Tim Phillips, CEO of Beyond Conflict, on the Science Behind Polarization

Wednesday, August 26, 2020 - Tim Phillips is the CEO of Beyond Conflict, a non-profit combating polarization. They have in-depth research into the science behind what is pulling us all apart.

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Tim Phillips is the founder and CEO of Beyond Conflict, a non-profit organization that works with leaders to address conflict and promote social change around the world.
Tim Phillips is the founder and CEO of Beyond Conflict, a non-profit organization that works with leaders to address conflict and promote social change around the world.

Tim Phillips is the founder and CEO of Beyond Conflict, a non-profit organization that works with leaders to address conflict and promote social change around the world. Since its founding in 1992, Beyond Conflict has worked to support peace talks and paths to democracy in 75 countries. The organization has also become a leader in the effort to catalyze the field of Neuroscience and Social Conflict. Today, Tim will discuss the work Beyond Conflict is doing to combat polarization.

Tim Phillips discusses the shift from a polarization of ideas to a polarization of identity, and how that shift is truly toxic. He believes that the shift from “You and I” to “Us vs. Them” threatens American democracy and the trust citizens have in the country’s institutions. Beyond Conflict has spent years studying the trends of this political shift through the lens of behavioral science. In their work with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, they began studying toxic political polarization in the same vein as a public health threat, focusing on three factors: dehumanization, like and dislike, and disagreement on contentious issues. 

Go to NoLabels.org to learn more about how we are bringing together a bipartisan group of public and private leaders working to solve America’s toughest problems.

In This Episode

Opening Remarks

Tim Phillips:
Anyways, I want to thank you all for that very generous introduction, and as I said for the invitation to speak with you today. So, I know that I will keep this presentation relatively short, so we can get into some Q&A. And if it hasn't been already presented to you, we will make a copy of our report available. So, a little bit of background, and then maybe my colleague Ana will be joining me. We'll show you a couple of slides in a moment. So, quickly, Beyond Conflict is 30-years-old. I am the founder and CEO. And we have spent until the last four years working around the world in about 75 countries, in countries trying to make the transition from conflict to peace or a dictatorship to democracy.

And we actually started in the early 1990s in Central and Eastern Europe, at the end of the Cold War. And I like to say that our approach is a very simple one. It's a bit theory agnostic. It's about the power of shared experience. And I don't say that in any sort of our way. I say that in the way of a big support group on the wheels. And what we've done over these many decades is bring together enemies, former enemies, people who have struggled with and led transitions in many countries around the world who never imagined that change could happen in their country.

And so, starting, literally, with an invitation from [inaudible 00:02:20] in 1991 to work in Central and Eastern Europe. How those new democracies dealt with their past, to as we all know, the end of the Cold War saw this ripple effect where we started working in Central America, then the Balkans, the Middle East, South Africa, and always using this notion of shared human experience at a leadership level, and bring it to the table.

People like Cyril Ramaphosa who's now president of South Africa with Roelf Meyer who had been the chief negotiator in the talks for the national government. And I remember bringing them to Belfast in the early '90s before the peace process began, and Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and other leaders saying, "Who could have ever imagined that apartheid would have ended peacefully? And here are two of the architects sharing that experience as friends." And of course, we know not everything is that rosy. Change is difficult, and it takes time. And to have it modeled through the experience of others has been a key part of what we do.

So, we've done that in many countries around the world. And then we started looking at brain and behavioral science about a decade ago, working with incredible researchers in MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, NYU, UPenn, and bringing together this incredible knowledge that's been percolating out of the academy about what it is to be human. And we were interested because we thought that could help us deal with some intractable conflicts or peace processes that seem fragile, looking at what is missing. And then about three or four years ago, we were able to get a significant grant, and build an innovation lab with Beyond Conflict, and partner with these universities to bring this research, and insights, and some of the biggest challenges we face starting here at home.

And as, of course, after the most recent national election, the problem of polarization, which has been percolating for a while really came to the fore. And so, what we decided to do is let's look at polarization through the lens of branded behavioral science. What is polarization doing to our psychology as Americans? And working with colleagues at UPenn in this process. So, this is not going to be surprising or shocking to anybody on this call, but here's what we're finding. And we call it toxic polarization because as we know, polarization is inherent in any society, in any democracy, but when it moves from profound disagreement over ideas to one about identity, then that's when it becomes toxic.

That's when identity-based polarization like a form of sectarianism kicks in a whole range of unconscious psychological processes that only serve to drive us further apart. And that's where we are as a country. And one of the great ironies of my work is 10 to 12 years ago, leaders in South Africa, in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East would tell me almost like an early warning system that they could sense and see that the United States was heading in a really bad direction, and that we needed to work in this country.

And they were saying that we were trying to go from an us versus them mindset to one that's more you and I. And what we see happening in our country, as imperfect as it's been, we're going from a bit of a you and I to an us versus them. And what we know is when this extreme form of identity-based polarization takes place, it threatens American democracy. We're beginning to see where it's starting to damage our institutions, and trust in the institutions. The identities of Democrat and Republican have aggregated many of the fault lines into one central fissure.

And as I mentioned, they're beginning to take on a sectarian identity dimension, the way [inaudible 00:06:03] to the Middle East, for example. And others, and our research is showing that this identity-based polarization is eroding Americans' trust in their civic institutions. Certainly, it's been undermining our democratic norms, and heightening the risk of political violence. And so, we're at a stage now where this form of identity-based polarization is really getting us to question the other side's rationality, good faith, and grasp of reality. So, what are the characteristics of a polarized psychology? Some of this I touched upon. And this is one of the benefits of working with branded behavioral scientists. When you and I becomes us versus them, a whole range of psychological processes come online, and they impact everything, from our judgments, our beliefs, our attitudes and behaviors. And most importantly, this happens unconsciously.

One of the things that [inaudible 00:06:54] on scientists learned from working with scientists, brain scientists, behavioral scientists, they would say, "Focus on how we think, not what we think, because so much of how we think is below the level of conscious access." So, when we look at the country over the last several years, and we see things that seem to be on the grasp of reason, I've started seeing it now through the lens of random behavioral science, which is beginning to explain a lot of this. And so, as I mentioned, once we divide into these ingroups and outgroups, it starts driving us apart. And so, to reinforce what scientists said, we need to really think about how we think, and not just what we think. And then, I guess, we'll move on to the next slide. So, what do we do? I mentioned we started working with branded behavioral scientists at UPenn who're doing brilliant work.

And we said, "Let's assess the psychology of political polarization." And what we did is we began tracking these factors that are fueling toxic polarization, but we didn't want to do just surveys. What we wanted to do was almost like a public health threat before we actually have a real public health threat, is we started looking at toxic polarization akin to a public health threat to the nation. How do we analyze and survey scientifically what is happening? And then, what are the interventions we can actually take collectively to reduce that? So, we surveyed over 3000 Americans over a 12-month period, and we focus on three factors that our team at UPenn thought were key strong indicators of a polarized psychology.

Dehumanization, which hasn't been done in other surveys because our team at UPenn has been really pioneering work in 13 countries around the world about the cognition of dehumanization. Like and dislike, and then disagreement on contentious issues like open borders, immigration, and gun control. And then we looked at what are the consequences of this form of identity-based talks and polarization, and including support for party of a country, and trust in civic institutions such as in Congress?

So, if you go to the next slide, so what are we finding? Again, this is in the report. Americans believe, and particularly, looking at Democrats and Republicans, that members of the other party dehumanize them, dislike them, and disagree with them twice as much as people actually do as Democrats or Republicans. And I'll get into how we unpack that. But that's a really important point because then it also tells us what is the nature of how polarization is impacting our psychologies, but then also what can we do about it? So, I'm going to give you the first example about immigration. So, we asked a representative group of Democrats and Republicans about open borders and immigration.

And what we found is, not surprising, there's a 40-point difference between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of border security. It's large, but not insurmountable. And as you can see in this graph, there's a lot of overlap in the position. There are a lot of people in the center on this issue. There are a lot of people, there's a lot of common ground on issues of open borders and immigration. But let me ask before we go to the next slide, what we state. What we did is we ask people, where are you as a Democrat? Where are you as a Republican on issue of open borders? And we have this reflected.

Then we ask the question, where do you think Democrats are? And where do you think Republicans are in open borders? And we get the next graph. A huge gap. This is what people think the other side thinks as opposed to what people actually think as Democrats or Republicans on this one issue. And we have found this on gun control. We have found this on issues of like and dislike, and even on issues of dehumanization, which I'll go to next. And why is this happening? It's happening because we're living as you all know increasingly in bubbles, in various silos, geographically, politically, the media we absorb, the decimation of local media.

The norms we hear. All of these are shaping the way we see the world around us when we don't have direct contact. And this is having a huge negative impact on us. So, dehumanization, this is a really blunt but very powerful instrument. If you look at the ascent of man scale from zero to 100, we asked Democrats and Republicans ... We've done this in 13 countries around the world. And it's a really, again, blunt question, how evolved do you think the other party is? And as you can see ... And globally, people don't always put their ingroup at 100, just to be fair.

So, what we see happening there is actually when you ask Democrats, Republicans where they perceive the other, it's around 15 points on off scale to 100. But if you then ask Democrats, Republicans, how much do you think the other side dehumanizes you? Then you have this massive gap. I mean, on the Republican side, it's a 55-point divide. And a Democrat state gets 32 points. If you think other people dehumanize you, see you as less than human, that's not just about like or dislike, or disagreement. That is a profound threat to your very identity in your community. And I have nothing in common with the other side, and therefore, I have no interest in engagement.

Tim Phillips:
And then the next slide. So, what are the consequences of these? This is part of the research of the psychological divides. So, we found on dehumanization, the more you feel dehumanized, not real dehumanization, but your perception of how much you're being dehumanized is associated with a greater likelihood of supporting policies that put party over country as you can see in this graph. So, what this means, it's very disturbing, but it can be corrected. And we find in terms of trust in institutions, partisans who feel more dislike by the other party, hold less trust in civic and political institutions.

So, this is really significant. So, this is using that public health analogy is an evaluation and assessment of how scientifically polarization is shaping our mindsets, but we're also finding through the benefit of that same framework that a lot of that is based on false belief. And there's evidence that you can correct that. And so, I'll talk about the roadmap that we're laying out that we want to frankly do in partnership, because this is a national issue with a national urgency about it. So, if we can go to the next slide. So, here's what we've been trying to do in building, and we're looking to do this in partnership is to build a polarization index of the country to measure and map the psychological factors underlying polarization, to track the progress, and to evaluate efforts and design new strategies.

And what that means for example is the slide you're seeing right now is in a draft prototype heat map, that's looking at just data from like and dislike. And we didn't break it down by every state because we want to do more and more of this research and surveys. But what we're trying to do is get a sense of the nation is where are we on identity-based polarization? What is driving that? What are the factors driving it? And what are the interventions that can be done to actually reduce it? And so, one of the things I'll mention in the next slide is some of the things we're looking at is creating awareness campaigns around partisan misperceptions.

So, colleagues at Harvard have been doing work, and our team at UPenn is doing this right now is they've been going online in survey, and finding that if you correct some of these misperceptions, what it does is it creates a cognitive shift. Where people are more willing to think of the other as less threatening to them, and that they actually have more in common. They actually have something to talk about. One thing I've learned in my 30 years of work in conflict around the world, it took many interventions of bringing people together for them to begin to humanize the other, and recognize that they actually could sit across the table, that they could actually talk with others, that they're not compromising their position.

They're not selling out to their group. The emotional, political, economic, and other costs of compromise is actually reduced when you could correct these false beliefs even before people engage. And I think that's one of the exciting promises that we want to test on this. And so, one of the things we're looking at is a public's guide depolarization, and we're doing research with our colleagues at UPenn, and testing various platforms to get this information out. And we're talking with some local organizations to actually create a Christian's guide to polarization, and to test it with evangelical communities, and a few states.

And then we want to do it with other guides, and other partners to get this information out, and then track whether or not it's actually reducing identity-based polarization. We're designing a tool kit for more effective dialogue, and that's taken the wisdom of leaders we've worked with around the world, and matching it to brain and behavioral science. And one quick example is sacred values. So, it turns out things that we hold as individuals and groups sacred to us, we process in a different region of the brain than other utilitarian calculations. So, think of the second amendment for a lot of Americans, it turns out for a lot of Americans, the second amendment is held as a sacred value.

So, when people try to get them to compromise it, or have it regulated, and there's more and more evidence people respond with aggression, and hold on to that sacred value more deeply. And so, there's a lot more interesting research on that. But what we're trying to do is bring into this toolkit for effective dialogue, and again, distribute it through partners at different levels, some of the really powerful insights. And the other quick thing I'll mention is so we can get to discussion is we're already starting to work with journalists in the United States.

And what we're finding is that journalists to no surprise are taught to give context. Here are the different sides of the story. And they're struggling with not only being seen as purveyors of fake news, but they're also struggling with things like confirmation bias, and how they narrate stories. And there are all this pressure that they're facing. And we've been working with different journalist organizations beginning to train journalists on the nature of polarized psychologies, and basics in brain science, and how to think about writing narratives in different forms.

So, you give people the same facts but in different narrative form depending on the audience you're writing. And of course, engaging elites is really crucial because we know that norms have a huge impact on behavior. We know that we're all become more exposed to norms over the last few years, but from a brain and behavioral science point of view, almost more than anything else, normative influence shaped so much of our behavior. And this country is also shaped by media leads, political leads, economical leads, cultural leads, religious, and so forth.

So, recognizing the impact they have both good, bad, is really important. So, with that, I wanted to keep it at 15 minutes as I promised, and then opening it up to Q&A. And I hope that wasn't too fast or too boring.

How would survey results changed if done today?

Wonderful Tim. It's John Martin. Thank you so much. That's fascinating research. And the fact that these conflicts have been going on around the globe for decades, that you have researched is telling. And I'll be fascinated to see some of the questions, but let me just start if I could, and then, I've got the order here. So, the surveys that you talked about were done beginning in the fall, I guess, November of '18 through November of '19. And that was all pre-COVID, and pre the run up that we're experiencing to this fall's election. So, to the untrained eye, it feels like the gaps that you identified in your research, and your surveys have literally only expanded since November of '19. So, over the last eight, nine months.

So, I'd be interested in your thoughts as to if you were to survey again, July of '20, what your findings would be. And I'd love to have you comment also on the fact that leadership in both parties at the very highest level seemed to be fomenting this gap. And I know you talked about an awareness campaign, it's so multilayered, but when you layer on leadership in both parties, acting and saying what they do, and the role that the media is playing in helping to continue to polarize, arguably, continue to polarize the country, how do you get an awareness campaign through that gauntlet? So, those are a couple of things I'd love to have you comment on, then we'll get to questions.

Tim Phillips:
I'll answer the second question first. And then my colleague, Samantha Moore Berg, who's the lead author of the research can maybe answer on actually some of the recent research she actually carried out around COVID in the last couple of months. So, I mean, that's one of the big questions we have. We need to get this information out at different levels in the United States. So, that's why I mentioned in the case of this voters' guide or public's guide to polarization, we live in a big, diverse country. And so, there's not a one size fits all. I mean, there's certainly the nature of polarized psychology is in a sense general, but what we're trying to do is then shape it and customize for different communities, so that they pick it up and read it. And hopefully, we can track whether or not it's having an impact.

And one of the things, it was from really some evangelical communities in the Midwest that came to us through some partners, to be able to put the imprimatur of churches, and pastors on this information, and not even priming it. There are some churches doing really good work where they're talking about polarization and the divide, but one of the benefits of working with scientists, they're saying, "Okay, that's already a primed audience. What about those people who are not engaging? What about those people who don't trust the other side?"

And so, one of the things we're trying to do is think of norms, not only at the elite, political level, but also at the state, and regional level, and how do you get that information to them? And that's one of the first things we're doing, currently, testing and surveying and then, hopefully, deploying this coming fall and winter with some communities. But your point about political elites is spot on. They have a huge impact on the normative environment. And the more leaders across different sides stoke that, it makes this work even more important, and particularly, coming up to an election.

So, one of the things we think about is engaging members of Congress. We would love to be able to engage with members of Congress through No Labels. We would like to engage with elected officials at the state legislature and the local level, within meeting off and on with bipartisan, elected officials who are very eager to get this information, because many of them, when they're on the campaign trail tell us that they see that people are not ... I mean, surely people are divided, but they're finding that there's more desire for bipartisanship, but they don't have the evidence to quantify that under the polling. Right? And so, that's I think part of the power of this information. And I don't know if that answers that part of your question, but Samantha, can you touch briefly upon John's question around COVID-19 testing research?

Samantha Moore Berg:
Sure. Happy to. Thanks for having me as well. So, we recently conducted a followup study with the same participants that we included in the Americans Divided Mind report. And we conducted this study about a month and a half ago. And what we found here is we asked a similar amount of questions about meta perceptions. So, how much do you think the other side dehumanizes your group? How much prejudice do you think the other side has towards your group? And we see that, although, the amount of actual prejudice and actual dehumanization has remained consistent over time, meta-perceptions, so, meta-dehumanization, and meta-prejudice has gotten much worse. So, now compared to in January, 2019, and November, 2018, when we had those other data collection pinpoint moments, we see that meta-perceptions have gotten much worse. People think that the other side dislikes them and dehumanizes them much more now than they did previously.

And what's interesting is that these types of meta-perceptions get increasingly worse as fear about Coronavirus gets worse. So, we'll see the Coronavirus has a direct effect, and it directly associated with the amount of meta-perceptions that people have. So, as your fear for Coronavirus increases, the amount of meta-perception, so the amount of dislike and prejudice you think the other side holds towards you also increases, but that fear is not related to actual perceptions.

So, the more fear you have doesn't influence the amount of prejudice and dehumanization you actually have. It just relates to how much prejudice, and dehumanization you think the other side has towards you. So, there's a direct relationship between those two.

What steps can we as individuals take to combat polarization?

So, I had actually two questions. Quick one though is just simply that the population that you were studying, whether that was a registered voter population or self-identified as Republican and Democrat, and just what the backup on this data was.

Samantha Moore Berg:
This was a national representative sample of self-identified Democrats and Republicans. We did not measure how likely they were to vote in elections. We accessed recently how they would vote in an election, but at the time we didn't include this data.

Question (cont'd):
Okay. And so, my bigger question, which is the question I think that vexes us a lot on labels is so what do we do about it? So, you see this all makes perfect sense. It's unfortunate but what are the steps that we as individuals should be taking? Individuals and this organization as with both our congressmen and women, and with other voters. What should we be doing? I'm a results-driven sort of individual on [crosstalk 00:26:47]-

Tim Phillips:
Well, I mean, we're not the font of all wisdom, Beyond Conflict. So, one of the exciting opportunities gauging with you is what are the best mechanisms to get this out? So, I know that David French recently spoke with you. And David did a big piece about two weeks ago about our [inaudible 00:27:06]. And he called me afterwards to say that that analysis of our report got more online positive comments, and more personal emails to him, and people actually stopping him in the supermarket than anything else. And he said, why? Because people thought there was something positive in it, that it reaffirmed not only a hope that we can close this divide, but actually divide is not as bad as they thought.

So, these are individuals who came up to him and said, they assumed, they had the belief that it was much worse, even though they hoped it wasn't, that was their belief. And so, I tell you that more anecdotally. And so, it shows you the power of getting this information. And so, one way we did it was trying to get as many media journalists to cover it. And that's been an ongoing thing from David Brooks, and hopefully Ezra Klein, and others will get it out, but as important to get it out through organizations and leaders like you. So, we're not doing it just intuitively. So, Samantha with her colleagues is actually doing a science-informed process of surveying what messages are best to correct these misperceptions in the last?

Because we live in a world where all this bad information, a negative reinforcement is happening constantly, particularly, in these election seasons we're in. So, how do we have scientific evidence that if you actually give people the message about misperceptions, that it actually sticks and what is the best platform for doing that? And so, we've been looking at the grassroots local level, but it has to happen at the national leadership level. And if you have a political leader at the highest level who is reinforcing the worst norms and behavior, how do you inoculate the people who get it? And that's a part of thinking about the strategy, how do you get this information out?

And it's not just in different silos because we live in this ecosystem. That's why we're working with journalists. Journalists are struck, and struggling with, "How do I tell these stories in ways that really connect with the reader?" And we're showing them that they may be reinforcing, unintentionally, polarizing narratives without knowing it. And so, they're desperate to say, "How do we rewrite these stories? How do we think in terms of narrative?" What does that mean? We need to start introducing some of this into journalism schools, where they recognize that they may be taught a certain way to write stories. And that in a hyperpolarized environment may be counterproductive.

A Difference in Facts

In my recent experience, we've gone so far off the plantation that it's even more foundational than perception, and that it's a difference in facts. Now, the two sides have a completely different sets of facts that they deemed facts. And I was at a dinner the other night, and we were basically arguing where the picture is upside down or not. And the other people with us said they're not upside down. We're saying they're upside down. And then, they pulled a new one on me. They said, "Well, even if they're not upside down, if Obama was president, he would have turned them upside down."

So, we're at a point now that I can't even get to perception because there's no agreement on the facts. And if you can't agree on the underlying facts, you can't even get to how do they get perceived, or interpreted, or implement?

Tim Phillips:
Yeah, I mean, that is a core problem. And one of the interesting things and not surprising about our research and others, but our research is that there's far more in common. There's far more middle ground even in a hyperpolarized environment than we imagined. And that's what I saw in South Africa, in Northern Ireland, in the Balkans, and many other countries, it was always the extremes that were the loudest even before social media. And the key to a peace process was how do you strengthen the center? How do you give voice to the center? And not be caught up in the voices, and the behavior of the extremes?

And I think we're seeing that same dynamic here. We now have the benefit though of some powerful research. And now the question is we need to get that out and what are the best vehicles for doing it? So-

Question (cont'd):
If I can just ... I'm sorry- For example, during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, we were at dinner with friends of ours who're very, very conservative, and they asked me how I felt about it. And I expressed the personal feeling that what concerned me actually more than the college antics that he did or didn't do was the 40,000 pages of whatever that weren't allowed to come into the record. And the couple we were with said, "What 40,000 pages?" Because the network that they watched never talked about it. So, to them that wasn't a reality. So, these are moderate.

So, I know this is a media question. I know this is a party question, but in the middle they're uninformed, and I'm sure I'm uninformed to some degree. So, please have it on your radar screen because that's as big as the perception issue in my book.

Tim Phillips:
Thank you.

Is this a micro or macro issue?

Can any of this take place on the micro level in terms of like specific people? I'm thinking specifically of yesterday's disaster between AOC and representative [inaudible 00:33:02] crossing on escalators in the Capitol building, and then, nasty words between them, or is this really macro stuff between bigger groups and organizations like you're talking about?

Tim Phillips:
A really key question. I would say it has to be both. Structures, systems are built by humans and sustained by humans, right? And it goes to the normative influence, right? So, if you could engage with these two members of Congress in a way in which they both feel like they're being heard, in a way that allows them to feel like they're being heard, I think it sets a huge norm. The fact that we all know what just happened shows you it just reinforces a message out there. And I can only imagine it's going to reinforce the partisan divide.

And one of the things we've looked at, in relationship to this report, and getting this information is packaging it with leaders that we've worked with around the world that would resonate here. So, one of the key things I've been hearing from leaders in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere is not resist, resist, go to the ramparts. What they're saying is, "Please America do not make the mistakes we made. Be tough on structures, be tough in institutions, but not on each other." And this is often coming from the left, historically, from the ANCs, and the dissonant movements and others.

I mean, the South African model has become almost an iconic cliche, but there's so much power in there about the ability to reach across the other side. And so, our historic model was to go into countries where people thought nobody could understand their suffering, therefore, how can they learn from others? One of the things I've learned from many of these leaders is that when you become a victim, it's not your fault. It's not your responsibility. You contract, you close, you look your head down, and therefore, there's nothing you can do about it.

And what we have found consistently that people can break through. It's like if Yo-Yo Ma showed up to teach you how to play the cello, you're going to listen. If Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer showed up and said, "We were instrumental in ending apartheid." People say, "Oh, what can I learn from this?" Right? And so, modeling is really important. And so, one of the things we looked at, and the pandemic has curtailed this, but we were planning to bring a number of leaders and go, hopefully, to Congress, go to the National Conference of State Legislatures, go to local communities, and others to contextualize for Americans that others have been where we are now, and have come out the other side.

But they're going to be counterintuitive in many places. They're going to hear from people on the left, and other countries, it's not just about resistance. It's about humanizing. I think that's why, for me, the message of John Lewis is so powerful. In the midst of such trauma, and the experiences he's had, he looked for ways to bridge the other side. And I think that's going to be really important.

Do political parties have a vested interest in perpetuating polarization?

Hi Tim. Do you feel that the leadership of the political parties have a vested interest in perpetuating this paradigm of polarization?

Tim Phillips:
I'm supposed to be nonpartisan. We're a 501(c)3, so, I have to be careful. I mean, we talk about structural racism. There's also structural polarization. It's certainly in the economic interest of an NBC, and a Fox, and others, to put the loudest voices and the most aggressive voices out there. You can just see if people tuning in. What I've seen working with journalists who are young, and emerging, and who going out to these local newspapers and so forth, even with the best of intention, they're replicating structural aspects of polarization just by the way they write stories, or how editors make choices about the stories they write.

And so, yeah, there is for some, certainly, an economic incentive. I think for others, I don't think they realize what they're doing. And I think they're probably more who do, but really have to recognize the profound cost it has to this country, because the more this toxic polarization increases, we're not going to be able to address the issues we have to address. And what Samantha was saying about this recent research is these meta-misperceptions are increasing over the last six months to a year. And so, we really need to get going on this, and grappling with this issue very soon.

Question (cont'd):
What opportunity is there in addressing this directly to the political leadership, as opposed to utilizing media as the tip of the spear?

Tim Phillips:
Well, there are different ideas. One thing we were thinking of doing is if we can get access to members of Congress or their staff to do some of the meta-perception research that we did nationally, [inaudible 00:38:26] members of Congress and their staff, because they have such huge influence. Many years ago, I was an intern for Tip O'Neill when he was speaker of the House, so I have some insight, but that was a long time ago. And would it be interesting to see how much do they misperceive within Congress on big issues? Not only about issues, about each other, and how much they dehumanize each other.

And it goes back to the question I think Andy had about AOC and the other congressmen. So, I think really to be able to do that research with members or their staff, and then be able to show them this, based on their community could be really powerful.

Is perception similar in results for both political parties?

Political scientists have coined this term asymmetrical polarization to describe what they think has happened between the two political parties relative to each other over the past 25 or 30 years. And the argument is that one party has moved more than the other party. So, my question is when you are examining the issue of perception, and meta-perception, I couldn't quite tell from your presentation whether the two political parties were symmetrically situated with regard to the gap, or whether one party was more likely to see a very wide gap than the other party. And what do your data show on that question?

Tim Phillips:
Well, I'll turn to Samantha, and then I'll also jump in. Samantha.

Samantha Moore Berg:
So, what's interesting about this data is that the misperceptions that people have about the other party are symmetrical. So, we don't see any differences in meta-perceptions between Democrats or Republicans. And distribution of people's responses, being more extreme or being more centrists are also symmetrical. So, we similar distribution of data and then misperceptions are also very similar.

How can we expand conversations like these to other parts of America?

Hi, I'm from St. Louis, Missouri, probably one of the most polarized states. Kansas City and St. Louis are one way, and the rest of the state votes differently and thinks more conservatively. And I wonder how all of us with all of our networks could help with this. At least we're all on these Zoom calls these days. Could we bring these to universities? Could we bring these to business groups that we all belong to? You'd be pretty busy, but I think the conversation is amazing. I've learned a lot today, and I know I will when I read the report. And I want to help. I don't want it to be like it is, especially, with young people, get them on the right track.

Tim Phillips:
Well, thank you, Maxine. And I would love to followup through our friends at No Labels to all of you who want to be part of this effort. Confidentially, I was talking to Cyril, the president of South Africa a few months ago. And one of the things he said and some others, "If the United States goes off track, we're all screwed." To put it bluntly, right?

His point is, South Africa can get worse. Other countries can get worse, but none of them have the normative economic, political, democratic influence on the global order than United States. And if United States is going in the direction it goes, then it's a problem, not just for your country, but for all of us. And so, when I look, and we look at the work we could do around the world, most of our effort, if not all is focused here in the United States, and this issue is one of the most important. So, to me, it's a combination of how do you do the science, like a public health analysis? And then, what are those interventions? And then the other is how do you bring that shared experience in?

So, I would love to be able to followup with you Maxine and others. We have specific ideas. One of the big things is where do you target it first? And because we have been looking for the last two or three years a lot of counter polarization groups, some of them we've built relationships with, because we come out of 30 years of doing that internationally. There are a lot of them doing things that are very intuitively designed, but may be counterproductive, or they may be working with people who are already willing to engage. And that's why with Samantha and others doing the science saying, "Wait a minute, how do we get to those who are caught up in these misperceptions?" So, I'd love to followup on that.

Question (cont'd):
And I think our universities, especially [inaudible 00:43:15] are considered elitist institutions, it would be really benefit, and be open to, obviously, they want to change the way their perception is, I believe but we have to help the students get there. And I think that, and the professors, but I think the students could be the way in to change, because they don't want to grow up in a world like this. This is not what they want. And I think they can be the agents of change if we can think about how to do this through universities as well. It's fantastic. Thank you.

Tim Phillips:
Thank you.

Getting Staffers Involved

Yes. Thank you. Tim, I was concerned when you mentioned that you were bringing this very valuable data to journalists, because it's my impression that this toxic polarization is very good for their business. And so, they are heavily disincentivized to use this valuable information to effectuate change. It's like bringing obesity data to the Coca-Cola Company. It seems to me that it's more important for the data to be presented to members of Congress. And in the course of the presentation, I guess, I've answered my own question. Unfortunately, I was hoping that you would say that over your 30 years, some congressmen had come to you and said, "My committee is not working properly. Can you come and present your data to help our committee work better?"

Now, I know better than that. But you've given me an interesting idea. And I wondered if you had considered it, and it is you work for Tip O'Neill. You know that there's a lot of 29-year-old kids that have a lot of influence over policy. Maybe we can ... And Maxine brought up going to the universities. I'm thinking about the staffers, and whether there's an opportunity to really get this data in front of the staffers in order to have them influence their bosses, because I see no other way. This is too important and too valuable, and I'm fearful that it's wasted on journalists.

Tim Phillips:
Well, thank you, Jim. It's been a real eyeopener as a non-journalist to be meeting with journalists, certainly, at the ownership, publishing level of the media. [inaudible 00:45:34] them is a challenge that I think others have to do. But there are thousands of journalists who are well-intended out there, who don't realize the impact they're having that's reinforcing polarization. And it's clear to me, they don't have an economic incentive to do it. They really want to do good journalism. So, those are the ones we're focusing on. But then we learned from them is I think everybody here knows if your editor doesn't like the story, or even changes the byline, it can actually become polarizing.

And even when I was writing a piece recently about those work for a publication, the editor came back and we said, "No, no, no, no, no, that actually promotes polarization." And so, it's really educating what we're hearing from journalists. You need to talk to our editors as much about this as to us. So, that's a big challenge, and an opportunity, frankly. And what we're trying to do is not work with ones and twosies. We're working with organizations that have access to hundreds of journalists.

A lot of them are like, "Well, I've been doing this for 30 years and now this makes sense." And then there's a younger generation we're also tapping into. But your point about staffers goes to what I was saying earlier that ... No front to members of Congress, but a lot of the work gets done at the staff level. And so, finding a way to connect with them is going to be really important. And we'd love to do that. I think we have both the content. We can actually do some surveys with them. That's very easy. And to really unpack this issue on a range of issues, and like, and dislike, and dehumanization at that level could be really powerful. And then, trying to correct it. That's a great idea, and something we'd love to do.

Polarization in American Institutions

I find the topic really, really great, Tim. And thank you for taking the time, and sharing it. I'm going to read more about it. I'm wondering, you referenced our need to rely on the institutions to support or revert normative behavior. I'm paraphrasing, but I picked up on it because it's one of the things that strikes me as, particularly, problematic about the spot we find ourselves in now, which is I think over the past 20 to 30 years, we've seen an erosion of trust in institutions, not just government, but experts. I mean, Tom Nichols writes about it and does have expertise. Changes in the university structure, but really all forms of authority.

We see it, unfortunately, day-to-day, hour and hour in our lives, presently. But now, it strikes me that for the first time or maybe in a long time, the actual administration or the institutions themselves are destroying their own credibility. We're politicizing, and polarizing things that for most of the last 100 years of the American experience have been really apolitical institutions in large measure. And most of the world looks at it as that as part of American exceptionalism.

And I'm wondering if you give thought to how if those institutions themselves are under attack from this, or become tools in that, how we really reverse the cycle, because it almost feels to me at times that it's becoming self-fulfilling, and self-perpetuating.

Tim Phillips:
Yeah. Thank you, Michael. I wish I had a great answer. One of the things I learned working over the last decade with brain and behavioral scientists is they say, we focus on the individual, and the neuroscientists focused on the cells within their brain. And so, it really repositioned for me to think about the agency of human behavior. When you have a leader or leaders who do what we see, then the question is ... And we know they have such huge influence, what do you do about that? Right? And that's why one of the goals is to get this information out to the public, essentially, about how your brains are being manipulated without calling it out that way. Nobody likes to be taken advantage of, not economically, not politically, and certainly not cognitively if they know about it.

And there's something really powerful to recognize the impact that narratives, and when you can see yourself in those, and how you're being manipulated, or how it's impacting you. The evidence or at least what we've seen is that it really gives people a sense of, "Oh." An aha moment. It contextualizes for them. And so, trying to get this out with evidence, it will take some time, but we have to do that because I don't see that we're not going to be impervious to this leadership in the future.

And if we just rely on the norm setting of those leaders and institutions, and not also address them as well as the public, then we're going to be in this vicious cycle. And what I've seen around the world, and I think all of us have seen this is populous authoritarian mindsets. Don't have to be taught to manipulate. They know it in their DNA. And there's an asymmetry in authoritarian states and regimes between those who rise to power and don't have to be taught how to manipulate, and how a system responds to that.

And so, I think that's what we need to try to figure out. And the more we can understand how manipulation impacts our brains, and the more we disseminate that ... And this has to be a longterm investment. I think that's the way we have to go, but we're looking for support and answers in this process.

Question (cont'd):
Yeah. I'm afraid a third of the country would hear what you just said, and immediately put it in a box of a liberal elitist who is an exact point of why they can't believe and trust everything you said. And that becomes a self-fulfilled destruction of it, but we'll see. I hope you're right. I hope you get your message out.

Tim Phillips:
It's our message collectively, right?

Is the term "Polarization" trivializing what's currently happening?

Thank you so much. And thanks for the presentation. I have an observation and a question. The observation is that when you use polarization, the concept to describe what we're experiencing today in our country, I have a gut feeling that polarization almost trivializes what's going on and it causes a distraction. And here's what I mean. And by making my statement, I'm of course inviting your response. The reason I say it's trivializing it, is that there are many who see what's going on today is not a disagreement, an honest disagreement about means to a common end.

As an example of what it's not. When we repaired welfare during the end of the Clinton administration, everybody agreed on the goal. We disagreed on the ends, and we found a compromise because there was total consensus on the goal, but right now it appears through much of the country that core values are under attack. And it's almost like using polarization to describe an armed conflict. An armed conflict is not polarization. It's a fight to the death as many perceive it. And it's hard to use the tools of polarization when you're fighting over core values.

And the second observation is that another area where there appears to be profound disagreement is in the core value of the importance of the individual versus the collective. When the discussion is at that level, I get so pessimistic about tools of polarization solving the problem. Again, it is such a core value. It's hard to imagine. And I ask how it can be done to use the tools that you have learned, and invented to some degree to solve such core disagreements as that.

Tim Phillips:
Yeah. Thank you for such an easy question, Robert. The way I think we think about or I think about polarization, this toxic form of polarization, it just makes it difficult to have the conversations about the social contract of a nation. What are the values at the core? And it's almost like when you become polarized by its very polar opposites, right? You're in different extremes, right? Which means that you may not even share the same values. And you can live in the same country, and be citizens of the same state, and actually think that, and have profoundly different values.

It's when you don't even think that you're citizens of the same state, when the others that's a profound threat that you can't even have that debate, you can't even get to a place where you can rethink what is the contract of this nation? The social contract. So, it's a really profound question. I just think the first thing we need to do, this is triage, is that we need to begin to figure ways to arrest this identity-based polarization that's increasing. So, we can actually begin to address real problems but rethink what we are as a nation.

Media Catering to Readership

I just wonder with your comments about the media and my master's degree is in journalism. I observed as a New Yorker that every one of our newspapers takes a perspective that's directly only to the readership they want. And if you look at what's been going on with the attacks on New York Times, lately, you wonder, are they going to respond and be responsible?

Tim Phillips:
Oh, I don't know if that's a rhetor ... It's a good question. Yeah. I have to tell you, there are days in the last year or two that I probably feel more sane working back overseas in intractable conflicts than trying to deal what we're dealing with here in this country. But it's essential. It really is essential. This is our home, right? And I will say this, I in the last three or four years came to recognize I was at a very safe distance in the work I've done historically because I didn't live in those countries. I would go in, and try to with other people, push and cajole people to negotiate, sit down with their enemies, make peace with their enemies, and see people do that, and applaud them, and try to support that. But in this country, as an American citizen, what I've seen is so emotionally draining that I thought, "Wow, this work is much more difficult."

And if you lived under apartheid, South Africa, or if you lived under dictatorship, or a longterm civil war and conflict, wow. So, it was a real awakening to me about the nature of when it's your home, and when it is a really difficult problem, but also the requirement that we have to take to figure out a way to address this, and to find the tools. What we did was not like, "Oh, this is some interesting research, and let's apply it." No, we were like, "Our country's in crisis. What are the tools that we can bring that maybe help us understand this challenge, and actually do something with it?" I bought it with others. And that's really the journey we're launching through this.

Sign Off with Bill Galston

Thank you, John. Yeah. Tim, the overlap between your work and our work is astonishing. And it gives me hope that the scientific foundation that you've developed is consistent with practices that make intuitive sense. Let me give you a couple of examples from the Labels' history. One is that from the very beginning, we've tried through survey research to demonstrate first to ourselves, and then to a much wider public that the zone of agreement within the American people is much larger than people think it is. And we've tried to urge policies. And we've done so with some success that build on the common ground that we've located issue by issue.

We haven't taken it to the meta-level of perceptions of one another as members of opposing parties, but it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that at that level too, you've been able to confirm this gap between perception, and reality. The second great overlap is what many of us regard as the crown jewel of No Labels' history. And that is the creation of the bipartisan problem-solvers caucus in the House of Representatives. And I'm mentioning this because for the first year and a half, we didn't ask them to do anything except break bread together.

We figured they'd be ready to move to the next stage when they determined that they were, that they had enough in common so that they could begin to explore areas of common ground, and work together. But the first effort was to break down the barriers of misperception that had grown up because so many people in our caucus who'd been in Congress for a while had never met each other. They wouldn't know each other if they passed on an escalator, or the street. They were like cattle, on opening day, they were dumped on Capitol Hill, and then [inaudible 01:00:53] into two separate pants.

And they were encouraged not to interact with the other side. And that created distance invites misperception, and even an element of dehumanization. So, all of which is to say that what you've presented to us makes a lot of intuitive sense, which is not always the case with scientific findings, but I think it adds to their strength. And it also encourages me to believe that there's more work that we can do together. And you've indicated several times in this conversation your willingness to continue this conversation. And we should take you up on that.

And if I have anything to do with it, we will, because I think you have really broken new research ground that the country should know about more fully than it does. So, once again, thanks so much. This has been a fantastic conversation and we hope it's just the beginning.

Tim Phillips:
Well, thank you Bill. And thank you all. And it was worth wearing the tie this afternoon.

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