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

Lesson Plans on Transcending Self-Serving Biases

A critical issue in any conflict is truly understanding the other side’s perspective – with good reason.  Cognitive dissonance is psychological painful and our psychological immune systems work to keep us from feeling this pain by creating worldviews that do not conflict with themselves.  It is far more comforting to believe that one’s side is entirely right than it is to believe that both sides in a conflict have valid views, supported by moral principles, yet most conflicts do indeed involve sides that have valid moral viewpoints.  Research has shown that actively imagining the perspectives of others can mitigate some of the animosity inherent in conflict situations and below are two lesson plans that have been used by professors to stimulate this imagination.

Please do feel free to use these materials and modify them for your own use.  And we at Civil Politics would love to hear about your experiences with these exercises.

In Jonathan Haidt’s seminar class at the University of Virginia on morality and politics, he asked students to do “moral fieldwork.” The assignment is posted here.  Here is one outstanding example of such a paper, trying to get inside the “moral matrix” of people very different from yourself.

Your assignment is to step out of your moral matrix and into another. Immerse yourself in a network of meanings and values that conflicts with your own. Seek out people who are expressing heartfelt moral convictions, ideally in a group, and pretend that you are an anthropologist trying to understand them accurately and fairly. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz said that the goal of fieldwork is not to become a native but to converse with the natives, and in the process, to “figure out what the devil they think they are up to.” 

Johnathan Fisher, a professor at San Juan College, has developed a similar curriculum, which is described here.  It is slightly more directed that Haidt’s curriculum and starts from the perspective of a students own opinions about a subject and then broadens to consider both the pros and cons.

When we teach our students rhetoric in the English or Humanities classroom, we ought to serve them better.  We ought to teach them to value complexity and subtlety over the brute force of a well delivered message.  We ought to teach them to value the process of communicating and reasoning over the certainty of their convictions.  We ought to teach them to value and love the other first, and to use language in a way that makes space for those they disagree with. 

 In order to encourage students to confront and open to spaces of difference and disagreement, the I-Controversy asks students to choose a specific yes/no controversial statement or question.  This question then serves as the foundation for all 4 parts or essays.    In part 1 of the paper, students write about the experiences and people that have shaped their perspective on their controversy.  In parts 2 and 3, students literally step outside of the moral matrix, writing in the third person and reporting the best arguments from first the pro and then the con side of their controversy.  In part 4, students get to choose from a series of reflection questions designed to encourage them to demonstrate the civil and critical thinking the developed on their journey outside the matrix.

Materials for the the curriculum (I-Controversy) are available here.

You are welcome to use these materials in any way you’d like in your own programs and curriculums.  If you’d live our assistance in implementing these curricula and/or would like to report on your experiences and best practices using them, please do contact us as we would love to help share your knowledge with others.

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