting up nursing homes rather than expecting people to extend care to their aging parents, for example – you eliminate the shared web of assistance that is the lifeblood of true relationship.

Here's a section from the article:

To a liberal or progressive, it’s axiomatic that the government is morally obliged to provide services like affordable health care. If a society has the power, wealth, and means to prevent children from dying of lymphoma, or to provide eye surgery to a poor working mother, then it is morally mandated to do these things. To deny this ethical truth is pretty much the definition of being, well, a jerk.

…(But) the most pressing conservative or traditionalist problem with big social safety nets isn’t the Randian fear that helping the poor will make it more difficult for talented people to succeed. It’s the danger that, by transferring the responsibility for providing basic social goods away from local and/or religious communities to larger, more abstract systemic platforms, cultures divest people of their obligations to personally care for one another. With that can come a serious reduction in mental well-being and increase in loneliness – and in lack of meaning.

Thus, according to this logic, the more services and social supports are provided by large, abstract systems such as the federal government, the more the webbing of local, personal community will slowly degrade. Ergo: Obamacare may very well lead to increased loneliness, disaffection, and social malaise. 

This is the substance of the argument I try to highlight. Now, there are two very important caveats: First, I have big reservations about the ability of local and personal social networks – churches, neighborhoods, mosques, and so forth – to adequately care for everyone. Religious groups especially have always tended toward exclusivism, so that if you want care and support from a religious community, you need to belong to it and play by its rules. Outsiders, whether members of other religions, gays, or outcastes, are often pretty much out of luck. Only those who are integrated into communities can benefit from communities, and there will always be those who, through little or no fault of their own, are not well-integrated into any local or religious community.

Second, a lot of the current political squabbling over the Affordable Health Care Act is motivated more by political aims, and by libertarian rejection of any government intrustion into private life, than by the collectivist fears I'm trying to outline. It's important to note that the kind of conservatism I'm talking about bears little ideological resemblance to the libertarian strain that motivates much of the Tea Party. As Ravi Iyer and his colleagues have found, libertarians are cognitively and socially more similar to liberals, in most respects, than to traditionalist conservatives. Libertarians' social ethic does not place much emphasis on local webs of personal connections or on large-scale social systems.

So the applicability of this analysis to today's Obamacare battles is somewhat obscured by partisan conflicts and libertarian sensibilities. But it's worth considering that, beneath these influences, there is a deeper conservative fear of the dissolution of local, small-scale communities motivating much of American conservatives' resistance to big government programs. If so, it's a concern worth taking seriously and addressing head-on in public dialogue.

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Does President Obama Golf Enough?

The rap on Obama, heating up of late, has been that he hangs with the same few friends and is not playing the political game properly. And inside the beltway the game that drives relationships and gets things done is golf. In his exchange with congressional insider Paul Kane  Chris Cillizza opines:

I love the golf thing. I always tell people who have never spent any time up on Capitol Hill that the whole place is driven by relationships. Most big deals — or grand bargains I guess is what we call them now — came as a result of a personal connection between the president and a Congressional leader (or two). They liked each other and, more importantly, trusted each other so they were more willing to deal on the tough stuff…So, my question is this: Does Obama not LIKE Members of Congress?

Of course Obama needn't be always gripping an iron to forge bonds. The main idea being that the President really needs to take the lead. Paul Kane, who doesn't care to fixate on the golf thing, put the matter in its proper, beaming, light:

…there is still something intrinsically cool and powerful about the presidency. When Obama finally hosted a big dinner with senators, at the Jefferson in March, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) was absolutely beaming the very next day. He is as tea party as you can be in the Senate, and he’s been one angry guy for most of his 2-plus years in the Senate. Yet that day, after being in a small room with the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, you could see it in his face how cool he thought it was. He talked about how Obama was charming and engaging and nice, the sorta things Ron Johnson never said about Barack Hussein Obama ever before in his life.

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