The problem

Contempt toward ideological opponents has grown to a severe level in the US; it is inhibiting the collaboration necessary to address important business before the nation and intensifying frustration on all sides, producing dysfunction, despair and violence.

Why we want to solve it

Humans have always faced the dilemma of whether to collaborate, versus conflict with one another.  Our earliest ancestors had to choose between fighting each other over limited food, versus uniting into hunting parties to capture more prey.  It turns out the choice to collaborate confers an evolutionary advantage toward prosperity, hence group-forming matured into the towns, states, nations and international partnerships we have today. Group-forming has costs.  Compromise is inherent in “growing the pie.”  One cost is the need to conduct oneself in a way that persuades others they want to be in a group with you.  Humans learn this “Group-Sustaining Behavior” and exercise it within families, teams and communities.  Such behavior is especially important when seeking to influence a group toward a goal.  To be effective at influencing a group, one must persuade without alienating.  If one spouse wishes to successfully influence another, they will do so in a way that persuades the other toward mutual resolution, rather than alienating the other into a divisive reaction. America is a “super-group” of many other groups.  Naturally, subgroups frequently disagree.  However, nearly always the disagreement is over the direction collectively taken by the super-group, which illustrates the subgroups’ underlying recognition of the value of remaining in the collective.  That is, people rarely propose to disband the United States, quite the opposite, they want it to do something collectively.  Guarantee abortion rights for all states, not just California.  Protect UAW jobs in all local chapters, not just Detroit. If the objective therefore is to influence the group, then “Group-Sustaining Behavior” is required.  Otherwise, as we observed, one will not be persuasive within the group.  The challenge is that many behaviors that are effective at rallying a subgroup toward a goal are at the same time damaging to a group’s ability to then influence others in the super-group toward the same goal.  Example: if a leader rallies a group by portraying some other group as its threatening enemy, should anyone be surprised if the second, “enemy” group then feels alienated and resists collaboration with the first?  Once divided from each other by contempt, are two groups likely to be successful at persuading each other of much?  Divisive tactics are not Group-Sustaining Behavior. Ergo, if we wish to move the nation in a direction, we need to be persuasive, not alienating.  How do we do that?  What is “Group-Sustaining Behavior?”

How we solve it

A lot can be done to improve the current crisis of ideological intolerance; the question is which steps are likely to be most effective. That is exactly what I am parsing through; will have a proposal soon. Any approach one imagines, though, must include a movement among a critical mass of the populous toward embracing the importance of working together on our problems — Group-Sustaining Behavior – as opposed to fomenting division. How do we influence such a mental shift? It must at least begin with a philosophy guiding how one should behave if one seeks to influence the direction of a continuing collective, as opposed to alienating and dividing its subgroups. Accordingly, following is a proposed “Philosophy of Collaboration.”
A Philosophy of Collaboration
If we believe we are better off united than divided, that implies we need to behave in a collaborative way.  Behaving collaboratively necessitates at least the following:
  • Humility.  Some groups we need to collaborate with contain millions of individuals, sorted among thousands of subgroups, each with unique nuances of motivation. And we are not omniscient. It is naturally human to generalize, but in reality we cannot know the unique motivations of each individual, based solely upon the necessarily broad-stroke generalizations achievable in media reporting. We must begin with the humility to recognize that … and therefore …
  • Resist prejudice.  If we accept that we don’t truly know an individual, avoid pre-judging them until we do. If we need to collaborate with another, it is self-defeating to contrive beforehand, with insufficient insight, that they are objectionable.  Fair, we can’t individually know each one of millions of people.  But we can recognize that fact, and not pre-judge them as if we did.
  • Persuade. When we inevitably encounter differences with a partner, address these in a persuasive, rather than argumentative way. Remember that the objective is to maintain a collaboration, and that implies the need to negotiate through differences using persuasion — encouraging another to move with you — as opposed to division — alienating them to move away from you. Specifically:
    • Seek to understand the partner and its interests.
    • Encourage the partner to keep an open mind toward one’s viewpoints.
      • Avoid putting the partner on the defensive.
      • If possible, steer clear of offending cultural sensitivities.
    • Perhaps most importantly, the above two imply keeping an open mind oneself to the partner’s viewpoints. One cannot expect the partner to open its mind if one is unwilling to do so oneself. And one will not meaningfully learn the partner’s character if one is not genuinely, objectively listening.
  • Socialize.  Humans are social animals; it’s how we build trust, understanding and loyalty. There is a reason sales people take prospects out for beers.
Executing these behaviors is difficult. We have our own instincts that make us defensive and aggressive. But consider, our objective is not to win an argument nor feel good about being right. Our objective is to persuade a partner to work with us toward a mutual goal. Being right is not the win we seek. Mutually benefiting in a way we are both comfortable with is the win. If you have thoughts on this proposed “Philosophy of Collaboration” please share them!  We’ve set up a discussion forum here for feedback.)

More Detail (aka “The Long Version”)

Following is a more detailed breakdown of the issue:

e.pluribus.US conceives, builds and tests interventions to scalably improve public attitudes toward working with political opponents.

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INFLUENCE Reduces Partisanship!

In controlled trials Project INFLUENCE reduced partisanship.
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Project LISTEN is opening minds!

LISTEN scalably helps us understand why opponents think as they do.
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Thoughts from across the aisle...

“Holding opposing partisans in contempt on the basis of their identity alone precludes innovative cross-party solutions and mutually beneficial compromises.”

— “Political sectarianism in America.” authors Finkel, Bail, Cikara, Ditto, Iyengar, Klar, Mason, McGrath, Nyhan, Rand, Skitka, Tucker, Van Bavel, Wang and Druckman. Science 370, 533 (2020)

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