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

Observations across Transpartisan Organizations from David Nevins

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the fourth post in the series detailing the experiences of David Nevins, who has been involved with numerous organizations active in the work of bringing people together across political divides, and who also has founded the Nevins Democracy Leaders program at Penn State University, which provides an education in transpartisanship leadership for promising students.

What specific programs do you work with? Briefly describe how you got to where you are.

As a businessman from Pennsylvania for almost 40 years, who never was involved in politics until 4years ago, I’ve become frustrated with the unbridled lack of civility, crippling partisanship and dysfunctional gridlock that is preventing our country from solving the serious problems we face on a daily basis.

For this reason about four years ago, I became involved with an organization called No Labels. No Labels is a bipartisan movement of 600,000 Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to the simple proposition that common sense solutions to our national challenges exist, and our government should be able to address and resolve those challenges successfully. I served on the Executive Board of No Labels for two years.

About two years ago, as a Society of Fellow at the Aspen Institute, I focused my efforts on supporting the Aspen Rodel Fellowship in Public Leadership, a program designed to support political leaders committed to sustaining the vision of a political system based on thoughtful and civil bipartisan dialogue.

More recently, I became involved and support Next Generation, a program of the National Institute of Civil Discourse that works with state legislators to cultivate a culture where discourse and collaboration typify public policy development.

I am now leading an effort as a co-founder and Executive Team member of The Bridge Alliance to build a shared identity, raise visibility, strengthen and expand the numbers of organizations and individuals dedicated to collaborative civic problem solving and collaborative policy innovation in the United States.

Currently I also am the co-creator and benefactor of the Nevins Democracy Leaders program, a program within The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, based in the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State University  The Nevins Democracy Leadership program that I am the benefactor of and have helped to design and create will institute the following programs with the inception of the program in the fall of 2015:

a) For one­ or ­two semesters, the Penn State students selected for the program will participate in collaborative dialogues amongst themselves (and with guest lecturers) to learn the skills of civil political discourse and critical thinking necessary for a problem solving approach to governance.

b) Every Leader will gain practical experience (for a summer, semester, or full year) working as an intern with an organization committed to improving American politics.

c) Each year, Leaders who have returned from their internships will share their experiences with the new cohort of students joining the program.

d) In the coursework and various events leading up to their internship, Nevins Leaders will analyze and discuss historical texts and contemporary commentaries on topics such as democracy and leadership. We will identify a small core of courses beyond Rhetoric and Civic Life that can help prepare Leaders for their internships, though Leaders will not be obliged to take those additional courses.

e) Prospective and future Leaders will also have the opportunity to hear from past years’ Leaders, who will give presentations and participate in discussions on their experience. An effort will also be made to bring in inspiring speakers, perhaps as part of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s ongoing speaker series, who can bring to students their practical experiences in community building, politics, and democracy.

What has worked well in the programs/events that you have been involved with? From your experience, what advice would you give others?

As to specific advise as far as things to do to replicate the successes of the programs I have been involved with,  I would suggest a high level of collaboration with the stakeholders you are working with. I believe that enhancing communications, knowledge sharing, and general collaborative techniques helps the leaders of the programs I am involved with refine and improve the programs they are leading.

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  What might you add to these ideas?

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, reducing the perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), showing examples of positive relationships , showing examples of cross-group unexpected agreement or disagreement , reducing certainty of individual beliefs

Additionally, the importance of understanding the mission one has established is the key to success of any program. It is easy to get distracted by the chaos and uncertainty involved with a new project or movement, and thus the importance of defining and staying focused on one’s mission cannot be overstated as one of the most important factors for the achievement of success.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

Read Ahead

Political Partisanship Without the Politics

Polarization of American partisans continues to increase.  Liberals and conservatives alike have obvious contempt for opposing partisans — this is universally demonstrated by implicit, explicit and behavioral indicators.  Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westood of Stanford University and Princeton University, respectively, designed a set of four studies — titled “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization” to further investigate political dichotomy in America.

1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:

Study participants completed selection tasks.  Each participant was randomly assigned to one of two tasks that modeled existing scholarship assessments.

Participants in the first task had to choose to give a scholarship to either a Democrat or Republican high schooler.   Those in the second task had to choose between a European American and an African American candidate.  The academic and extracurricular achievements of each candidate were randomly varied, which allowed the study to measure the effects of partisan and racial bias without qualification confounds and compare the relative strength of in-group preference.

2. What They Found – Results:

Despite the lack of direct political connection, this study found that the party cue had the biggest impact on candidate selection.  Approximately 80% of participants, Democrats and Republicans alike, who participated in the partisan design selection chose the candidate who identified with their own party – even when the candidate from the opposing party was more highly qualified.  There was no evidence that those who participated in the partisan design took academic achievement into account.

Participants assigned to the race design selection showed relatively weak effects of in-group bias and tended to select candidates based on qualification instead of race.

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:


4. Study Name:

Iyengar and Westwood et al. 2014, Study 2

5. Citation:

Iyengar, Shanto & Westwood, Sean J. (2014).  Fear and loathing across party lines: New evidence on group polarization.

6. Link:

7. Intervention Categories:


8. Sample Size:


9. Central Reported Statistic:

“Democrats were more likely to select a fellow Democrat (b=1.04, p<.01) and Republicans were more likely to select a fellow Republican (b=1.60, p<.001).”

10. Effect Size:

The probability of a partisan selecting an out-party candidate never rose above .3.

Read Ahead

Pew Research highlights Social, Political and Moral Polarization among Partisans, but more people are still Moderates

A recent research study by Pew highlights societal trends that have a lot of people worried about the future of our country.  While many people have highlighted the political polarization that exists and others have pointed to the social and psychological trends underlying that polarization, Pew’s research report is unique for the scope of findings across political, social, and moral attitudes.  Some of the highlights of the report include:

  • Based on a scale of 10 political attitude questions, such as a binary choice between the statements “Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient” and  “Government often does a better job than people give it credit for”, the median Democrat and median Republicans’ attitudes are further apart than 2004 and 1994.
  • On the above ideological survey, fewer people, whether Democrat, Republican, or independent, are in the middle compared to 1994 and 2004.  Though it is still worth noting that a plurality, 39% are in the middle fifth of the survey.
  • More people on each side see the opposing group as a “threat to the nation’s well being”.
  • Those on the extreme left or on the extreme right are on the ideological survey are more likely to have close friends with and live in a community with people who agree with them.


The study is an important snapshot of current society and clearly illustrates that polarization is getting worse, with the social and moral consequences that moral psychology research would predict when attitudes become moralized.  That being said, I think it is important not to lose sight of the below graph from their study.


Pew Survey Shows a Shrinking Plurality holds Moderate Views
Pew Survey Shows a Shrinking Plurality holds Moderate Views


Specifically, while there certainly is a trend toward moralization and partisanship, the majority of people are in the middle of the above distributions of political attitudes and hold  mixed opinions about political attitudes.  It is important that those of us who study polarization don’t exacerbate perceived differences, as research has shown that perceptions of differences can become reality.  Most Americans (79%!) still fall somewhere between having consistently liberal and consistently conservative attitudes on political issues, according to Pew’s research.  And even amongst those on the ends of this spectrum, 37% of conservatives and 51% of liberals have close friends who disagree with them.  Compromise between parties is still the preference of most of the electorate.  If those of us who hold a mixed set of attitudes can indeed make our views more prominent, thereby reducing the salience of group boundaries, research would suggest that this would indeed mitigate this alarming trend toward social, moral, and political polarization.

– Ravi Iyer

Read Ahead

Intuitionism in Practice: How the Village Square puts Relationships First

Our friends at the Village Square recently wrote an article about how they have been able to bridge partisan divides in their community, based on their experiences at numerous community dinners they put on in their neighborhoods.  Their experience dovetails nicely with what has been found in academic psychology, specifically that any type of attitude change requires appealing to the intuitive side of individuals, in addition to the rational side.  Accordingly, their “irreverently named programs are part civic forum, part entertainment” where they seek first to build relationships to open people’s minds, before attempting to get people to rationally understand the other sides’ arguments.  From the article:

In “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” Bill Bishop documents how, in nearly all aspects of life, we’ve become less connected to those who don’t share our views – in the churches we go to, the clubs we join, the neighborhoods we live in.

No longer engaging across the aisle with neighbors, there’s little to mitigate the human tendency toward tribalism. Once we’ve demonized each other, the simple act of talking is tantamount to negotiating with evil.

To address this challenge, our irreverently named programs are part civic forum, part entertainment. Each event is casual (the stage is set up to feel like the facilitator’s living room) and involves sharing food. As we begin, we give out two “civility bells,” ask that the audience avoid tribal “team clapping,” and share a quote to inspire our better angels. We welcome fluid audience participation and always try to laugh.

Since we first imagined The Village Square, we have repeatedly returned to the same conclusion: We can’t wait around for Washington to lead on this. It’s in our hometowns, where we carpool to softball games and borrow cups of sugar, where we can most easily have the conversations democracy requires of us.

Recently, there has been a lot of re-examination of social science findings that may or may not replicate, especially in real-world environments.  The fact that social science research that emphasizes the importance of personal relationships in changing attitudes has found real world application and validation is comforting for those of us who would like to leverage this research in reducing morally laden conflicts.  Those of us who would like to mitigate the natural animosity that arises when competing groups are formed would do well to follow the Village Square’s lead and put relationships first.

– Ravi Iyer

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