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

How to Make Real Progress Against Trump’s Incivility

I haven’t written much about Trump, who has taken “incivility” to new heights this election season, in part because there is no trumpevidence that telling large groups of people to be more civil has any value.  There is both anecdotal evidence and research that suggests forcefully telling people to be more civil will backfire.  Incivility and conflict involving large groups of people tends to be a function of a situational dynamic – two groups competing for a goal or a scarce resource like victory in a game or an election – that trumps any direct commandment to be more civil.  The rise of Trump as a political force is an opportunity for us to practice what we preach at Civil Politics and try to understand the dynamics that give rise to the conflict we see, in the hopes of cutting it off at its source.  As has been written in other places, Trump is a symptom, not a cause, and we are likely to see others follow in his footsteps whether he is elected or not.  If we really want a better political dialogue, we need to understand the root causes of Trump’s appeal.

It helps to start with the empirical fact that there are very few truly evil people in the world.  Human beings are uniquely social creatures who survived and thrived by being able to cooperate with hundreds of thousands of others, such that only ~1% of us are “psychopaths” who actually don’t care about others.  A human being who doesn’t care about others is akin to a bee that doesn’t care about his hive.  It’s rare.  The rest of us really do care about others beyond ourselves and try to do what we think is right, even if we sometimes do what others would think of as “evil” as a result.  That definition of “right” may include violence, theft, and incivility in the name of a moral cause (see research on idealistic evilthe dark side of moral conviction or terrorism and sacred values), but there is a moral cause behind most people’s actions, even when we disagree with those actions.

Trump supporters have many moral motivations that many who disagree with him would recognize and value.

– They worry about the lack of jobs for hard-working, but under educated Americans.
– They fear that the system of lobbyists and special interests is stacked against them.
– They think that politicians cannot be trusted to fight for everyday Americans, due to their reliance on donors who line their pockets.
– They feel that their identity and their ability to express their opinions is under attack.

Indeed, many of these positions are emphasized by Bernie Sanders, which is why you sometimes see people who support Trump and Sanders both.  Calling Trump supporters racist, stupid or naive is not only a misleading caricature, but also a recipe for only exacerbating the coarsening conflict that we are trying to avoid, as it drives each side into its corner.  If we want things to get better, research suggests that we have to start from a place of common goals and develop a positive relationship with Trump fans rather than having convincing them why they are wrong as our ultimate goal.  Staging violent protests at Trump’s rallys is the opposite of this.  How can we instead reduce the divisions, rather than inflame them?

Let us acknowledge that we need to do something to help people who want to work hard but are being left behind by an increasingly global and technological economy.  Let us acknowledge that lobbyists and donors have undue influence and work to curb that influence, whether it be through campaign finance or a simpler government with fewer rules to be gamed.  Let us all accept that we want a society where no identity, American or immigrant, religious or atheist, urban or rural, feels threatened and unable to express their opinions freely, and work to make relationships across these divides.  And let us accept that whatever we think of Donald Trump as a person, his supporters are generally ordinary Americans who care deeply about their kids and their communities.  Let’s help them with their concerns as it makes no sense to be someone who cares deeply about poor Americans who simultaneously denigrates many in that group, who happen to support a candidate they disagree with.

To be clear, I do not support Trump or his rhetoric which is deeply uncivil and divisive.  But those who are demonizing Trump’s supporters and disrupting his events are only exacerbating the problem.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” and there is ample research that suggests that forging positive empathic relationships across divisions is indeed the only way to truly heal a great moral divide.

– Ravi Iyer

Ravi Iyer has a Ph.D in psychology from the University of Southern California and has published dozens of articles on political and moral attitudes.  He works as a data scientist at Ranker and is also the Executive Director of Civil Politics, a non-profit that promotes evidence based methods for healing inter-group divisions.
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The Ten Causes of America’s Political Dysfunction

[This post was crossposted from]

Here is my most complete talk on the causes of America’s rising political polarization and dysfunction. It’s more pessimistic than my prior talks. I was invited to speak in November at the NYU Law School, at a session hosted by professor Rick Pildes. Pildes wrote a superb law review article in 2011 on the causes of our dysfunction, from an “institutionalist” perspective, looking at Congress and electoral processes: Why the Center Does Not Hold: The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America

When I first read it, I thought Pildes’s account of the history was enlightening, but I thought he was too negative about the chances for real reform. But I re-read his paper while preparing for this talk, and realized he was right — and prophetic. He predicted that Obama would soon start bypassing congress and implementing policy by regulatory fiat; he predicted that one or both parties would soon start cutting back on the filibuster, unilaterally.

In this talk I integrate moral psychology with recent American history to explain the TEN reasons why America has been getting more polarized — at the elite level AND at the mass (public) level. My talk runs from minute 2 to minute 46, and then there’s commentary from Pildes, then open discussion.

Here is the list of 10 causes that I showed in the video:

1) Party realignment and purification,  1964-1992

2) Mass sorting of lib vs. con voters into the purified parties, by 1990s

3) Generational changing of the guard, from Greatest Gen to Baby Boomers, 1990s

4) Changes in Congress, 1995—death of friendships

5) Media fractionation and polarization, since 1980s

6) Residential homogeneity, urban v. rural, 1990s

7) Increasing role of money, negative advertising, 2000s

8) End of the cold war, loss of a common enemy, 1989

9) Increasing immigration and racial diversity, 1990s

10) Increasing education, since 1970s (more educated citizens are more partisan and opinionated about politics)

I show how these 10 trends interact with the moral psychology I presented in The Righteous Mind to produce the strong and steady rise in polarization that we’ve seen since the 1990s. Note that most of these trends cannot be reversed. Morality binds and blinds, and for these 10 reasons, morality been binding us ever more tightly in the last 10-20 years. “Affective partisan polarization” — the degree to which we hold negative views of the other team — has been rising steadily, and there is no end in sight.


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Forging Bonds and Burning Bridges: Polarization and Incivility in Blog Discussions About Occupy Wall Street

As traditional newspapers decline in popularity, more and more people are turning to the internet to stay informed. Internet users can seek out web versions of established news publications like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, or they can take their pick among thousands of political blogs covering all sides of the political spectrum. Political blogs, in particular, encourage reader interaction and debate, and reflect the democratization of the internet in that anyone who wishes to can create one and garner thousands, if not millions, of followers. A major concern with this transition to internet news sources is that people will tend to seek out those publications that reinforce their own views to the exclusion of all others, thereby creating online echo chambers of political thought, and leading to increased polarization and incivility.

1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:

The researchers had several hypotheses about political polarization among political blogs:

First, they predicted that political bloggers would tend to express opinions that align with the particular ideology of the blog they write for, leading to polarized opinions between conservative and liberal blogs. They predicted the same would be true of the blogs’ comment sections.

Next, they predicted that incivility would become more frequent as political extremity increased in either the post or comment sections, and that most of this incivility would be directed towards off-site political opponents.

Researchers were also interested in comparing political blogs with those blogs published by established newspapers. They predicted that the latter, which tend to encourage a higher level of objectivity, would display less political bias both in the posts and comment sections, as well as less incivility than the political blogs.

To test these hypotheses, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement of 2011 was used as a case study. Five popular blogs spanning the political spectrum were chosen for comparison, as well as two newspaper blogs, from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Blog posts about OWS and their comments were coded for the author or commenter’s stance toward the OWS protests, specific groups or persons (including the blog author or another commenter) praised or criticized, and whether any criticism was uncivil.

2. What They Found – Results:

As expected, political bloggers expressed opinions that were in line with the particular political bent of the given blog—authors on the conservative blogs opposed OWS and those on the liberal blogs supported it. Blog comments showed a similar trend, though they were somewhat less polarized. Also as predicted, incivility increased as blog content and comments grew more extreme, and was most frequently directed at off-site opponents.

Newspaper blogs were found to be significantly less biased than political blogs, as were the commenters on these blogs. Newspaper blog authors and commenters also displayed less incivility.

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:

Authors and commenters on 2 liberal blogs—Daily Kos and firedoglake; 2 conservative blogs—Townhall and MichelleMalkin; and one moderate blog, TheModerateVoice. Authors and commenters on The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal blogs.

4. Study Name:

Forging Bonds and Burning Bridges: Polarization and Incivility in Blog Discussions about Occupy Wall Street

5. Citation:

Suhay, E., Blackwell A., Roche, C. & L.  Bruggeman.  “Forging Bonds and Burning Bridges:  Political Incivility in Blog Discussions about Occupy Wall Street.” (2014) Unpublished manuscript, American University, Washington, D.C.

6. Link:

7. Intervention Categories:

8. Sample Size:

2,392 blog posts and comments across 7 sources

9. Central Reported Statistic:

Incivility greater on political blog posts than newspaper blog posts (χ2 = 16.76, df = 3, p ≤.001) and on political blog comments (χ2 = 14.18, df = 1, p ≤.001)

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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

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