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

Self-Affirmation: The Key to Communication

1. What They Did – Summary:
          This study, primarily focused on effects of self-affirmation in the face of counterarguments and values, solely recruited participants who identified as “patriots.” Within a 2×2 study design, the patriots were placed into one of two separate conditions: a convictions salient condition and a rationality salient conviction. Both groups began by completing the beginning of a questionnaire entitled “Study on Personal Characteristics and Life Domains” in which they ranked a list of “personal characteristics and life domains” in terms of importance to their personal lives.

Next the comparison of affirmation vs. threat to ones identity or self was administered. Within the affirmation condition, the participants wrote down a memory or experience in which they felt their number one ranked “personal characteristic” (from the previously ranked list) was salient and why such a characteristic is considered most important to them.  Comparatively the threat condition retold a similar experience in which they unsuccessfully respected or failed to live up to their number one ranked “personal characteristic.”

Next the participants in both the affirmation and threat conditions were given rational vs. conviction salient questionnaires. Both sides were given claims of either rationality or conviction respectively, on which the participants had to self-report a level of agreement. (ex. “At least once in a while, I try to stand up for my values.”) After said questionnaire, the final portion of the study was administered through a fabricated, politically charged document describing terrorist groups arguing in favor of the rationality of the attacks of September 11th.  Reactions were asked of each of the patriots.

Researchers hope to find an interaction between the self-affirming prior exercises and openness to an opposed view of a politically charged topic. (Additional questions throughout the study such as attention to the reading, validity of the answers given and ones self-reported mood during the experiment were asked to understand potential biases in the data.)


2. What They Found – Results:
         Sure enough, researchers found a statistically significant interaction between the conviction salience and affirmation conditions. The “patriots” who were given the affirming prompts as well as conviction prompts were much more likely to accept or review the politically dissimilar article in higher regard than the comparison group. Moreover, threatened and conviction based “patriots” were less open to accepting the article. Such an interaction was not seen between the rationality salient “patriots”, affirming or threatened.
Ultimately, researchers were able to present data supporting self-affirmation as a means to increased openness to opposing ideas and values, a big step towards improving negotiations and communication.

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:
43 total students: 21 male, 22 female.

4. Study Name:
Cohen et al. 2007, Study 2

5. Citation:
Cohen, Geoffery L., David K. Sherman, Anthony Bastardi, Lillian Hsu, Michelle McGoey, and Lee Ross. “Bridging the Partisan Divide: Self-Affirmation Reduces Ideological Closed-Mindedness and Inflexibility in Negotiation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93.3 (2007): 422-24. Stanford University. Web.

6. Link:

7. Intervention categories:
perspective, self-affirmation, negotiation, MTurk

8. Sample size:

9. Central Reported Statistic:
“The predicted, Salience X Affirmation interaction was revealed, F(1, 38) = 4.62, p  = 0.38, MSE = 120.”
“The combination of affirmation and heightened salience of personal convictions promoted relatively less negativity and more balance in thoughts and feelings directed at the communication…. prompt[ing] greater recognition of the importance of the persuasive issue.

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Affirmation’s Effect on Concession During Political Negotiations

1. What They Did – Intervention Summary:

     Participants were paired face-to-face with a real person whom they believed to hold an opposing belief on an issue about which they cared deeply.  These people were, in fact, confederates — they played the role of an adversary and offered arguments and proposals to the study participants. 

Participants were first asked to write an essay either affirming or threatening a source of self-integrity unrelated to the issue at hand.   Upon completion of their essay, each participant was asked to indicate his or her mood on a scale from -3 (extremely negative or unhappy) to +3 (extremely positive or happy).

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The participants were given some background material and copy of a proposed abortion bill.  They were told that they would be playing the role of a Democratic Party State Legislator and that they would be matched with someone playing the role of a Republican Party State legislator to debate the bill.  Half the participants had their beliefs affirmed while half had their beliefs threatened.  Within those two groups, half of the participants had salient convictions and half had non-salient convictions.  They then entered a room with their opposing legislator and debated the bill for 10 minutes before self-reporting their mood again.

An evaluation was then performed on the concessions that each person made toward changes in their initial demands.  The number of original stipulations each participant was willing to surrender was accounted for for each set of participants and then compared for the self-affirmed vs. threatened participants.

2. What They Found – Results:

Study 2 discovered important information about the concessions (instances of acceptance of changes to the bill from the initial proposal to the final agreement) made by its participants.

The figure below demonstrates the concession data found in the study.  Most importantly, results show that participants in the self-affirmation condition of the convictions salient section of the study offered more concessions than those in the threat condition.

This means that the participants who had an alternative source of self-integrity affirmed at the beginning of the study found it easier to concede some of their initial demands than the participants who had their self-integrity threatened.

Self-affirmed participants were more likely to see concessions as attempts to find common ground than as hard negotiation and appeared to feel more charitable and willing to compromise.

The participants all had to rate their confederate opposers after the debate and those whose beliefs were affirmed rated their opponents higher than threatened participants did.  So, not only did self-affirmed participants concede more points, but they actually thought more highly of their adversaries.

This demonstrates potential for long-term effects as well, such as for preserving amicable relations.

Figure 3

3. Who Was Studied – Sample:

35 total undergraduate students —29 female and 6 male.

4. Study Name:

Cohen et al. 2007, Study 2

5. Citation:

Cohen, Geoffery L., David K. Sherman, Anthony Bastardi, Lillian Hsu, Michelle McGoey, and Lee Ross. “Bridging the Partisan Divide: Self-Affirmation Reduces Ideological Closed-Mindedness and Inflexibility in Negotiation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93.3 (2007): 422-24. Stanford University. Web.

6. Link

7. Intervention Categories:

Contact, perspective

8. Sample Size:


9. Central Reported Statistic

“In the case of participants in the convictions salient condition, those in the self-affirmation condition offered more concessions (adj. M 7.43) than those in the threat condition (adj. M 3.94), t(29) 3.28, p .003.”

10. Effect Size:

Self-Affirmation: M = 7.43

Threat: M = 3.94

p = .003



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Living Room Conversations Builds Trust Across Differences Concerning CA Prison Policy

At CivilPolitics, one of our service offerings is to help groups that are doing work connecting individuals who may disagree about political and moral issues.  These disagreements do not necessarily have to be about partisanship.  One organization that we work with is Living Room Conversations, a California based non-profit that holds small gatherings co-hosted by individuals who may disagree about a particular issue, in order to conciously foster non-judgmental sharing about potentially contentious issues.    Below is a description from their website, in addition to a short video.

Living Room Conversations are designed to revitalize the art of conversation among people with diverse views and remind us all of the power and beauty of civil discourse. Living Room Conversations enable people to come together through their social networks, as friends and friends of friends to engage in a self-guided conversation about any chosen issue. Typically conversations have self-identified co-hosts who hold differing views. They may be from different ethnic groups, socio-economic backgrounds or political parties. Each co-host invites two of their friends to join the conversation. Participants follow an easy to use format offering a structure and a set of questions for getting acquainted with each other and with each other’s viewpoints on the topic of the conversation.

Living Room Conversations is currently holding conversations around the issue of “realignment” in California, which is designed to alleviate prison overcrowding and where many would like to develop alternatives to jail for non-violent criminals.  Living Room Conversations wanted help understanding the effects of their program so we worked with them to develop a survey appropriate for their audience, asking people about their attitudes before and after conversations.  Informed by work in psychology, we looked at how reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy people perceived those on the opposite side of the issue to be, compared to how they perceived them before the meeting.  Results, based on a 7-point scale, are plotted below.


The fact that all scores are greater than zero means that people felt that individuals who disagreed with them on these issues were more reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy compared to how they felt before the conversation (though with a sample size of only 23 individuals so far, only the increase in trustworthiness is statistically significant).

There was still a stark difference between how people felt about those who disagreed on these issues compared to how they felt about people who they agreed with, as respondents both before and after the event felt that those they agreed with were more likely to be reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy.  As well, we asked people about their attitudes about realignment policy and people’s attitudes about the issue didn’t change.  However, civility, as we define it, is not the absence of disagreement, but rather being able to disagree in a civil way that respects the intentions of others.

Moreover, even if people’s minds hadn’t changed with respect to others, individuals felt strongly (8+ on a 10 point scale) that talking with others that hold different views is valuable.  Research on the effects of such positive contact would indicate that if these individuals do follow through on this course, they will likely end up building on these attitudinal gains toward those who disagree.  Given that, these conversations appear to be a step in the right direction.

– Ravi Iyer

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When Morality Threatens Civility

Politics is fundamentally a group phenomenon that should be examined in relation to person’s identification with a particular group label (see Allport, 1954). When a person identifies as a “conservative” or “liberal” it means that he or she not only assumes a particular set of political positions but also identifies with other partisans as well as the shared sense of reality implied therein (Devine, 2014; see also Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin, 2008). To define oneself in this way often implies the identification of opponents, rivals or even enemies (cf. Edelman, 1988) that, at increasing levels, becomes a means of further clarifying what it means to be a “conservative” or a “liberal.”

“Civility,” which is the concern of this group, should therefore be examined as an intergroup, rather than interpersonal matter. What, then, does research on intergroup relations have to say about increasing civility among political partisans? I would argue that the greatest threat to political civility within a stable democracy is the “moralizing” of political discourse as it pertains to political groups. Namely, it is one thing to view your political opponent as misguided or simply wrong; it is another thing entirely to view him/her and the group that he/she represents as immoral, transgressive, or just plain evil. When placed in the latter realm, political discourse becomes decidedly less civil as the concept of “loyal opposition” becomes not only oxymoronic, but tantamount to treason.

When Morality Threatens Civility

Why must we as social scientists, practitioners, and scholars be wary when political discourse becomes moralized? The simple answer is that morality is powerful. The capacity for moral judgment and moral action may be encoded into our very fiber as a species and may have been the building blocks upon which human civilization was founded (Haidt, 2007, 2012; Greene, 2013). Putting aside the ontology of human morality, a much more parsimonious reason, at least for my purposes, for why morality is powerful is that people tend to view moral values as being objectively true (Goodwin & Darley, 2008). That is, a moral statement (e.g., “It is wrong to kill.”) is perceived to be more like an empirically verifiable fact (e.g., “The Earth revolves around the Sun.”) and less like a statement of social convention (e.g., “An appropriate tip for your server is 15 to 20 percent of the bill.”).

And there’s the rub, so to speak. A person’s morality is rooted in beliefs that are perceived to be as true as the Earth revolves around the Sun and which also imply a proscriptive element: not only is it wrong to kill, but one ought not to kill. A person’s moral worldview not only describes social reality but also guides future behavior as well as how future behavior is to be evaluated. One only needs to consult the work of Linda Skitka on moral conviction (see Skitka, 2010) or Jeremy Ginges’ work on sacred values (e.g., Atran & Ginges, 2012; Ginges & Atran, 2011) to see how these aspects of morality function in politics. What their work demonstrates is that we often judge the actions of others in relation to whether they reflect or confirm our moral values, even if violates considerations of procedural justice (Skitka & Houston, 2001) or our own utilitarian benefit (Ginges & Atran, 2011).

The “moralizing” of intergroup relations is often reflected in the attribution of moral or immoral qualities to other groups. I am currently examining the consequences of this process as part of my dissertation. In my preliminary findings (see Pilecki et al., 2013), I have found that when people perceive that members of another group (e.g., liberals, conservatives, feminists, evangelicals, etc.) as being typically less moral than most other people they are more likely to view violence or acts of political repression towards that group as being appropriate. These findings reinforce previous empirical and theoretical work by Susan Opotow (1990, 1993, 1994) and others (e.g., Bar-Tal, 1990) on the “scope of justice,” which refers to the distinction that people make between those considered worthy of moral treatment and those considered unworthy of moral treatment. When a social group is imbued with immoral qualities by political leaders, pundits, or other “entrepreneurs of identity” (Reicher & Hopkins, 2001) that group is effectively set apart from others and, in effect, becomes a legitimate and morally justifiable target of harm rather than civil discussion.

When people moralize intergroup relations they limit the potential for civil discourse to emerge as they frame political issues within the realm of sacred values, thereby making trade-offs and compromises less likely (Tetlock, 2003; Tetlock, Kristel, Elson, Green & Lerner, 2000). The words and labels we use to describe the social groups with which we identify and those that we oppose shape how we think about us, them and how we relate to one another (see Hammack & Pilecki, 2012). In other words, language matters and it is therefore incumbent for social scientists and practitioners to hold political leaders, media figures and other influential people accountable for their use of moralizing rhetoric to mobilize support, gain more viewers, and/or delegitimize criticism.

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